Mary P. Cunningham: a pioneering woman in landscape architecture.

The landscape of Plimoth Patuxet Museums provides material to write a thousand novels or period pieces portraying the way of life and culture in America from pre-history to present. From Wampanoag storytelling and their encounters with Europeans to the arrival of the Pilgrims in the early 17th century, dramatic events and groundbreaking activities left an indelible mark on the landscape. Modern history is no different. With the museum forming in the mid 20th century to solidify the legacy of these timeless stories, many more layers were subsequently added to this cultural landscape. One of these layers are the 20th century contributions in landscape architecture. The Olmsted Brothers firm was commissioned in the 1920’s to enhance the Hornblower’s “Eel River Farm” summer estate characteristic of  the “Country Place Era” (ca. 1890 – 1930).  And when the family converted it to Plimoth Plantation (now Patuxet) the firm was hired once again to aid in the transition. The Olmsted connection to the landscape has largely gone unrecognized, and the organization is currently working to fully realize the extent of the firm’s contributions.

Meanwhile, another story in this layer deserves to be told and celebrated. In 1927, Hornblower heir Ralph built a shingle style cottage on “Eel Hill” just north of  the main house. He hired Mary Parsons Cunningham, a landscape architect and Vassar college friend of his sister to plan the landscape. Cunningham designed an Italianate-style garden featuring a pool in a natural amphitheater just west of the house. Today the garden is known as the “Hornblower Garden” and is a prominent feature of the Plimoth Patuxet campus as seen in the photos below.

Unfortunately, Cunningham’s life was tragically cut short at the age of 46 when she was struck by a large truck in Boston. It was an abrupt end to a remarkable career in landscape architecture. After graduating from Vassar College 2010, she enrolled in the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture in Massachusetts and later completed a course at the Cambridge School of Architecture in 1918. She later studied at the Bussey Institute of Harvard University in 1923 receiving a Master’s Degree in Dendrology from Radcliffe, the only woman to earn such a degree. In 1924 she became a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Apart from her impressive educational credentials, she was also an accomplished writer, practitioner, and educator. She held teaching positions at Smith College, the Cambridge School, and at Lowthrop. After working under renowned designer Ellen Shipman, she opened her own office in Cambridge and then Boston. Of her most significant projects, her work for Ralph Hornblower in Plymouth is thought to be the most intact and complete. Finally, she was perhaps best known for her monthly column in popular magazine House Beautiful. The slideshow below features her work in Garden Magazine next to a peice by Ellen Biddle Shipman.

As a Shipman protege, early female ASLA member, dedicated educator, and prolific writer, Mary P Cunningham deserves to be recognized for her contributions to the profession. Several factors has slowed this realization, including her minority status as a woman, her early death, the unknown whereabouts of her design drawings and journals, and the unfortunate benign neglect or outright destruction of her key works. Many works have been written about pioneering women in landscape architecture such as Tankard’s Women Pioneers in Landscape Design or The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s Pioneering Women in Landscape Architecture program. Cunningham is unsurprisingly absent from these lists of names such as Beatrix Farrand, Ellen Shipman, and Marion Cruger Coffin not because she is isn’t qualified, but only because she has not yet been rediscovered in the modern era. Much like the Museum’s desire to bring recognition to the Olmsted contributions to the landscape at Plimoth Patuxet, the works of Mary P. Cunningham are also worthy of further investigation and plans are currently underway to renew interest in this topic.

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