Clermont Huger Lee
2017 Inductee, Georgia Women of Achievement
City, Town, Region
Born in Savannah to a well-off family, Lee’s father a physician and her mother active in the local garden club, she was first sent to private schools in Savannah and Charleston at sixteen. She then attended Barnard College in New York City, where she became captivated with the sciences. She later transferred to Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, eventually deciding to major in landscape architecture. After completing her undergraduate degree, she attend the Smith College Graduate School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (formerly the Cambridge School) near Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, obtaining a master’s of landscape architecture degree in 1939. Although Harvard was, at the time, the center for forward thinking modernist “Bauhaus” architecture, Lee always preferred designing traditional, more southern, less severe, landscape styles.
Then in the 1940s, a family friend requested she draw plans for a small garden at their plantation, Hofwyl-Broadfield in Brunswick Georgia, based on ca. 1910 photographs. It was her first foray into re-creating a garden that had previously existed. Local poet, author and historianLaura Palmer Bell, and the Georgia Historical Society then requested Lee make measured drawings of ten Victorian gardens in Savannah fearing they would become lost to neglect. Additionally, the Colonial Dames of America had just purchased the historic Andrew Low home in Savannah and asked Lee to develop a historically correct planting plan for the formal gardens. These commissions confirmed her belief that detailed research on antebellum plants and planting styles needed to be accomplished. She researched over 30 books on plantings and garden styles in order to provide for the Low home as authentic a garden as possible. After almost 10 years Clermont Lee left the Sea Island Company to set up her own practice in 1949, thereby becoming the first female professional landscape architect in private practice in Savannah.
For the remainder of her career, Lee continued to be involved in historic landscape reproduction, research and maintenance. She was a leader, a pioneer, in championing accurate gardens for historic homes, despite the simplified Colonial Revival viewpoint in favor at the time. She provided a historically correct garden to compliment the 150 year-old Owens-Thomas House on Oglethorpe Square in Savannah. Later, she provided appropriate designs and planting plans for the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, and the Green-Meldrim mansion. She provided oversight and maintenance for the Owens-Thomas gardens for almost 15 years.She also worked outside of Savannah, consulting on the Chief Vann residence and the New Echota Cherokee capital in north Georgia for the Georgia Historical Commission, as well as developing a master plan for the Jekyll Island historic village.
Mills B. Lane, Jr., the president of the influential Citizens and Southern Bank, and his wife, were very concerned at that time at the loss of historic integrity in the northeast section of Savannah. They were buying and renovating historic properties, and asking Clermont Lee to design appropriate landscapes for them. But even more importantly, Lane wanted to work alongside the city to develop plans to renovate the squares and stop their deterioration. From1951 to 1972 Clermont Lee developed and oversaw the renovation and installation of five of Savannah’s squares: Warren, Washington, Greene, Troupe and Madison.
Her designs to preserve and restore the sanctity of the squares brought her into conflict with the city. The city wanted drive-through lanes installed for emergency crews and buses to cross the middle of all squares. Lee, ever the crusader and pioneer, discovered the companies that controlled the bus lines were at the base of the complaints. The turning radius of the antebellum squares were too tight for the length of the buses to turn easily. Lee suggested rounding the curves of entry into the squares, rather than destroying the squares with drive-through lanes. This suggestion was eventually adopted by the city, thus retaining the squares intact as we see them today. The squares Lee designed remain with little change, an oasis for the surrounding residential neighborhoods and visitors. Strolling through one of Lee’s squares today is to experience her clear, timeless design and appreciate the fact that these designs are 40 to 50 years old.
Lee was especially active in the prosperous neighborhood of Savannah’s Ardsley Park, first developed in 1910, but mostly built later in the 1930s-1950s. Ardsley Park was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Clermont Lee, one of the few women active in the field of landscape architecture in Georgia, was anxious to have her profession legitimately recognized locally. The relatively new field of landscape architecture had a professional organization founded in 1899, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). Clermont Lee joined the ASLA in 1950. Although encouraging registration, the ASLA does not license landscape architects, that is done by individual state legislatures. In 1958, Clermont Lee worked in conjunction with Dr. Hubert Owens, then dean of the Department of LandscapeArchitecture at the University of Georgia, to establish the Georgia State Board for Registration of Landscape Architects. The first four people to be registered included both Dr. Owens as the first and Clermont Lee as the fourth, and as the first woman. Interestingly, the next 125 registered were male civil engineers, alarmed that certified landscape architects could take their work. Lee continued on the Georgia Board for three years.
In Georgia landscapes architects had many obstacles to overcome. For many years and for whatever reason, members of the ASLA were not allowed to advertise, creating a professional handicap. Traditionally, the few jobs available were awarded to male landscape architects.Often word of mouth or speaking engagements for garden clubs were a woman’s only means of recognition. Clermont Lee achieved remarkable success given the obstacles she faced. Again and again, she proved her professional and personal determination and pioneering spirit in her long career of more than sixty-five years. She not only made history for women in the landscape profession, but also had a lasting impact on the quality of Savannah’s historic landscape environment. Clermont Lee died in Savannah on June 14, 2006.