Historical Architecture of Grosse Pointe – Female Landscape Architects

Last week we focused on the work of Ellen Biddle Shipman, a nationally renowned landscape architect who was known for her formal gardens, simple clean geometries, and lush planting style. Shipman, throughout her career, created over 650 gardens, including at least 60 in Grosse Pointe – more than any other community in the United States. This week we continue our profile of nationally recognized female landscape architects in Grosse Pointe as we profile two further designers – Eleanor Roche and Ruth Bramley Dean.

The early 20th century was a pivotal moment for the emergence of women in the largely male dominated field of landscape architecture. Ellen Biddle Shipman was at the forefront of this rise. In an interview in 1938, she stated, “until women took up landscaping, gardening in this country was at its lowest ebb. The renaissance of the art was due largely to the fact that women, instead of working over their boards, used plants as if they were painting pictures as an artist.” Source: https://www.tclf.org/

Eleanor Roche
Eleanor Louise Roche was born in 1892, in East Orange, New Jersey. After graduating from high school, she studied at the Lowthrope School of Landscape Architecture in Groton, Massachusetts. Following graduation, in 1917, she went to work in Ellen Shipman at her office in New York City. By 1926, Roche had opened her own practice in the city and had become a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). She specialized in residential work, especially gardens for small and moderate-sized homes. It is reported that “while Ms. Roche had some staff at her firm, she mostly worked on her own, focusing on smaller projects.” It is also understood that during the 1920’s Roche worked for the New York City Department of Parks. Source and image: www.tclf.org

By the early 1930’s it is apparent Eleanor Roche was a familiar face in Grosse Pointe and had moved to the community around 1935. She designed numerous landscapes in the community and across Metro Detroit. In Grosse Pointe some of her projects were:

  • the Virginia Brush Ford Memorial Rose Garden at Christ Episcopal Church (around 1966)
  • the Trial Gardens at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial (around 1950)
  • 187 Irvine Lane (around 1950)

Arguably her most prominent project in the community was the Trial Gardens at the War Memorial. The Trial Garden was originally commissioned by the Grosse Pointe Garden Center – an organization founded in 1950, to succeed the Grosse Pointe War Memorial’s Garden and Grounds Committee. From the book Grosse Pointe War Memorial, by Ann Marie Aliotta, and Suzy Berschback, we understand “the Trial Garden was so named because it started out with workers trying to see which different plants and flowers would do well in the South-Eastern Michigan climate.” The huge wheel shaped garden features nine perimeter spaces and four inner plots. The four inner plots, which form a circle, were originally herb gardens representing culinary, medicinal, fragrant, and wedding herbs. The plots were changed annually, with the Herb Society of America – Grosse Pointe Unit, tending to them. Source: http://www.gpgardencenter.org. Images courtesy of Katie Doelle.

In 1952, one of the recovered historic Windmill Pointe millstones was dedicated to the War Memorial by the family of Frank Lauhoff and placed in the center of the Trial Garden. It provided the perfect centerpiece to the wheel shaped garden that was once tended to by Josephine Alger (the daughter of Russel A. Alger who commissioned 32 Lake Shore Drive (now the War Memorial). The Trial Gardens are now maintained by members of the Grosse Pointe Garden Center and are the location for an annual themed competition for local gardening groups.

During the latter stage of her career Eleanor Roche taught, lectured, and organized tours, for the ASLA. We understand “she served as secretary and treasurer for the Detroit chapter of the ASLA and was a member of the Detroit Planning Committee. Roche frequently contributed to popular and professional journals, including Landscape Architecture, in which she published “El Labertino: A Spanish Garden in the Neo-Classic Style” in 1933.” Source: https://www.tclf.org/  Eleanor Roche died in Grosse Pointe in 1975, aged 83.

Ruth Bramley Dean
Ruth Bramley Dean was born in 1889, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She attended the University of Chicago from 1908 to 1910. Following graduation, we understand “Dean went to work in the Chicago office of landscape architect Jens Jensen, and subsequently drafted maps for a cartographer. Upon her arrival in New York City, she worked for various architects. She also designed many gardens for the prominent residents of Long Island, including Gray Gardens (around 1913). Then in 1915, she opened her first office in the city. It is reported “Dean’s designs showed a modernist sensibility and featured simple yet functional spatial divisions, well-chosen garden details, and a harmonious relationship with architectural elements.” Source and Image: https://www.tclf.org/

Dean’s work in Grosse Pointe resulted in her becoming the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Architectural League of New York’s Gold Medal for the three gardens she had designed in the community. Images are courtesy of: Architectural Forum magazine (October 1929).

  • 180 Ridge Road for Ledyard Mitchell (around 1925)

  • 354 University Place for Howard Bonbright (around 1929)

  • 290 Provencal for Hiram Walker (around 1924)

It is reported “these gardens embodied her stylistic signature, with their series of enclosed garden rooms; thoughtfully composed mixtures of trees and shrubs and of evergreen, deciduous, and native species; and simple color combinations. Source: https://www.tclf.org/. Ruth Bramley Dean passed away in 1932, in New York, aged 43.

Ellen Biddle Shipman, Eleanor Roache, and Ruth Bramley Dean helped spearhead the growth of landscape architecture during the early 20th Century. They were not only pioneers in their field but helped transform the profession for generations to come. The gardens they created in Grosse Pointe were truly beautiful.


*Photos courtesy of the Higbie Maxon Agney archives unless stated.
** Research, information, and data sources are deemed reliable, but accuracy cannot be fully guaranteed.


Written by Katie Doelle
Copyright © 2023 Katie Doelle