William Lyman Phillips, Extraordinary Florida Landscape Architect

By George Rogers:

Yesterday I gave a presentation on Florida’s historical horticulturists at Tropical Ranch Botanical Garden in Stuart. That’s what’s on my mind, so let’s focus on one remarkable individual.

William Lyman Phillips (1885-1966) was Florida’s preeminent landscape architect. Riding the winds of socio-economic-political trends, William Lyman Phillips had just about the most mixed career a landscape architect could have: landscaping the Panama Canal, building military bases, burying WWI dead, supervising Civilian Conservation Corp projects in the Depression, catering to the rich and famous, and designing most of Florida’s botanical gardens, including Bok Tower Garden, McKee Garden, and Fairchild Tropical Garden. His fingerprints are all over Florida.

Phillips was originally a Bostonian. He attended and excelled at Harvard and spent most of his career working for the world famous Boston architecture firm of Olmsted Brothers. After graduating and working briefly in the Boston area, and touring Europe to give his subsequent work a classical flair, Phillips took a job as urban planner for the new Panama Canal town, Balboa. Interpersonal conflict there led to his premature resignation, but not before leaving his mark on the town, a mark still evident today.

Returning to the U.S., William had trouble settling down until he volunteered in 1918 to lend a hand in the First World War designing military bases. Not many G.I.s passing through basic training knew that the placements of the mess halls and latrines were at the hands of one of the nation’s most prominent landscape architects. After the war, Phillips went to France to lay out cemeteries for U.S. war dead. The experience benefited him in two critical ways. The stay in France allowed Phillips to explore continental landscape architecture in depth, and more importantly, he met his wife Simone who returned to Florida with him.

The military experience demonstrates a key point: Phillips’ success in part was due to, not only to talent and to connections, but also to adaptability. He was willing and able to meld aesthetics, divergent viewpoints, and utter practicality, and do what the moment required, not necessarily what he wanted. The WWI experience initiated an intermittent lifelong trend to pitch in on projects as needed, ranging from the mundane and unglamorous to hobnobbing with the rich and famous. Phillips was unpretentious, especially given his prestige education, abilities, and associates. Much of his career transpired during the Depression when the privileged prevailed with a vengeance in Florida alongside the poor and displaced. He served both.

William spent eight years, approximately 1925-1933, as the Olmsted Brothers Representative and landscape-architect-in-charge at the Mountain Lake Colony, an exclusive early high-end development of large homes on landscaped lots, golf, socializing, smelling orange blossoms, and investing in orange groves. His job entailed developing homes and gardens for a wealthy clientele who wanted an “Olmsted” design. During those years Phillips became increasingly connected with homeowners in Palm Beach, Miami, and beyond. As was almost inevitable, his growing personal demand in high-society circles, autonomy, and personal earning power (which was brief, as the Depression caught up with him), created tensions with his Boston-based employers.

It is almost impossible to generalize accurately about the design style of an individual as dynamic and diversified as Phillips. Setting aside for the moment his work on public parks, here are my impressions from seeing several of his sites, and examining the plans presented in his biography by F. R. Jackson from which much of the present article originates.

Phillips’ more ornamental gardens had a series of recurring tendencies, often a bit formal. At times, the goal seemed to be along the lines of “adapt tropical plants to classical European styles,” which would have resonated with his well-traveled Europhilic clients. He liked symmetry, sculpture, eye-catching stairwells with turns and terraces, balustrades, emphatic borders separating garden areas, and dramatic vistas. Mediterranean-influenced architecture was popular at the time, and Phillips applied his tropical experience in Panama to this, to the delight of his clients.

Especially in flat terrain such as Florida’s, Phillips tended to build his designs on a backbone of a wide, straight, dominating axis, often with “ribs” of smaller axesc branching off. He then lined sometimes lined his broad axis with rows of palms leading to the horizon, despite a stated personal distaste for Royal Palms, which he called “feather dusters.” Also prominent were winding curving pathways connecting points of interest, especially in his more naturalistic creations, such as McKee Gardens. Echoing his European experience, some of the designs, such as the Bok Tower Garden, contain savanna-like “bosques,” that is, open, easily navigated, airy groves of trees, a taste psychologists demonstrated in later years to be hardwired into innate human preferences.

Phillips’ sites glisten with lagoons, ponds, reflecting pools, and views to large bodies of water. One who likes water also likes bridges, which almost seem to be Phillips signatures. Many of his designs feature small arched bridges, often made of stone. Heavy stonework is abundant through many of his sites.

One of the most prominent residents of Mountain Lake Colony was Edward W. Bok, editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal. Bok aspired to, and succeeded in, developing a garden sanctuary adjacent to the Mountain Lake Colony. The sanctuary occupied the “mountain” (sand dune) and surrounding land, with no regard for the fact that this was sacred ground to the Seminoles, whose views did not count for much in that time and place. Atop the Mountain Bok erected his 205-foot singing tower carillon, and the site today is Bok Tower Gardens. Phillips was the chief designer and had an ongoing relationship with Bok, as well as with his reluctant wife after Bok’s death.

The Depression, beginning in 1929, hurt Olmsted Brothers and Phillips, who eventually found himself adrift and underemployed. He attempted briefly to launch a landscape architecture firm in West Palm Beach. About the time that was failing, he was selected to supervise Civilian Conservation Corps projects, beginning with the now-defunct Royal Palm State Park near Homestead, working there while his family remained in West Palm Beach. Then came CCC work on Highlands Hammock State Park clouded by strife, Greynolds Park in Miami, Matheson Hammock in Coral Gables, and Crandon Beach (and zoo) Park on Key Biscayne.

These park projects brought out a new side of the flexible genius. He often had a heavy classical hand in designing purely ornamental gardens, and he was one of the state’s great disseminators of invasive exotic species in the process. His planting lists would bring howls of protest from today’s horticulturists who tend to be more enlightened on the topic of invasive exotics, and more experienced with the outcomes of bad historical decisions.

But to return to the important point of the moment, Phillips’ public Depression-era parks tended toward restraint, ecological awareness, respect for nature, and preservation of natural beauty. This is noteworthy, because in my opinion he displayed more respect for natural Florida than might be expected in an architect with little biological or ecological training. An exception was Greynolds Park in Miami which was degraded quarried land from the get-go, which to Phillips was a sandbox for whimsical play. There he built an artificial ruin, a coral castle present to this day.

Then came Fairchild Tropical Garden, dedicated in 1938, which is some ways is an extension of Matheson Hammock, which it borders. Most U.S. botanical gardens are the estates of dead rich people who collected plants. That is not how Fairchild Tropical Garden came about. Rather, it grew out of a constellation of favorably aligned events.

First, David Fairchild was living nearby at his private estate called the Kampong, and it was natural to create a garden to showcase his lifetime of plant collections. Second, his friend Col. Robert Montgomery, who owned adjacent land donated in part to the project, was an avid wealthy plant collector and the major spark plug for the project. Third, Florida’s leading landscape architect, William Lyman Phillips, was not only available literally next door, but underemployed, working at Matheson Hammock, and directing essentially free labor from the Civilian Conservation Corp. By donating 69 acres for the garden as nominally a component of Matheson Hammock (retaining a private parcel as the Montgomery Palmetum), and by exploiting connections among the local officials, Montgomery engineered the use of free CCC labor to build Fairchild Garden.

Phillips designed the garden and remained tightly allied with it for about 20 years, until changing personnel, changing ideas, and advancing age led to a decision to dissociate himself. The project had a little bit of an identity crisis, as all botanical gardens do. Ask 10 people, even those in the know, what a botanical garden is for, and you will get 10 different answers, and this becomes a problem if those 10 people are all part of the project. It is easy at such times to get tangled in divergent views about aesthetics, research, public education, scientific rigor, plant trials, and more. Many botanical garden directors (including me) have foundered on those rocky shoals. Phillips, especially in his mature days, was the perfect diplomatic genius to orchestrate all of this, managing to please almost all the people almost all the time.

He achieved beauty aided by the heavenly site, complete with a 15-foot escarpment dividing the garden into a upland with magnificent views of the watery lowland. The elevation changed offered also an opportunity for the stonework Phillips liked. Despite decades or changing ideas, changing circumstances and hurricanes, Fairchild has some of the most beautiful vistas of any U.S botanical garden.

Perhaps because the garden had an underlying scientific current—plant introductions—and was conceived by individuals with formal botanical instincts, a decision was made, perhaps unusual for U.S. botanical gardens, to base many of the planting areas on plant families, that is to site species on the basis of their classification. A strong conflicting argument was made at the inception to group plants with similar needs instead of those with similar ancestry, and of course there was always the obvious case for purely aesthetic groupings. For botanists and horticulturists interesting in coming to know plant families, Fairchild remains a place to see plant family reunions, a feature largely lost on the public and on ornamental gardeners more interested in usage-groupings, yet true to the vision of the founding fathers. Somehow Phillips managed to unify divergent egos, and a purely academic planting plan into a place of beauty and harmony, no small feat!

[To learn more, read Jackson, F. R. Pioneer of Tropical Landscape Architecture, William Lyman Phillips in Florida. Univ. Press of Florida. 1997. Most of the info in the present article originated from this source, although some opinions bear my spin.]

William Lyman Phillips

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George Rogers

About George Rogers

George Rogers is the Chair of the Horticulture Program at Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach Gardens.