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Steele, Fletcher (1885-1971) | Lake Forest College Archives and Special Collections

Name: Steele, Fletcher (1885-1971)
Fuller Form: Steele, J. Fletcher

Historical Note:

Born in Rochester, New York, to well-to-do parents, from 1915 to 1971 Fletcher Steele designed seven hundred gardens and is recognized as a key figure in the transition in his field from Beaux Arts to modernist influences.  Steele, a Williams College graduate, attended Harvard's then new program in landscape architecture until in 1908 Warren Manning invited him to discontinue his coursework and to join him in his Boston landscape design office. Under Manning Steele learned office organization, client management, and project construction supervision. 

It is very likely through these last two that Steele first visited Lake Forest where Manning had annual spring consultations with Cyrus and Harriet Hammond McCormick relating to their Walden estate. 

By the spring of 1913 Steele sought to further his education with a four month tour of Europe.  When he returned he chose to begin his own landscape and garden design practice, with his first garden for a client begun in 1915, Rolling Ridge for Ethan Allen, North Andover, Massachusetts.  Here the water cascade and staircase down a hillside below the pool recalls both Italian gardens and perhaps more specifically Charles A. Platt's Villa Turicum cascade and stairs to down the bank to Lake Michigan at Lake Forest, completed in the 1908-13 period immediately south of Walden for Cyrus McCormick's brother Harold and his spouse, Edith Rockefeller McCormick.  (See Kim Coventry et al., Classic Country Estates of Lake Forest..., W.W. Norton, 2003, pp. 142 and 146-47, and compare the illustration in Karson's 2003 revised study on p. 26 with one on p. __ of Louis V. LeMoyne's 1921 second edition of Country residences in Europe and America.)

Steele is also credited in Karson's revised study with three 1923 commissions in Lake Forest: for Francis Farwell on Stone Gate (probably demolished); Charles B. Pike on Lake Road (apparently explaining the change of sculptures from illustrations in a 1922 article on the work of Henry Dangler and and David Adler to 1917 to those now in place); and Charles Schweppe, Mayflower Road (including both the subdivided-off pool and also the courtyard for the residence, both extant).  Then in 1930, very likely in conjunction with a visit to the summer program of the Foundation for Architecture and Landscape Architecture (FALA), contributed to the design of the landscape for Adler's 1928 Richard Bentley Dutch and South African styled residence, Lake Road (work that perhaps was extended or revised by Annette Hoyt Flanders in 1939 after a late 1930s addition, shown in a photo essay by Arthur H. Miller in David Adler, Architect...., ed. Martha Thorne [Yale U. Press and the Art Institute of Chicago, 2002], pp. 168-75).  Further research is needed to sort out these attributions to Steele from others mostly in Lake Forest Garden Club archives sources, in the College library Special Collections, and in Adler records at the Art Institute of Chicago department of architecture and design. 

Steele's most well-known extant design, Naumkeag, 1929-35, would have been incomplete by the time this collection of photographs was given to the FALA summer program collection, probably in 1930 or 1931.  But the modernist trends seen at this project also appear in other designs, as shown in this small collection of images.  By this time, too, David Adler was embracing Art Deco in his Lake Forest landscapes for the William E. Clows (1927) and the Alfred Hamills (1928), which Steele may well have seen while in the community.  Unlike Adler, though, who died in 1949, Steele was able to continue his work into the revived economic years of the 1950s and 1960s (Gilbert, Milton, MA; Chapin, Grosse Pointe Farms, MI; Turner, Pittsfield, MA; etc.), returning to classic and modernist expressions then. 

After Steele's 1971 death, his professional papers were left to the American Society of Landscape Architects, with the documents going to the Library of Congress and the photographs, thirty-two bound volumes with negatives and slides, and several volumes of client plant orders, etc. to the library of the college of Environmental Science and Forestry, SUNY Syracuse.


Adler, David, archives.  Department of Architecture and Design, Art Institute of Chicago. 

Coventry, Kim, Daniel Meyer and Arthur H. Miller.  Classic Country Estates of Lake Forest, Architecture and Landscape Design, 1856-1940.  New york: W.W. Norton, 2003. 

David Adler, Architect: The Elements of Style, ed. Martha Thorne.  New Haven and Chicago: Yale University Press and the Art Institute of Chicago, 2002. 

"Fletcher Steele Biography," Fletcher Steele collection website, SUNY ESF. 

Karson, Robin.  Fletcher Steele, Landscape Architect: An Account of the Gardenmaker's Life, 1885-1971. Revised edition.  Amherst: Library of American Landscape History, 2003.

Lake Forest Garden Club.  Archives, Special Collections, Donnelley and Lee Library, Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, IL.

Note Author: Arthur H. Miller, Archivist and Librarian for Special Collections, amiller@lakeforest.edu

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