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New Orleans’ Longue Vue House and Garden Discoveries

Tribute plaque to Landscape Pioneer Ellen Biddle Shipman at Longue Vue House and Garden 

While March is going out like a roaring lion around here — big lightning boomers last night sent a ginger jar over the edge and smashed it to smithereens – we have a few days left in this “savage and serene” month, as Emerson described March.

And it’s still Women’s History Month. When I wrote about some of the illustrious women I most admire for a women in landscape design post earlier this month – I didn’t know I’d be visiting New Orleans and Ellen Biddle Shipman’s masterpiece at Longue Vue Gardens nor discovering a renowned plantswoman by the name of Caroline Dorman — and that their talents and work were inextricably linked. I’m so excited and so blessed by these discoveries — and I can’t wait to share the good garden stories.

Longue Vue House & Gardens

Live Oak drive to Longue Vue House, New Orleans

The quiet elegance and glamour is almost a religious experience. When you first set eyes on the entrance drive bordered by 42 live oaks leading to the home at Longue Vue I thought it was cinematic in scope and drama. Burned into the retina. Did Ms. Shipman see it that way?

Pleasure gardens have always figured in my favorite gardens; this exquisite home seemed destined for greatness from the start. Perhaps because it was conceived in love, nurtured in a collaborative, respectful process with vision and dignity. And that woman’s touch…

You can read all about the history and the great programing at Longue Vue.

The homeowners and creators of Longue View were the philanthropists and art enthusiasts, Edith and Edgar Stern. Edith’s father was Julius Rosenwald, then president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. Their home was destined for romance right off the block: Edgar and Edith named their New Orleans gem, Longue Vue, after “the tea house on the Hudson River where they had become engaged.”

Original Sears greenhouse at Longue Vue House & Gardens

Today, there is a Sears greenhouse on the property, still in use.

It’s in the Children’s Garden, which is the only garden room that is not part of the preserved, extant, historic garden rooms.

Way ahead of the trend, Biddle spec’d out native plants here, and today, Longue Vue boasts more than 20,000 natives. And the gardens highlight one of the finest collections of Louisiana Iris. More on that later, thank you, Miss Dorman.

The love and collaboration is evident in the thoughtful way the home and garden design was pursued. As I heard recently at the Architectural Digest Show from the good folks at Twyla – “Start with the Art.” Ellen Biddle Shipman did just that. She moved the couple’s existing home, and brought in the Platt Brothers: William and Geoffrey. Together, they cited the gardens for maximum enjoyment from inside the Green Revival style house. This is not small consideration. Even today. Most folks decide to “do” a garden long after the home is complete. So take heed. Start with the art – the garden art. Why not work in harmony with nature? Enduring gardens do…

Longue Vue Maquettes created by Shipman & her team of women artists 

This was a marriage in more ways than one — from the exterior design to the details of the interior design, every things was considered. Longue Vue teams showed us a room where not only the letters exchanged among the creators testify to their intimate design process and approvals – we were told they addressed and signed off on correspondence with just their initials, ES, ES, EBS, could be a bit confusing) but there is also the maquette model replicas of the house and garden that Shipman’s all-female team created in New York in order for the New Orleans’ design team to see the shadows and interplay of light. That’s incredible devotion to design that would have Martha give pause…

The Platt brothers and Shipman traveled to Spain and Portugal to conduct research and be inspired.

Alhambra-style rill garden is one of the happy results of their garden expeditions seen at LongueVue                                                        

I was fortunate to tour the gardens with Charles Yurgalevitch, Ph.D., Director of the School of Professional Horticulture, New York Botanical Garden and Miami-based attorney, David Feliú. Walking the gardens with our guide, Director of Horticulture, Amy Graham, and Toulouse the black cat in tow, we are struck with how the eight-acre property is expansive yet intimate, with each of the 14 to 16 garden rooms appearing distinctive but part of the whole.

The view from the sweetheart staircase overlooking the kumquat parterre and water fountains gardens is breathtaking – no matter the season, the bones of the garden are there.

I like that they use the grounds’ readily-accessible pine needles for mulch. The fountains were off the morning we were there but it didn’t matter.

Yellow Garden at Longue Vue 

The Yellow Garden was petit garden room near the house that shone — with blooms and variegated leaf designs with yellow butterfly vine and their gold seeds, yellow datura, loquat, and yellow-tinged shrubs.

Butterfly Vine in the Yellow Garden 
Butterfly Vine Seeds – look like Butterflies.  They use them on gift boxes, too.
Edible Garden features huge sugar cane kettle as water feature
In the Walled Edible Garden, they employed a big sugar cane kettle as the center of the planting axis and used it as a water feature bubbler fountain. This is an example of employing or showcasing local materials and/or traditions. It makes design and decor unique. Special.

Lots of carefully-grown vegetables, herbs, and fruits offered their bounty to the Sterns and their guests.

Beyond, the one-acre Wild Garden beckoned. Here were scads of colorful camellias – from ruffly two-toned to bright lipstick colors, interplanted with Buckeye.  

Camellias and Buckeye 

I love the mixed materials in the garden.

Soon, we’d come full circle to the forecourt, and it was time to enter the house.

Longue Vue House

You enter the grand home through a kind of portal — yes it’s a front door but given the scale of the structure, one feels almost like ducking into the semi-circle of the entry hall. It’s a most welcoming entrance.

Otherwise the main floor is filled with spacious, art-filled sitting rooms and rooms with utility, such as the flower arranging room. (I want one of these!)                

Dining pocket vignette features retractable window 

In the dining room, there is a pocket table overlooking a lovely garden composition. Amy told us the window that fronts the table and chairs was built to automatically slide down and open up the vista to the outdoors. Technology in the roaring 20’s that still thrills! 

Dining Room peacock wallpaper at Longue Vue House 

I loved the trellis wallpaper with peacocks (naturally) and the green drapes. So fresh.

Upstairs, we toured the drawing room, the bedrooms and the dressing rooms. (Spoiler alert: Edith took her meetings in her bedroom, sitting on her daybed!)

Then, just as we were heading downstairs to view the party room, Lenora Costa, Curator of Collections, Longue Vue, dashed over to us breathlessly declaring she’d just pulled the original, heretofore unseen landscape design plans for the Walled Garden from a bottom draw!

Lenora Costa, Longue Vue Curator of Collections showcases her unlocked drawer discover!

And just like that — we were looking at true buried treasure.          

“Do you want to see more?” she asked. Be still my heart! That would be a big “yes.” I felt like we were floating somewhere between Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Rosetta Stone! To see original landscape design plans from the hand and mind of Ellen Biddle Shipman that had never been seen by anyone out of the original circle was a “pinch-me” moment! Lenora didn’t have to ask twice. Trying to act nonchalant, we bustled into her office, while she made apologies for appearances.

We didn’t notice — having eyes only on the plans being gently opened in their flat drawers. Soon, we were looking at the original plans for the Sunken Garden as designed by Ellen Biddle Shipman.

How could this be? There were no tears, no yellowing, nor decay…

Discovered Ellen Biddle Shipman Landscape Renderings the day we visited Longue Vue, New Orleans 

Lenora explained there were multiple versions of landscape design plans for the simple reason that different seasons required unique sets of plans. What a deep respect for garden art — a true luxury…

The excitement about the landscape renderings remained palpable. Lenora said she’d just found keys in another drawer — and the keys weren’t labeled! She described the veil of private vs. public worlds accompanying the family and the organization… “There are these interwoven secrets,” said Lenora. “There’s always a process of discovery,” she added. And that got me to thinking that this is the very element that makes Longue Vue so compelling. It’s not a static place filled with history of a bygone era (although that could be enough and one could study for ages.) Rather, the House and Gardens here are dynamic, giving up tantalizing secrets that fuel our imaginations and bring us back to ever more discoveries. I asked Lenora how her team uses these nuggets; how to incorporate it into the tours — telling the story. It’s the process of discovery…. I want to write a book about that process. I find it fascinating how a cultural organization like Longue Vue fuels it’s narrative – how it keeps that spellbound magic burning the flames of the curious. Here it seems there is always more underneath the surface. More letters, more receipts, more plans…

“Discovered” landscape renderings from Ellen Biddle Shipman at Longue Vue 
Ellen Biddle Shipman Longue Vue Garden Designs 

So a quick stop to the shop and the party room to see the “Living Sculpture” of Trailer McQuilkin and his extraordinary mixed media, environmental and botanical nature art that was beloved by the Sterns.

Environmental Art by Trailer McQuilkin 

Louisiana Lilies

Doesn’t it just seem fitting in a “stars-in-an-alignment” kind of way that France boasts the fleur-de-lis, or iris, as its national flower and New Orleans – that bad-girl bastion of all things French in the US does likewise?

Moreover, I learned some things about the iris I didn’t know previously while visiting there earlier this month. Mainly that Louisiana Iris has a long, unique, and proud heritage.  Who knew the swamps and bogs of this area held such natural jewels? Well, Caroline Dorman, for one.

I was smitten with Miss Dorman’s story the moment Richard Johnson, the volunteer at the New Orleans Botanical Garden began describing her work with Louisiana Iris. What a dame!

We should be celebrating her work in a much bigger way in order to inspire others, especially women. Miss Dorman is a true pioneer. Having lived almost a hundred years – her career excelled in more than a few categories, from public relations to being a “world renowned naturalist, botanist, horticulturist, ornithologist, historian, archeologist, preservationist, teacher, artist, conservationist, and author — and the first woman to be hired in the United States Forest Service,” according to her bio.  Wow. she didn’t waste a minute in that long life of hers.

Polymath, Caroline Dorman 

She wrote that she fell hard for the iris the first time she saw one – and it was an “iris crush” that lasted a lifetime… Must’ve been those heady blues and violets and lavender blues she viewed awestruck as they danced in their ditches near Morgan City in 1920, as she described. “My excitement knew no bounds,” she cooed.

Miss Dorman wrote that John James Audubon was the first to call these native beauties, “Louisiana Iris.” Leave it to a an artist… Or an outsider. Sometimes we get so accustomed to what we have we fail to appreciate it. Dorman wrote: “It seems astonishing that these amazing flowers did not attract more attention. Ellsworth Woodward, head of the Art Department at Newcomb College in New Orleans, was struck with their beauty and made paintings of them, which now hang in Delgado Museum. Occasionally local florists cut flowers and sold them -labeled ‘Japanese iris!’” See, they felt compelled to refer to them as a foreign exotic rather than their own homegrown beauties back then.

The great iris collector and breeder, Mrs. Dan DeBaillon, (I think her own name is Mary – but the reports cite the “Mrs. moniker”), left her collection to Caroline Dorman, who had become a fellow collector by then and who also undertook a hybridizing program.

According to the Louisiana Iris Society, “Miss Dorman’s greatest claim to fame as a breeder is ‘Wheelhorse’ (R1952), a rose bitone which has remained popular to this day and figures prominently in the genealogy of many award-winning irises. She also collected cultivars and hybridized more than a dozen Louisiana iris including Foxglove Bells, June Clouds, and Saucy Minx.”

Caroline Dorman has a Facebook page and you can also learn more at the Briarwood Nature Preserve

That Mrs. Dan DeBaillon of Lafayette amassed the largest and most varied collection in existence. It’s reported that she collected the iris “in the edges of New Orleans where she found many unusual and beautiful varieties, even reds and pinks. These fields have now been built over and destroyed. Mrs. DeBaillon had visited Briarwood many times and knew (Dorman) had suitable places for growing these irises; so she willed her collection… to Briarwood, the birthplace and home of Caroline Dormon. The Caroline Dormon Nature Preserve strives to carry on the work started by Miss Dormon by preserving wildflowers native to the south and educating the public on how natural forest ecosystems work.”

Some of the Irises collected or hybridized by Miss Caroline Dormon still reside in the Bay Garden at the Caroline Dormon Nature Preserve, including Wheelhorse, Violet Ray, The Kahn, Saucy Minx,WoodViolet and FireAlarm, CathedralBlue and Mary S. DeBaillon. Miss Dormon registered and introduced 14 collected Louisiana irises and numerous hybrids. Wheelhorse, (Abbeville x Violet Ray ), introduced in 1952 by Caroline Dormon it is thought by some to be the top parent among Louisiana irises.

I hope there will be more study of Miss Dorman and her horticultural achievements. I, for one, plan to read her books. I see six of them: Wild Flowers of Louisiana (1934), Forest Trees of Louisiana (1941), Flowers Native to the Deep South (1958), Natives Preferred (1965), Southern Indian Boy (1967), and Bird Talk (1969).

I also see that some books are out of stock. Pshaw. Perhaps the library is the best bet. Or better still — order them from Briarwood – plus you can add in her charming flower art note cards — for $5. You’ll be helping the organization — and you. Double the benefits. And Briarwood offers the book: Gift of the Wild Things — an introduction to Miss Dorman’s extraordinary life.

Keep studying about the pioneering female scientists – even after Women’s History Month passes.

We have so much to learn. So much garden glamour to explore …

Toulouse the cat guide at Longue Vue

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"Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art."
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 I adore plants. Plants are my muse ~ they are my paramour… I’m a garden artist; a nature lover, & horticulturist. I’m an author & writer. My passion for culture & beauty, along with my trait curiosity, brings you an authentic celebration of life. I’m a storyteller ~ weaving the artful gifts of horticulture, garden design, tablescape decor, floral design, cocktail culture, garden-to-glass recipes & their glamorous garnishes, homegrown edibles, food & drink; & cooking, to bring you my flair & what I’ve been told is an avid elan ~ as well as the stories from those who inspire me ~ to pursue an elegant, enduring, & joyful, entertaining lifestyle. It’s an honor & a privilege to do what you love.

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