An old photo of Ellen Biddle Shipman sitting at a desk
Centennial Spotlights

Ellen Biddle Shipman

Spring comes alive at Sarah P. Duke Gardens and at the center of it all are colorful blooms planted within seven stone-walled terraces that lead to a small koi pond. At the entryway a wisteria-wrapped pergola greets visitors.

The woman we should thank for that is Ellen Biddle Shipman, considered a pioneer in the field of landscape architecture. She was related by marriage to Mary Duke Biddle, the great-granddaughter of Washington Duke, for whom Duke University is named.

Shipman’s introduction to landscape architecture was serendipitous. She left behind some garden plans she sketched while housesitting for architect Charles Platt, who was designing estates around the country. They intrigued Platt, and he encouraged her to pursue her designs for private homes. He even engaged an assistant to teach her draftsmanship.

This was around 1912, when women in architecture were rare. Shipman was divorced with three children and needed to find a career.

By 1920, Shipman had opened an office in New York City where she hired women only and became a mentor to the next generation of horticulturists. In 1933 Shipman was named “Dean of Women Landscape Architects” by House and Garden. She designed the Italianate-style Terrace Gardens at Duke Gardens, which was dedicated in 1939.

During a 20-year span, she designed more than 600 gardens around the country. Today, only a handful remain in their original condition. Her style was to create gardens as a series of outdoor rooms. She described her style as painting the landscape with plants and flowers.

Shipman was born in 1869 and died in 1950 at the age of 80.

The Terrace Gardens in full-bloom