Mabel Symmes was forty-seven years old in 1922 when she prepared her first known design for the adjoining Blake estates, creating a sophisticated response for the twenty-two difficult acres in Kensington, California. She went on to work with prominent San Francisco Bay Area architects of the day. Symmes was an uncommon female landscape architect practicing in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1920s and 1930s. Most of her papers and drawings were destroyed after her death. Only a handful of her gardens have been located, with drawings for two landscapes coming to light in 2019, initiating reconsideration of this woman’s career.
Born in 1875 in San Francisco, Symmes enjoyed an uprose per middle-class upbringing. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California in 1896. (She and Julia Morgan were sorority sisters; there is no evidence to date that they worked together or maintained a social connection.) A young Mabel assumed the life of a young woman with wealth and connections – attending to her interests and hobbies, hosting socials, traveling, and attending club meetings. During a stay in Redlands in 1908, possibly at a sanitorium for tuberculosis, she tried her hand at writing, publishing a short story in “The Scrap Book.” Symmes’ musical talents on the violin were on display in two 1913 events, both at Cloyne Court in Berkeley. One concert was in honor of the retiring consul of France. Symmes conducted a subsequent concert, as well as playing the violin. The diverse group of musicians included architect Ernest Coxhead on bells, and his older brother, Almeric, played the drum.
Symmes made the unusual decision to return to the university to study landscape design in 1914. She did not complete a second degree, which may have been due to WWI or to illness – during that time her sister Anita, in a letter to her husband, wrote that she despaired of Mabel ever feeling well again.
Landscape architecture was still emerging as a profession when Symmes determined that she would be a designer of landscapes. The architectural, engineering, and structural aspects of landscape architecture were associated with male building professions. Women were considered wholly unsuited to the work, although the maintenance of a home garden was acceptable. Despite these attitudes, a handful of women did achieve professional status during the last decade of the 1800s and going forward into the early 1900s. These women were encouraged by male professionals who often provided training. Typically, these women came from privileged backgrounds and learned their craft through a combination of classes and mentoring.
As noted by scholar Thaïsa Way, it was seen as gauche for women at that time to openly seek work, meaning that social connections played an especially important role in attaining design opportunities. It was unusual for a woman to maintain her design practice from an office and many women worked out of their homes. They usually collaborated with a mentor and were often limited to the preparation of planting plans, rather than full sets of plans.
Mabel Symmes found her vocation later than most, meaning she had a short career, and she worked within the constraints of her social standing. Her known clients had a social connection to some aspect of her life. She prepared her plan drawings and notes in her bedroom, and it is likely that she collaborated closely with the (male) architects with whom she worked.
Symmes was described as having poor health and being quite shy, although warm and engaging with those whom she knew. Symmes's writing style was lively and revealed a subtle sense of humor, as displayed in a series of articles describing the Blake estate landscape and its plants for the Journal of the California Horticultural.
Garden designs of the 1920s were heavily influenced by historic European styles. Symmes favored Italian garden styles, employing symmetry and restraint near the house with less formal expressions further from the main areas. Symmes also explored Spanish garden styles. Symmes and her sister, Anita Day Blake, were influential in the study, introduction, and use of new plants for California, experimenting with native plants and drought-tolerant plants. Symmes applied these lessons to her designs.
- Anson and Anita Day Blake Garden; Edwin T. and Harriet Whitney Carson Blake Garden, Rincon Rd, Kensington. Walter Bliss, of Bliss & Faville, architect, 1922.
The two Blake families developed their property together, originally sharing an entry road, pathway system, and the informal parts of the 22-acre landscape. Following Edwin’s death in 1949 the landscapes were separated. The Edwin and Harriet landscape was said to have a different character from the Anson and Anita landscape. Katherine D. Jones, a Berkeley, faculty member, brought her students to the Edwin and Harriet Blake garden for class. Jones taught plant materials and fieldwork in the landscape architecture program.
Symmes became closely associated with the Anson and Anita Blake property, living at the house and working in the garden over the second half of her adult life. For some years, this garden was the only recognized example of her work. It remains the largest and best known. Anson and Anita made plans for their property to be donated to UC Berkeley after their deaths. The Blake garden, now at 10.5 acres, is currently operated as a public garden and teaching garden by UC Berkeley.
- Marsh-Sperry gardens, Hawthorne Terrace, Berkeley. 1925; Henry H. Gutterson, architect. Three different landscape experiences were designed for this project which was created for two families. A single sheet blueprint exists.
- The Harry Una garden, Tamalpais Road, Berkeley. 1927; Walter Ratcliff, architect. A tiled Spanish-Moorish fountain and some of the original layout remain.
- Harold Spens Black garden, Alvarado Road, Berkeley. 1909; Clarence A. Tantau was the architect for the 1927 remodel. This garden was visited by students of the California School of Gardening for Women at Hayward. It seems that little of the original garden remains.
- Frances D. Olney garden, Claremont Blvd, Berkeley. 1928. Harry’s daughter, Sarah, was a Berkeley schoolmate of Symmes. A concert pianist, she lived at the house when not at her home in New York.
- The Charles W. Merrill garden, Camino Sobrante, Orinda. 1939; Walter Ratcliff, architect. Symmes prepared several pages of detailed drawings for this property. Some walls and paths remain.
- An additional garden may have been designed for Mary McLean Olney (1873-1965) on Belrose Avenue, in Berkeley. On Symmes’ death, Olney sent a condolence letter to Mabel’s sister, Anita Blake, writing, “I bless Mabel always, surrounded as I am by her beautiful work.”
The results of Symmes’ Blake estates design in 1922 displays a level of knowledge and sophistication unexpected for a novice landscape architect, suggesting the possibility that other landscapes, still unknown, preceded it. The drawings for the Merrill garden include construction details and grading plans, indicating that her abilities extended beyond planting plans. Mabel Symmes died in 1962 in Kensington. More Symmes landscapes may come to light, further illuminating the life and skills of this talented woman.
Sources for further reading:
- Blake Family papers, BANC MSS C-B 903, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
- Gracyk, Janet, “The Elusive Mabel Symmes,” Eden: Journal of the California Garden & Landscape History Society (Summer 2020): 36-47.
- Haymaker, Linda. “Blake Garden,” Pacific Horticulture (Spring 1987): 8-13.
- McNiven, Carolyn Fitzhugh, “Saving a Mabel Symmes Garden in Berkeley,” Eden: Journal of the California Garden & Landscape History Society (Summer 2020): 48-55.
- Ray, Megan, “Blake Garden History: 1922 to 1970,” Eden: Journal of the California Garden & Landscape History Society Spring 2019): 5-11.
- Riess, Suzanne B., ed. Blake Estate Oral History Project: Oral History Transcript, 1986-1987, (Berkeley: University of California, 1988. Note: Oral history is a good resource but is occasionally contradicted by other sources.
- Symmes, Mabel, “Adelante,” Journal of the California Horticultural Society. Six articles appeared between 1945 and 1947.
- Way, Thaïsa. 2009. Unbounded Practice: Women and Landscape Architecture in the Early Twentieth Century. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Note: Landscape historian Marlea Graham generously shared her own research on Symmes.
Janet L. Gracyk is a landscape architect living in the Bay Area. She received a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2001. While at Berkeley she began to seek stories behind the creation of landscapes, whether at the scale of a garden or a town, going on to author reports and studies on several historic landscapes. Her investigation into the life and career of Mabel Symmes grew out of meeting the owner of the Marsh-Sperry landscape in 2018.