Early life and education
Alice Elizabeth Recknagel was born April 24, 1911 in Brooklyn, New York, to Harold S. and Rea Estes Recknagel. Her father was an attorney who worked in the insurance industry. Alice and her sister Catherine were the fourth generation to grow up in the house at 45 Willow Street.
As so often happens with avid gardeners, Alice had a very early introduction to growing things. In her case it was under the tutelage of her grandfather, Ellery Estes, during summers spent on the family farm in Green Harbor, Massachusetts. Alice helped her grandfather in his vegetable garden and was given a small plot of her own in which to grow flowers.
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), established in 1910, was under development through her youth. Once her interest in plants was awakened, she volunteered at the BBG and ended up doing any job they had. In the process, she got extensive, invaluable, hands-on experience of a kind not usually available to a child in the city. While studying at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, she made a list of “things she could do with plants” and did some research into the field of landscape architecture. A friend suggested she look into the Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a school for women, founded by Harvard professors in 1916, when Harvard did not admit women as graduate students. The School offered an intensive professional training program leading to a masters degree for those who held a B.A. or a Certificate for those who did not.
Alice Recknagel earned her certificate in 1935 and went to work for Packer alumna Marjorie Sewell Cautley in New Jersey. She taught gardening at Silver Lake Camp in Hawkeye, New York, in the summer of 1936 and worked at the nursery of W.J. Manning in Duxbury, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1937.
Career in Landscape Architecture
In February 1936 Alice began working for the landscape architect Charles Lowrie. Lowrie and his staff of five worked mostly on housing developments and public parks. When the Depression forced Lowrie to let most of the staff go, he kept Alice on. Out of necessity, she learned to do a bit of everything around the office, including typing, filing, cleaning, and errands as well as rendering, “inking,” and visiting job sites. It was an experience she later described as “a wonderful way to learn.” When Lowrie died suddenly in September 1939, Alice was asked to take over his clients, but only five of them agreed to stay with her. One project she completed was the planting plan for the Red Hook Housing Project in Brooklyn.
After Lowrie’s death, Alice pieced together a variety of jobs, from giving gardening talks on the radio and writing articles for newspapers to working in collaboration with Cambridge School alumnae Cynthia Wiley and Clara Coffey. With Wiley and Coffey, she designed playgrounds for the New York City Parks Department and landscape plans for housing in New York City, Niagara Falls, New Rochelle, Detroit, and New Jersey. She also did special projects for landscape architects Arthur F. Brinckerhoff and A. Carl Stelling and architects Lorimer Rich (for whom she made a planting plan for the Tomb of the Unknowns) and I. Naftali. In the spring of 1941 and the fall of 1943 she taught a landscape gardening course at Connecticut College.
At the wedding of her Cambridge School roommate in 1942, Alice met Henry Tillinghast Ireys III, a Virginia Military Institute graduate who was working for a construction firm in New York City. They married in 1943. After the birth of their first child in 1946, Alice closed the Manhattan office and set up shop at home on Willow Street.
Once the children were in school, with a lot of assistance from her mother (who lived with them), Ireys resumed a busier work schedule. Though the majority of her work was residential gardens for private citizens, Alice also designed gardens for churches, hospitals, libraries, historical societies, and schools. In the 1950s these included gardens for the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Home for Children, Brooklyn House for Aged Men, the Thoracic Hospital, and several projects at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Among these was the Garden of Fragrance for the Blind (renamed the Alice Recknagel Ireys Fragrance Garden in 2001), the first such garden and the BBG’s satellite 12-acre Clark Memorial Garden on Long Island (now the Clark Botanic Garden).
From the late 1950s until the early 1980s Ireys regularly taught at the Landscape Design Schools run by the Federated Garden Clubs. These schools educated garden club members in the principles of “good landscape architectural practice” so that they could “serve as guardians and critics of outdoor beauty in the U.S.A.” One major aim of the schools was to further the profession by educating potential board and committee members to advocate for professional planning of public outdoor areas.
In 1987 Ireys began an association with the venerable seed company, W. Atlee Burpee & Co, which had been purchased by her clients Carter and Suzanne Bales. Alice designed theme gardens for their seed, plant, and bulb catalogs. Customers who bought these “designed gardens” received a copy of the plan and all seeds, bulbs, or plants needed to reproduce the design. The most popular of these designs were published as part of the Burpee American Gardens series in 1991. In the same year Burpee also published Designs for American Gardens. Similar in format to her earlier works, it used a selection of Ireys’ built designs to provide ideas and demonstrate principles for small and large gardens.
Major Buildings and Projects
- Fragrance Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn, NY (1955)
- Landscape Plan, 1939 World’s Fair, Queens, NY (1939)
- Brooklyn Heights Townhouse Garden, Brooklyn, NY
Press and Awards
- Zaitzesky, Cynthia. Long Island Landscapes and the Women Who Designed Them, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.
- Dietz, Paula. “Alice Ireys, 89, Dies; Designed Elegant Landscapes Bridging Traditions,” New York Times 17 December 2000.
- Distinguished Service Medal, Brooklyn Botanic Garden (1994)
- Quill and Trowel Award, Garden Writers’ Association of America (1992).
- Liberty Hyde Bailey Award, American Horticultural Society (1991).
- FASLA (1978 — First woman Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects)
- Designs for American Gardens, W. Atlee Burpee & Company, 1991.
- Garden Designs, W. Atlee Burpee & Company, 1991.
- Small Gardens for City and Country 1978.
- “A Hillside Garden,” Flower and Garden, 1976.
- “Let’s Have a Fruit Garden This Year,” Horticulture, May 1975.
- “The Approach to the Garden,” The Brownstoner 1975.
- How to Plan and Plant Your Own Property, M. Barrows & Company, 1967.
- “Junipers are Useful,” Horticulture November 1966.
- “Azalea Garden,” New York Times 1965.
- “Master Planner: A Landscape Architect Sets the Home Scene,” New York Times 5 February 1961.
- “Landscape the Swimming Pool,” New York Times 7 September 1961.
- “Guide for Novices,” New York Times 19 September 1954.
- “Backyard Garden,” New York Times 7 April 1946.
- “Juvenile Delinquency in Brooklyn,” Brooklyn Eagle 13 February 1941.
- “Charm Comes to a City Garden,” New York Sun 22 February 1941.
- “The Garden Life: James E. Cross of Long Island, New York,” Garden Design Winter 1983.