History of Fairchild Garden's Design

The landscape architect who designed Fairchild was William Lyman Phillips. He was born in 1885 in Massachusetts and obtained his landscape architecture degree from Harvard in 1910. His incredible talents landed a position with the highly regarded landscape architecture firm of Olmsted Bothers. At his young age he began a long association with Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the outstanding landscape architects in America. In the ensuing years, Phillips worked in the Panama Canal Zone, Puerto Rico, France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. Phillips came to Florida in 1924. In 1933, he started working with the Dade County Park Department and drew plans for Greynolds Park and Matheson Hammock Park. 

The Landscape Plan

Phillips wrote to Robert Montgomery in December, 1938 and outlined his ideas of what a botanical garden could be and gave some suggestions about how its development could be approached. Phillips became Fairchild's landscape architect and remained in that position until 1963. He designed the entire Garden, including the Palmetum with plots designated for planting based on the genus of palms. He designed the Arboretum section of the Garden based on grouping by families.

Families represented in the arboretum were based on a list of plants growing in the Botanical Garden of the Atkins Institution in Soledad, Cuba. The entire upland portion of the Garden consisted of 23 acres. This included the Palmetum and Arboretum. Except for the formal elements in the design of the Overlook, its Allée and the Bailey Palm Glade, the other elements of design in the Upland portion were an informal treatment, requiring no specific form or character in the vegetation masses. Phillips wanted the plants to vary in kind and size through the years to offer the freedom in the choice of plant material. He believed that any formality would limit the choice and impose demands for specific size and form. Only the formal elements such as those found in the Palm Glade, Amphitheater and the Overlook demanded a certain uniformity of vegetation which he felt had little to do with the general purpose of forming a botanical collection.

Phillips designed the shape and size of the plots and the topography of the Uplands, Lowlands and the slope between.  In the Arboretum a system of terraces and stone walls were created to retain fill. The plots were designed to mitigate possible damaging northeast winds in the winter by planting with trees to form a windbreak. To make the windbreak more effective, the passages between the plots were made devious to deflect the wind. The stand of existing oaks north and south of the Palm Glade provided a good windbreak on the Palmetum side. He designed the Overlook Allée so that strong views or vistas opened to the left and right, continuing to the Overlook terrace which had a very wide vista. The plan for the Lowlands is an articulated complex of openings.  

He felt that well defined openings provided a sense of organization and scenic effects. Open spaces could be compared to rooms and corridors in a gallery, where the walls carry the displayed items. Space limitations of only 23 acres in the Uplands imposed a small scale of openings, possibly no more than lanes or walks. Phillips believed that small landscape areas and close views of the plants are more attractive than wide views; and walks in the shade would be more agreeable than walks in the sun. The Lowlands provided much larger openings and deeper, bolder views. The lakes would constitute inviolable open spaces.

Although his plan had no marked appearance of organization there were clear purposes and principles underlying the plan. The principles included:

Variety
The openings between planting masses or plots are never twice alike; they differ in length, in width, in shape, in orientation, in character. From few points can any great portion of the Garden be seen, and the visitor is led on from point to point in a well-justified hope of discovering a new kind of interest. The openings were and remain the vital elements of the Phillips plan. 

Consistency
The pattern is of a piece. The lines and shapes are dominantly free, casual, irregular, naturalistic, favoring if not absolutely assuring a natural randomness in planting.

Contrast
There is contrast between large and small openings and masses, between sunny and shady passages, between the close, intimate views on the Upland and the broad open views on and over the lowlands. The Overlook is thrust out over the lower edge of the escarpment; the view from it is panoramic. The Palm Glade terrace is set back on the upper edge of the escarpment; the view from it is narrow and deep. 

Learn more about Fairchild's landscape design.