History of the Cummer Museum Gardens

July 14, 2012 6 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Along the St. Johns River are the historic gardens of the Cummer Family. Join us after the hump for the fascinating history of one of Jacksonville's most treasured assets!

The family compound originally stretched from just south of the Riverside Arts Market to the end of the Women’s Club of Jacksonville property, and included the homes of Clara and Waldo Cummer, Arthur and Ninah Cummer, and Ada and Wellington Cummer.  When the Museum was founded, the property of Arthur and Ninah Cummer was donated to house the Museum, and its historic Gardens.  Over the past few years, the Museum has also acquired the two adjacent properties, so that it now holds most of the original Cummer compound.  Over the next few years, the staff of the Museum hopes to renovate the Garden of Clara and Waldo Cummer and incorporate it into the Museum’s Garden space.

The original properties were designed by a host of notable American landscape architects - including Ossian Cole Simmonds, Thomas Meehan, Frederick Law Olmstead, Ellen Biddle Shipman, and William Lyman Phillips - the involvement of whom gives The Cummer Gardens national importance.  The Cummer Gardens also hold the honor of being the only gardens in Florida that have preserved their original layout and planting schemes for over one hundred years, and as such were recognized in 2010 by the National Register of Historic Places.  

The design of the current Gardens were overseen my Ninah Cummer – a garden lover, art collector, traveler, and founder of the Museum.  Her gardens were a reflection of her love of horticulture and of her travels abroad.  The initial scheme of the gardens was laid out by Ossian Cole Simonds in 1903.  Simonds believed that a garden should enhance the naturalistic beauty of the native trees and shrubs along the riverfront property.  This original design established the backbone for the later ornamental gardens.  

Simonds was followed by Thomas Meehan and Sons, who designed the formal English Gardens in 1910, and Ellen Biddle Shipman who designed the Italian Gardens in 1931.  In addition to this, sections of Clara & Waldo Cummer’s gardens were designed by William Lyman Phillips of the Olmsted Firm.  These gardens were partially destroyed in the 1960s, when both Arthur & Ninah’s home and Waldo & Clara’s home were demolished to make way for the new Museum that would house Ninah’s art collection.  Now, with the reacquisition of Waldo and Clara’s garden space and the Women’s Club of Jacksonville property, there are new plans for the Gardens in the near future.  

The Cummer Gardens have been cared for and interpreted by the Museum for the past fifty years, currently with the assistance of ValleyCrest Landscape Companies {http://www.valleycrest.com/vc/#/the-company/},  and a troop of dedicated volunteers.  The Gardens are seen and treated as works of art, representing the different styles of English, Italian, and American landscape traditions, and are just as important as the artwork on the walls of the Galleries.  

Please keep checking back for more information about the history of The Cummer Gardens.  Future posts will include details of the design of the English Garden, the Italian Garden, the Olmsted Garden, and plans for the future.  

Written by Amber Sesnick, Visitor Services & Social Media Coordinator at The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens