Many important landscape architects played roles in the development of the Cummer gardens. Among them were Ossian Cole Simonds, a prominent Midwestern landscape architect who gave the preliminary form to the Cummer compound in 1903; Thomas Meehan and Sons, a Philadelphia firm that gave shape to the English Garden for Arthur and Ninah; Ellen Biddle Shipman of New York, who designed Arthur and Ninah’s Italian Garden; and the fabled Olmsted firm of Massachusetts, who were involved in later landscape improvements for Waldo and Clara Cummer.
Simonds’ initial scheme, with naturalistic sweeps of native trees and shrubs, enhanced the majestic live oaks along the riverfront property. These plantings provided the backbone for the enhancements made in 1910 by Thomas Meehan and Sons. Today the English Garden boasts a magnificent wisteria-laden cypress arbor that peaks at Garden Week in March.
The jewel in the crown is the Italian Garden, one of only a handful of extant gardens designed by Ellen Biddle Shipman. Designed in 1931 on the site of Arthur and Ninah’s garage, this garden was inspired by the famous water gardens at the Villa Gamberaia in Tuscany. The Italian Garden was the perfect companion to the earlier English Garden, both of which overlook the St. Johns River. Two long reflecting pools, flanked by Shipman’s signature flower borders, frame the view to the green, ficus-covered gloriette.
These gardens reached their apogee in the late 1930s, when they were ablaze with hundreds of azaleas set amidst a stunning collection of garden ornaments. Following Arthur’s death in 1943, Ninah focused her energies on building an art collection that would become the foundation of the present museum.