Marian Cruger Coffin (1876 - 1957) MP

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Nicknames: "Marian C. Coffin"
Birthdate:
Birthplace: Scarborough, New York, New York, United States
Death: Died in New Haven, New Haven, Connecticut, United States
Occupation: Landscape Architect
Managed by: David Coffin
Last Updated:
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About Marian Cruger Coffin

Marian Cruger Coffin

College Studies/MIT

• 1901-1902 MIT special student, she studied Architecture, Biology, and Drawing. • 1903-1904 graduated in the Class of 1904 as a special student from the Landscape Architecture program • 1946 received an honorary doctorate form Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Career/ Accomplishments • Original plan and layout for the grounds for the University of Delaware in Newark • Committee member of NY Botanical Garden in the Bronx • Pavilion at Fort Ticonderoga in New York • Connecticut College • Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven • The duPont family estates at Winterthur, Mount Cuba and Gibraltar • Gibraltar, the former Rodney Sharp estate, in Wilmington, Delaware, which has recently been restored • Marian Coffin also wrote one book: Trees and Shrubs for Landscape Effects (1940). • Fellow of the ALSA 1918 (Second woman to become a fellow, the first was a founding member Beatrix Jones Farrand)

Coffin was born in Scarborough, New York, on September 16, 1876 to Alice Church and Julian Ravenal Coffin, both members of wealthy upper-class families. The reckless lifestyle of her father, and early divorce of her parents left Coffin and her mother almost penniless; forcing them into an unsettled existence. Coffin was raised by her widowed mother, mainly in Geneva, New York, where they prevailed upon the hospitality of uncle John Church, who had moved to this resort community on Seneca Lake after the ancestral estate on the Genesee was sold. Although not wealthy, Coffin had a distinguished family heritage (Churches were descendants of the Schuylers of New York and the Sillimans and Trumbulls of Connecticut). This impeccable social standing was a decided advantage in pursuing her career. Extensive family connections with members of the upper class, most notably with Henry Francis du Pont, a lifelong friend and mentor, led to many prestigious commissions.For the following years, they had no permanent home and lived with various members of the Church family in Geneva, New York where Coffin had an almost aristocratic upbringing. Here, she learned to handle social situations with grace and made contacts among the prominent families of Geneva's affluent Victorian community. These connections would later prove invaluable in launching her career.Reaching adulthood, Coffin's financial situation left her with only two choices: to marry a rich husband or take on a professional career. Coffin chose the latter and enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) In Boston to study landscape architecture. Coffin's reception at MIT was not quite as warm as she had hoped. The landscape architecture option had the same stringent admission requirements as the general program in architecture, and having had almost no formal schooling, Marian Coffin was completely unprepared to meet such requirements and was initially refused admission. She persevered and after intense tutoring in mathematics was permitted to enroll as a special student in 1901. Though a special student, Coffin took a complete range of courses including studies in engineering, physics and math, mechanical drafting and freehand drawing, architectural and landscape design. She complimented her technical studies with lectures in botany and an extensive course in horticulture at the Arnold Arboretum under the direction of Charles Sprague Sargent. MIT's landscape design program was in the tradition of the L'Ecole Des Beaux-Arts, the French National School of Fine Arts, emphasizing the classical ideas of balance, order, proportion, and harmony. The director of the program, Guy Lowell (1870-1927), was a scholar of the L'Ecole Des Beaux-Arts. In his courses, he taught the values of European, particularly Italian, classicism which strongly influenced Coffin's professional work. While Coffin was his student in 1902, Lowell published his book American Gardens, further promoting the revived classical design principles in the United States. Following this publication, many landscape architects of the time adopted these principles and executed symmetric, axial designs in the tradition of the Italian Villa. The lines of the house were extended into the grounds. Architectural features and classical garden ornaments became focal points in contrast to the vegetation. Another important influence in Coffin's professional career was architect Charles Platt (1861-1933), the leading advocate of formalism in America. Platt visited and studied Italian gardens and villas of the Renaissance in 1892. Upon his return to the United States, he published his extremely influential book Italian Gardens in 1894, in which he introduced to American architecture and landscape architecture the ideal of the Italian villa, the house and garden designed as a whole - organized as a series of indoor and outdoor rooms. These classical influences in Coffin's education were strengthened further by a summer abroad during which she studied landscape design in Italy and France. She also went on field trips to notable estates in the Boston area such as Sprague's Faulkner Farm in Brookline, designed by Platt in 1897. Elements of Platt's design, like the semicircular closing of the vista at the end of a rectangular garden, and the arrangement of both a long terrace and a formal garden parallel to the long axis of the house, correspond to Coffin's design for Gibraltar's flagstone terrace and formal garden. Coffin graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1904 as the only woman among 500 students. Strong prejudices against women in the male-dominated profession forced her to open her own office in New York City. On leaving school she expected the world would welcome landscape architects, but unfortunately the idea of taking a woman into an office was unheard of. The query of what she would do about supervising the work on the ground became such a constant and discouraging question that she decided to open her own firm. During the first decade after graduation, Coffin worked mostly on smaller, suburban commissions and traveled extensively in Europe. During a trip to England she met with Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1933) whose work left a lasting impression on Coffin. Jekyll's painterly use of color was clearly reflected in many of Coffin's floral designs. Both her family connections and the conditions of history were favorable to Coffin's subsequent success. The Country Place era was at its peak, resulting in an increasing demand for elaborate estate designs in the European, particularly Italian Renaissance, tradition. Coffin was one obvious choice for such commissions. She was a woman of "taste" from an esteemed family. She had traveled widely and received professional training at a respected school. Her social contacts with families like the duPont's gave her access to many prospective clients. At first, Coffin designed floral gardens for small residential properties. However, by 1912, her design for the residence of Edward Sprague in Flushing, New York, was published in Country Life of America and more challenging commissions followed. By the end of the first World War, Coffin had moved and enlarged her office from the original two-room office at 15 Gramercy Park to a larger space at 830 Lexington Avenue. In addition, she had hired architect James Scheiner to help her with the preparation of plans and the design of the architectural features of her commissions. By the early 1920's, based on the number of commissions executed at this time, Coffin was one of the most sought after landscape architects on the east coast. Most of the gardens she designed were in the fashionable suburbs of New York City. Coffin did extensive work on Long Island and in parts of Westchester County, New York and Connecticut. Due to her friendship with members of the duPont family, she also had many commissions in Delaware. This pioneer female landscape architect was a friend of Henry Francis duPont who was a cousin of Mrs. Sharp. Miss Coffin worked with Henry Francis duPont to perfect the gardens at Winterthur. The period from about 1916 to 1930 can be regarded as the peak of Coffin's career. The vast majority of her commissions were executed at this time. Her work was extensively photographed and published in popular magazines and professional publications such as Country Life in America, Architectural Record, and House and Garden. She was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1918. In 1930, she received the Medal of Honor, the Architectural League of New York's highest award for landscape architecture, for her designs for the Wing estate in Millbrook, New York and the Bassick estate in Fairfield, Connecticut. Coffin maintained her practice in New York City until 1927, when a hip infection prompted her to permanently move to New Haven, Connecticut. The stock market crash of 1929, and the following depression marked the end of the Country Place era and, with it, the end of large residential commissions. Afterwards, most of Coffin's work on smaller suburban gardens hardly paid enough to meet expenses. During this slow period, she occupied herself with writing, and published one book, Trees and Shrubs for Landscape Effects, in 1940, in which she described her approach to landscape design at length After World War II she designed gardens at Mt. Cuba for Mr. Lammond duPont Copeland. In addition, to her work for High Rodney Sharp at Gibraltar, Mr. Sharp assisted Miss Coffin in receiving a commission to develop landscape plans for the renovation of the University of Delaware's main campus. Coffin's success was a tribute to her talent and business acumen, courage and fierce determination. Marian Coffin is recognized as one of America's pioneering landscape architects for the quality of her designs and the fact that she became a professional when "ladies" didn't work. Throughout her career, Coffin designed more than 130 commissions, among them fifty of the finest private estate gardens along the east coast. Her clients came from the most prominent families. They included the Pricks, the Vanderbilt, the Huttons, and several family members of the duPont's, who recognized her work for its sophistication and sensitive approach to the natural attributes of the land.In 1946, Coffin received an honorary doctorate of letters from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, she designed several plans for the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, and traveled extensively to Europe and South America. The completion of the "April Garden" at Winterthur, for her lifetime friend, Henry Francis duPont, marked the end of her professional career. Marian Coffin died on February 2, 1957 in her house in New Haven at the age of 81

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Marian Cruger Coffin's Timeline

1876
September 16, 1876
Scarborough, New York, New York, United States
1901
1901
- 1904
Age 24
MIT - Massachusetts Institute of Technology
1957
February 2, 1957
Age 80
New Haven, New Haven, Connecticut, United States
????
- present
Self