Perry's Perennial Pages-- Famous Perennial Persons

Fletcher Steele
by anon. author

Fletcher Steele was born in Rochester, New York, to career driven parents. They accepted the desire from his childhood to design and made sure he obtained a general education at Williams College. This enabled him to create many contacts and it gave Steele the ability to interact intelligently with his clientele.

After finishing his degree Steel joined the Graduate School of Landscape Architecture at Harvard in 1907, at the age of 22. Harvard had begun teaching undergraduate landscape architecture in 1900 and replaced this course with a graduate program in 1906. Steele was in the second intake. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. was one of the teachers. In his two years at Harvard Steele noted 'The one great teacher I had there, Denman Ross, more than made up for a lot of wasted time'. Ross taught aesthetic theory, not landscape architecture, and remained a friend after his pupil left Harvard.

In 1908 Steele withdrew from his course when was offered an apprenticeship with Warren Manning, a former assistant of the elder Olmsted and a founder of ASLA. Manning had worked in his father's nursery before joining the Olmsted firm and taking charge of their planting plans. He adopted the picturesque style and was interested in city planning. In 1913 Steele left for a 4-month tour of Europe. He was impressed by the famous sights and made a great deal of notation of the great gardens.

On returning to America Steele decided to found his own practice. The greatest influence on Steele was Italy.  Steele used balustrades, hedges, urns, statuary, stone pineapples and flights of water steps.  Steele's inventive design talent is unmistakable. He had a sense of proportion and an interest in geometry.  His curves flow. They are related to the contours. Steele played with the relationship between curved and straight lines. His detailing was always a key element in his design.

After serving in the American Red Cross, Steele returned to Europe every summer for inspiration.  In 1922 he wrote 'French Gardens and Their Racial Characteristics' , being an essay on cubism.  In 1925 he visited the Paris Exposition of Modern Decorative Art (the 'Art Deco Exposition') and viewed examples of cubist gardens with mirrors, concrete and colored gravel.  Steele's first opportunity to develop this enthusiasm came with his work for Helen Ellwanger in the 1930s. The rose garden was described by Steele in 1935 as 'almost modernistic' and would now be classified as Art Deco. It was made in what was then the most revolutionary of garden materials: concrete.  A bold diagonal runs from curved steps up to and across an intricately patterned terrace.

Steel's importance in the development of American landscape architecture, and the modern garden, lies in his influence on the young designers who passed through Harvard in the 1930s: Kiley, Eckbo and Rose. He proved to them the importance of creative design and the potential of modern art. As Eckbo remarked Steel was 'the transitional figure between the old style and the modern. ‘He interested me because he was an experimenter'. Kiley says ' Steele was the only good designer working during the twenties and thirties, also the only one who was really interested in new things'.

Fletcher Steele made numerous contributions to the science of Landscape Design.  Steele is the father of modernism incorporated into landscape design.  Steele was able to effectively combine raw materials in a previously unseen fashion.

return to Perry's Perennial Pages | Home Gardener | Famous Perennial Persons