Alice Recknagel Ireys Papers
Alice Elizabeth Recknagel was born April 24, 1911 in Brooklyn, New York, to Harold S. and Rea Estes Recknagel. Her father was an attorney who worked in the insurance industry. Alice and her sister Catherine were the fourth generation to grow up in the house at 45 Willow Street.
As so often happens with avid gardeners, Alice had a very early introduction to growing things. In her case it was under the tutelage of her grandfather, Ellery Estes, during summers spent on the family farm in Green Harbor, Massachusetts. Alice helped her grandfather in his vegetable garden and was given a small plot of her own in which to grow flowers.
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), established in 1910, was under development through her youth. Once her interest in plants was awakened, she volunteered at the BBG and ended up doing any job they had. In the process, she got extensive, invaluable, hands-on experience of a kind not usually available to a child in the city. While studying at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, she made a list of "things she could do with plants" and did some research into the field of landscape architecture. A friend suggested she look into the Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a school for women, founded by Harvard professors in 1916, when Harvard did not admit women as graduate students. The School offered an intensive professional training program leading to a masters degree for those who held a B.A. or a Certificate for those who did not.
Alice Recknagel earned her certificate in 1935 and went to work for Packer alumna Marjorie Sewell Cautley in New Jersey. She taught gardening at Silver Lake Camp in Hawkeye, New York, in the summer of 1936 and worked at the nursery of W.J. Manning in Duxbury, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1937.
In February 1936 Alice began working for the landscape architect Charles Lowrie. Lowrie and his staff of five worked mostly on housing developments and public parks. When the Depression forced Lowrie to let most of the staff go, he kept Alice on. Out of necessity, she learned to do a bit of everything around the office, including typing, filing, cleaning, and errands as well as rendering, "inking," and visiting job sites. It was an experience she later described as "a wonderful way to learn." When Lowrie died suddenly in September 1939, Alice was asked to take over his clients, but only five of them agreed to stay with her. One project she completed was the planting plan for the Red Hook Housing Project in Brooklyn.
After Lowrie's death, Alice pieced together a variety of jobs, from giving gardening talks on the radio and writing articles for newspapers to working in collaboration with Cambridge School alumnae Cynthia Wiley and Clara Coffey. With Wiley and Coffey, she designed playgrounds for the New York City Parks Department and landscape plans for housing in New York City, Niagara Falls, New Rochelle, Detroit, and New Jersey. She also did special projects for landscape architects Arthur F. Brinckerhoff and A. Carl Stelling and architects Lorimer Rich (for whom she made a planting plan for the Tomb of the Unknowns) and I. Naftali. In the spring of 1941 and the fall of 1943 she taught a landscape gardening course at Connecticut College.
At the wedding of her Cambridge School roommate in 1942, Alice met Henry Tillinghast Ireys III, a Virginia Military Institute graduate who was working for a construction firm in New York City. They married in 1943. After the birth of their first child in 1946, Alice closed the Manhattan office and set up shop at home on Willow Street.
A good part of Ireys' time in the following decade was primarily occupied by the Ireys' three children, Catherine, Anne, and Henry. In a 1973 American Society of Landscape Architects survey of its women members, Alice wrote that she "did only enough to keep [her] interest alive" during this period.
Once the children were in school, with a lot of assistance from her mother (who lived with them), Ireys resumed a busier work schedule. Though the majority of her work was residential gardens for private citizens, Alice also designed gardens for churches, hospitals, libraries, historical societies, and schools. In the 1950s these included gardens for the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Home for Children, Brooklyn House for Aged Men, the Thoracic Hospital, and several projects at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Among these was the Garden of Fragrance for the Blind (renamed the Alice Recknagel Ireys Fragrance Garden in 2001), the first such garden and the BBG's satellite 12-acre Clark Memorial Garden on Long Island (now the Clark Botanic Garden).
From the late 1950s until the early 1980s Ireys regularly taught at the Landscape Design Schools run by the Federated Garden Clubs. These schools educated garden club members in the principles of "good landscape architectural practice" so that they could "serve as guardians and critics of outdoor beauty in the U.S.A." One major aim of the schools was to further the profession by educating potential board and committee members to advocate for professional planning of public outdoor areas.
Ireys was a perennially popular speaker at garden club meetings in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, her talk on Planning the Small Garden being the most in demand. Beginning in the 1970s, Ireys also offered multi-session "Landscape Design" and "Advanced Landscape Design" courses to garden clubs and at a variety of adult education venues.
Ireys' first book, How to Plan and Plant Your Own Property (1967), was written to address the questions and issues raised most often at her lectures. It was an accessible introduction to the principles of landscape design illustrated with photographs of gardens designed by Ireys and some of her colleagues. The book reached a wide audience, from home gardeners to landscape architecture students, and helped lay the groundwork for much more knowledgeable generations of gardeners to follow.
Ireys' list of clients, as well as speaking and teaching engagements, continued to grow in the 1960s. Her husband died in 1963.
Ireys' client list grew with her reputation from the 1970s through the 1990s. She was busy with many design projects, primarily for private citizens, all over New York and New Jersey with some in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Illinois, and California. These projects ranged in scope from postage-stamp-sized Brooklyn backyards to large rural estates. She also designed gardens for a number of small institutions, churches, historical societies, schools, small museums, etc.
Her second book, Small Gardens for City and Country, published in 1978, drew on her long experience working in small city spaces and teaching on the topic. Also in 1978 she was made a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
In 1987 Ireys began an association with the venerable seed company, W. Atlee Burpee & Co, which had been purchased by her clients Carter and Suzanne Bales. Alice designed theme gardens for their seed, plant, and bulb catalogs. Customers who bought these "designed gardens" received a copy of the plan and all seeds, bulbs, or plants needed to reproduce the design. The most popular of these designs were published as part of the Burpee American Gardens series in 1991. In the same year Burpee also published Designs for American Gardens. Similar in format to her earlier works, it used a selection of Ireys' built designs to provide ideas and demonstrate principles for small and large gardens.
In 1991 the American Horticultural Society honored her with the Liberty Hyde Bailey Award, the highest honor the Society can bestow on an individual, and in 1992 the Garden Writers' Association of America presented her with its Quill and Trowel Award. In 1994 she received the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Distinguished Service Medal.
Though hampered somewhat by infirmities, Alice Ireys continued to work with the aid of a cane, golf carts, and, if need be, photographs, well into the year of her death. She died late in 2000 at age 89.
Alice Recknagel Ireys worked during a period of transition in the field of landscape architecture from the large private estates and grand public works projects of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the smaller scale ventures of the post-World War II world. By concentrating on smaller residential projects she was able to meet her personal needs, combining a career with child-rearing responsibilities, while also bringing the professional's skills to residential design. Ireys successfully inspired in her clients and students "the joys of creating and caring for a garden…among the greatest pleasures in this world." She worked to determine the essence of her clients' and students' desires in order to develop a solution that was both beautiful and practical in the sense that it could realistically be maintained. From her childhood experiences as a plant lover, plants and good horticulture were central to her designs.