The Cummer's Olmsted Garden Restoration Underway

December 15, 2012 12 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

For the past 50 years, the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens has been committed to engaging and inspiring through the arts, gardens and education in Jacksonville. With a permanent collection of nearly 5,000 objects and historic gardens on a riverfront campus attracting 130,000 annual, the museum is moving forward with its next project. Now underway, the Olmsted Garden Restoration and Landscape Enhancement Project will restore the work of five nationally recognized pioneers of American landscape design and add a touch of class to Riverside Avenue.

We recently sat down with Hope McMath, the Director of the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens and Holly Keris, the organization's Chief Curator to discuss the transformational Cummer project underway on Riverside Avenue.

For an hour we discussed the fairly massive project and the thoughts behind the changes and discovered in the process not only how much work went into the planning of the campus expansion, but also the ambitious plans of the Cummer organization for the future as it becomes one of the more unique and important Museum/Garden institutions of the SouthEast.

The restoration and landscape enhancement project is going to significantly change that stretch of the main connection between Riverside and Downtown, partially because it finally unifies the Cummer properties (the original museum, the rather pedestrian brick bank and the magnificent and historic Womens Club and grounds) and turns them into a bona fide campus.

The Cummer has greatly expanded over the past 20 years as it has made an astonishing leap from a tasteful gallery with a beautiful garden into a foll fledged credentialled museum, and the only building specifically designed for the purposes of a Museum/Gallery is the swank Cummer architecture surrounding the main entrance.

In the process of expansion, the museum absorbed two more buildings on either flank of rather different architectural styles---which in their present state arent clearly connected to each other as one organization and leave the impression that they are still separate.  Many people in fact have muddled about trying to decide whether the old bank building on the north is actually part of the museum until they visit through the main entrance and are led to the children's wing internally.

Also, lets face it, the parking lot across the street has been described (often by Cummer staff) as the 'ugliest property in Riverside'.  Sadly this is no more than the truth.

When designing this project, the team felt like they had several problems to overcome and a few objectives to achieve, and we think that the plans solve all of them pretty nicely.

Terrible Parking Lot.
No Visual Unity between the different properties
Pedestrian architecture of the bank building takes away from the spare elegance of the Museum Building.
The current landscape design along Riverside is stiffly formal, not inviting to the public to use the grounds (Or get close enough to the magnificent red Takashi Soga kinetic sculpture on the front lawn to see how it operates) and serves to completely separate the museum from both the public and the eyesore parking lot across the street.


Create the perception of the Campus.
Clearly mark the beginning and end of the Cummer property
Expand the cafe service and available area
Bring pedestrian activity to the grounds along Riverside Avenue
Create some sort of design unity to the disparate buildings of the campus
Make the Campus open and inviting to the public.

Notes From The Olmstead Garden Restoration

One of the more fascinating things about the restoration is the process of revelation and discovery that surrounds the Olmsted Gardens (the area behind the bank building)

The first revelation is that the Cummer history has traditionally followed the narrative of Ninah Cummer, with little regard to the other members of the Cummer family.  The history provided below is a retelling of the Cummer property story that includes the significant portions of land that belonged to the rest of the Cummer Family Compound on the St. Johns River.

By the 90s that history was lost to most, and the current team had to work together with descendants of the Cummers who still live in Jacksonville to restore that heritage.  There were surprises along the way.

Firstly the existence of a garden designed by the Olmsted Brothers had been completely forgotten by the institution itself.  Apparently one of the Cummer relatives mentioned it at a function that she believed that there had been some connection to the Olmsted Brothers and her grandmothers gardens (not Ninah, apparently, but Ninah's mother in law, the matriarch of the Cummer Family)  

The Olmsted Brothers Firm---as riverside history buffs may already know, designed Memorial Park.

What many people may not know or remember is that the Olmsted Brothers are the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York City.

This would be a significant finding.

There were still vestiges of the park of course, a pit of the old architecture, and an alcove set into a high bulkhead.

The Cummer Museum of Arts and Gardens team got serious about pursuing this history.  Especially after acquiring the bank property, where this garden designed by the Olmsteds had apparently stood.  They pieced together the design through old family photos in the garden, and perused old records by the Olmsteds.

Incredibly, in the photos, there is clearly a gorgeous neo classical statue.  It is a statue of Mercury.  A counterpoint perhaps to the statue of the Greek goddess, Diana in the existing Cummer Gardens.  Along with the rest of the garden the statue had been lost, and then completely forgotten.  It was as though it had never existed.

Once again, through contacts with the Cummer descendants, an older relative was found that remembered the statue and that it had been given away when the gardens were destroyed for the new bank construction.  She even happened to remember to whom it had been given, and incredibly, the family has donated the original statue back to the Cummer and will be installed in the restoration in its rightful place.

While it may seem incredible that this significant history had been lost even to the Museum bearing the family namesake, one cannot help but muse about how common this is in Jacksonville.  For whatever reasons, abandoning and discarding our very unique history was ubiquitous in the later decades of the 20th Century, and the subsequent cultural losses are staggering.

It is a great credit to Hope McMath and Holly Keris (and the many people involved with the Modern Day Cummer) that they have so conscientiously and painstakingly researched, archived, and cataloged this history.  But it is a gift back to the community for many generations that they have undertaken to restore it to its former unique grandeur.

The Campus

The design of the campus handily solves the identified problems and achieves the objectives of the redesign.

The barrier hedges are gone.  The sidewalks are widened to ten feet. The exterior of the bank bulding is masked by the addition of a columnade that will serve as an outdoor sculpture garden. (the graphics below show a cheesy representation of a classical torso.  This is not what will be in the garden---Hope tells us that it will be contemporary sculptures in a rotating exhibit)

The small cafe inside the Cummer will be expanded out onto the grounds in front with outdoor seating and a magnificent Oak canopy.  It will be available for rentals.

The iconic Takashi Soga sculpture will be moved to the north end of the campus and will serve as a marker for all traffic coming from downtown as the beginning of the campus.

The Parking Lot is being completely done to be environmentally responsible.  The landscape architects have designed it to be all sustainable, mostly florida indigenous plantings and built to operate as a filter to any run off waters before they head a block to the river.

Here is an exclusive look at the grounds design from above:

And here are a series of renderings from the architect showing the new design of the campus:

The Outdoor Cafe:

About The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville boasts one of the most important and delightful gardens in Northeast Florida. Idyllically located on the banks of the St. Johns River, the gardens have a fascinating history stretching back over 100 years and bear the imprint of some of the foremost names in landscape design and horticulture, including Ossian Cole Simonds, Ellen Biddle Shipman, Thomas Meehan and Sons, and the fabled Olmsted firm. The involvement of these prestigious firms gives national importance to the gardens at The Cummer. Throughout the year, the gardens are ablaze with rare horticultural specimens nestled under a canopy of mature live oak trees. In addition to the lush plantings, features such as reflecting pools, fountains, arbors, antique ornaments, and sculptures help create a special outdoor space that provides a perfect complement to the museum's collections.

The gardens were created by one of Jacksonville's most prominent families, who settled in Florida in the early 1900s. Arthur Cummer and his brother, Waldo Cummer, came from a long line of Michigan lumber barons. They built their homes on either side of their parents, Ada and Wellington Cummer, on the banks of the St. Johns River. The brothers led the Cummer Lumber Company, while their wives, Ninah Cummer and Clara Cummer, masterminded the gardens surrounding their homes. Those gardens are now one of the glories of the museum and are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

About The Project

Phase 1: Olmsted Garden

Work on Phase 1 of the Olmsted Garden Restoration and Landscape Enhancement Project is already underway.  The Olmsted Garden restoration began in September with the construction of a new bulkhead.  Following the completion of the bulkhead, work will continue to restore the Olmsted Garden to the designs provided by the Olmsted Brothers firm for the Cummer family in 1930. The restoration will be complete by April 2013.

In the early 1900s, the magnificent gardens surrounded the Riverside Avenue homes of one of Jacksonville’s most prominent families, the Cummers. The Olmsted Garden was part of the estate of Waldo and Clara Cummer, the brother and sister-in-law of Museum founders Arthur and Ninah Cummer. Their gardens were partially obliterated in the early 1960s, when both Cummer homes were demolished to make way for the new museum building, the Red Cross, and the former Barnett Building, which now houses the Museum’s interactive center, Art Connections. Plans have been underway to restore these gardens to their original glory for many years. “The Olmsted Garden has never been open to the public,” said Chief Curator Holly Keris. “The addition of this historically accurate garden nearly doubles The Cummer’s current Riverfront footage, and provides the Museum with another platform to discuss art, design, history, and environmental conservation, all through the use of our landscape.” The Cummer Gardens, including the Olmsted Garden, were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.

Phase 2: Riverside Avenue Landscape

In addition to restoring the Olmsted Garden to its original beauty, The Cummer is renovating the entire Riverside Avenue portion of the Museum campus. This area includes the front lawn and parking areas from the Art Connections building to the Edward W. Lane, Jr. building. This renovation provides the opportunity to integrate the arts, gardens, and education. “Visitors to The Cummer have long understood the magic that happens in our building, but for the first time, this energy and vibrancy will be visible from Riverside Avenue,” said Keris. “This gives us the opportunity to engage with the community in a whole new way as a dynamic, relevant, accessible, and meaningful component of our city.”
The campus renovation phase will begin with the reconstruction of the Museum’s parking lots.  Following the completion of the parking lots, The Cummer will open up the front lawn to the public. Outdoor seating will be added for the TreeCup Café on the Museum’s front lawn. In addition, a sculpture garden will be created in front of the Art Connections Building. Although largely populated with works on loan, the space will feature two permanent installations from The Cummer’s collection– William Zorach’s Sprit of the Dance and Takashi Soga’s Sea of the Ear Rings. Reconstruction of the parking lots will begin in December and continue through March 2013, and the front of the Museum and the Sculpture Garden will be complete and open in September 2013. By unifying the entire campus through landscape, adding café seating under the oak trees, integrating more sculpture and opening up the front lawn, the eye-catching Riverside Avenue Landscape will serve as a beacon for the mission of The Cummer.

Cummer gardens during the 1950s. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Historical Significance

The Cummer residence in 1901. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Three gardens originally adorned the homes of Arthur Cummer and his wife Ninah, and Waldo Cummer and his wife Clara from 1903 until 1958.  Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Cummer’s English Garden (first known as the Wisteria Garden and later called the Azalea Garden) was designed in 1903 by Ossian Cole Simonds. This “English” garden was a rectangular garden featuring beautifully laid brick paths, a pergola at the head of the garden overlooking the river, and included a sundial feature; English gardens were well known for their profusion of a variety of flowers, formal parterres, borders and garden ornaments.  In 1910, Thomas Meehan and Sons, renowned nurserymen, infused the garden with hundreds of native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  A reapportioning of the entire Cummer compound in 1929 precipitated the redesign of the gardens on Arthur and Waldo’s properties in 1931, transforming the grounds into its final and most significant form.  Arthur and Ninah Cummer commissioned landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman to design the Italian Garden, completed in 1931.  Shipman utilized Italian design characteristics like water - using long expanses of rectangular pools more formal characteristics like incorporating a focal point in the landscape with the “gloriette” and a fountain, the placement of garden statuary and ornaments adjacent to walls, and using tubs of small trees, and clipped evergreens and flowers.  Also in 1931, Mr. and Mrs. Waldo Cummer hired the Olmsted firm to redesign their property.  Although much of this work was destroyed by subsequent construction, a significant riverfront fragment of this garden remains.  William Lyman Phillips designed this area using a varied palette of materials in his compositions, bringing together those plants and trees most appropriate to the site.  Although he is known as the “Pioneer of Tropical Landscape Architecture”, the work he did for the Cummers was not purely subtropical.  Jacksonville is located in horticultural growing zone 9a, and much of what Phillips’ work was located in central and south Florida, zones 9b and 10.  He would create a composition that “relied on a variety of contrasting characteristics –enclosed and open, sunlit and shadowed, reflective and absorptive, textured and smooth – in order to achieve that harmony” This extant fragment was acquired by the museum in 1991/92 and is presently being restored using the original plans of the Olmsted firm.  A recent restoration of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Cummer’s Italian Garden was completed in 1997, but remained true to the original landscape design.  To comply with city regulations regarding handicapped access, a section of the wall was removed and a gate and ramp were added.  The fountain in the Italian Garden, made of Verona aggregate that had deteriorated over time, was replaced with an exact reproduction in 2002. The reproduction was crafted of Botticino marble by Nicola Stagetti in Pietrasanta, Italy.
The gardens at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens unquestionably are of national importance.  Together they represent the work of five pioneers of American landscape design: O.C. Simonds, Thomas Meehan & Sons, J. Frederick Dawson, Ellen Biddle Shipman, and William Lyman Phillips.  The most significant elements today are Ninah’s Italian Garden and the English Garden.
In 1903, the first landscape architect involved with the Cummer family was Ossian Cole Simonds (1855-1931).  He prepared a landscape plan for the Wellington Cummer grounds and those of their son Arthur and wife Ninah, who lived next door.  Simonds was an early icon in the relatively new field of landscape architecture and was one of eleven of the founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1899.  Simonds was the progenitor of the “prairie-school” of landscape design.  He was also an influential teacher, author, and founder of the landscape architecture program at the University of Michigan, the university that both Arthur and Ninah attended. Simonds helped formulate the “prairie” style of design based on the use of native plants.  He also urged young designers to study nature “as the great teacher” and suggested that the goal of landscape design should be to help people see and respect subtle natural beauties. His book Landscape Gardening, first published in 1920, presented his carefully conceived and still timely approach to landscape design, where nature is both partner and model.  He was one of the national’s foremost authorities on “rural” cemetery design, and designed the Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Simonds’ projects included parks, residences, college campuses, and cemeteries throughout the United States, particularly the Midwest. His conceptual plan for the Cummer family compound was drawn up in 1903, the same year he established his independent firm.  The plan offered little acknowledgement of Florida’s special climate of plants and primarily served as groundwork for the younger generation of Cummers to develop their individual, more personal garden domains.
The Philadelphia-based firm of Thomas Meehan & Sons, nationally recognized for the design and installation of residential properties, redesigned the landscape in 1910.  They infused it with hundreds of native trees, shrubs and perennials.  The Meehan nurseries, which had been established in 1854, were a famous resource for native American trees.  The founder of the company, Thomas Meehan (1826-1901), was considered one of the leading horticulturists of the day.  He was also known for his work in saving Bartram’s gardens in Philadelphia and design of numerous estate gardens, parks, golf courses, and two country clubs in Florida.  He edited The Gardeners’ Monthly (1859-1889) and Meehan’s Monthly (1891-1902), both popular magazines for serious gardeners such as the Cummers.
The nationally prominent Olmsted Brothers firm, based in Brookline, Massachusetts, was involved with several proposed improvements to the site.  In 1922, J. Frederick Dawson of the firm advised Ninah Cummer on a wall fountain for the English Garden. Although this fountain plan was never realized, she heeded his recommendation for its placement. Waldo and Clara Cummer engaged the firm to design their riverfront garden in 1931. The landscape architect was William Lyman Phillips (1885-1966), now known as “the Pioneer of Tropical Landscape Architecture”. From April to December 1931, Phillips led the project from the Olmsted firm’s Lake Wales office.  He sharpened and defined the greenspace between the two existing formal gardens on the riverfront.  Phillips would later design the world-famous Fairchild Tropical Garden in Miami, McKee Jungle Gardens (now known as McKee Botanical Garden) in Vero Beach, Historic Bok Sanctuary in Lake Wales  (a National Historic Landmark) and his public parks at Crandon, Greynolds and Matheson Hammock in Miami, defining Florida for generations of residents and tourists.
Ellen Biddle Shipman, another famous landscape architect, was commissioned to design Arthur and Ninah Cummer’s Italian Garden in May 1931.  Shipman was friends with Villa Gamberaia owner Baroness Maud Ledyard Von Ketteler, and, like Arthur and Ninah, had visited Italy in 1930.   Known in her lifetime as “The Dean of American Women Landscape Architects,” Shipman has been hailed as one of American’s greatest “flower-garden makers”.  She was a pioneer in a field that had been dominated by men up to the turn of the century, training many successful designers in her all-woman practice. In lectures and interviews, she articulated her belief that women practitioners were responsible for the gardening revival that enlivened the early twentieth century. Her commissions spanned the United States, and her clients included the Fords, Astors, duPonts and other captains of industry and patrons of the arts, yet she held an emphatically democratic view of her profession, stating “Gardening opens a wider door than any other of the arts –all mankind can walk through, rich or poor, high or low, talented and untalented. It has no distinctions, all are welcome”. Of the more than 650 gardens that Shipman designed between 1914 and 1946, few remain intact. The garden at The Cummer is one of the only remaining historically accurate gardens by Ellen Biddle Shipman open to the public today.  Others include Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens in Akron, Ohio, and the Sarah Duke Gardens in North Carolina.  Her only other commissions in Florida state were for Mina Edison in Fort Myers and Arthur West in Tallahassee.

If You Would Like To Help

The community is invited to support the restoration and renovation project by participating in the Dedicate a Brick Campaign, which offers hundreds of individuals the opportunity to have an engraved brick in the gathering plaza within the new parking lots. Behind each name is the story of a milestone, a personal relationship, or the celbration of a life. Cost per brick is $500 and individuals are able to purchase an unlimited number of bricks. For more information, please contact Kenyon Merritt at 904.899.6025 or visit

Source: Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens

Article by Stephen Dare