Cornell University, 410 Thurston Ave, Ithaca, NY 14850
Llenroc, 100 Cornell Ave, Ithaca, NY 14850
Salisbury cemetery, 29-99 Under Mountain Rd, Salisbury, CT 06068
Lawson was the winner of the first Rome Prize landscape competition in 1915. His greatest “work” was launching the careers of two of the most powerful landscape architects of the 20th century: Gilmore D. Clarke, a Cornell classmate whom Lawson talked into studying landscape architecture, and Michael Rapuano, Lawson’s most gifted student, whom he later persuaded Clarke to hire.
Lawson was born on October 29, 1884, in the heart of Buffalo’s working-class East Side, then a heavily German and Jewish quarter. According to census records, his grandparents emigrated from Bavaria and Denmark; his father, John F. Lawson, was a widower by 1918 who worked as a baker, machinist, and glassmaker. Lawson was able to attend Cornell because the “Rural Art” program was part of the New York State College of Agriculture, making tuition free. He matriculated, at age 25, as a freshman in 1909, but he proved to be a gifted designer and quickly rose to the top of his class. He completed his baccalaureate degree in 1913 and immediately began graduate work in the design history of gardens, working simultaneously for Townsend and Fleming, the practice Bryant Fleming—founder of the Cornell program—had formed a decade earlier. Despite his bookish bent, Lawson was industrious. “I never had a boy come into the office and turn out the work as Lawson had done,” Fleming later wrote. His largest project was to survey and design the new College of Agriculture quadrangle at Cornell.
Shortly after completing his master’s degree in 1915, Lawson made a bid for the recently announced inaugural Rome Prize Fellowship in Landscape Architecture. Lawson threw himself into the competition, spending whole nights in the studio and hardly breaking even for meals. “He worked exceedingly hard,” recalled E. Gorton Davis, Lawson’s mentor, “and was in a very exhausted condition on its completion, so much so that we were worried about him.” But Lawson won the prize. He defeated two Harvard students among others—Bremer Pond and Elbert Peets—who would go on to successful careers of their own. Pond and Peets were students of the powerful Harvard professor and ASLA officer James Sturgis Pray, who was infuriated that this upstart from the wrong side of the tracks was chosen over his protégés. Unfortunate for Lawson, the Harvard don was to be his Rome Prize adviser. Lawson could do nothing right by Pray, who seemed intent on destroying the younger man’s reputation. Lucky for him, another powerful ASLA official—the aristocratic Florentine Ferruccio Vitale—rose to Lawson’s defense. During his Rome Prize Fellowship, Lawson sketched villas in Rome, Tuscany, and Umbria, took 600 photographs of garden details, drew Piranesi’s entrance to the Villa Borghese, and began translating Maria Pasolini Ponti’s Il Giardino Italiano. His luminous measured drawings of the Villa Gamberaia in Settignano set standards for landscape draftsmanship at the academy for a generation.
Like many other fellows, Lawson signed on for service with the Red Cross during World War I. He was posted first to Ravenna and then Rimini on the Adriatic, where a hospital had just opened for Venetian refugees. When Rimini was bombed by torpedo boats, the Red Cross called him back to Rome to serve as secretary to deputy commissioner Chester H. Aldrich, himself an architect with academy ties. Lawson’s drafting skills were put to use preparing maps, and he remained with the Red Cross until after the Armistice, assisting efforts to resettle the great tide of refugees.
In the summer of 1919 Lawson returned home briefly to visit family and work for several weeks in Bryant Fleming’s office. There he counseled two recent Cornell graduates, Ralph E. Griswold and Norman T. Newton, on Rome Prize competition essentials. It was a fortuitous meeting, for both Griswold and Newton would soon follow Lawson to Italy as recipients of the second and third Rome Prize fellowships in landscape architecture. That fall Lawson was back on the Janiculum. He prepared a planting plan of the Villa Medici, home of the French Academy, completed translating Il Giardino Italiano, and produced magnificent drawings of the Villa Torlonia in Frascati and the Bosco Parrasio. He left his studio in April 1921.
Lawson moved to Paris, where he had a job waiting for him with the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS). Working closely with George Gibbs Jr. of the Olmsted Brothers office, Lawson helped lay out several major cemeteries of the Great War:
Lawson was responsible for the planting design, drafting, and delineation of all AGRS cemeteries, and the earliest known plans of each are all in his hand. In Paris, Lawson also became part of the extraordinary émigré community that formed there following the Great War—Gertrude Stein’s “Lost Generation.” He was almost certainly gay and would have found Paris vastly liberating after the Calvinist provincialism of upstate New York and the stern Catholicism of Italy. Paris in the 1920s was a relative oasis of tolerance for homosexuality, with a flourishing gay subculture of nightclubs and salons—a world evoked by Henry Gauthier-Villars in his 1927 classic, The Third Sex. In France, Lawson continued his studies of European gardens and landscapes, among them Ermenonville, where he studied René de Girardin’s English landscape garden, the site of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s tomb.
In August 1922, Lawson returned home to take up a faculty post at Cornell. It was an auspicious moment, for that summer Landscape Art had been transferred from the College of Agriculture to the College of Architecture, where it became the Department of Landscape Architecture. Just as Lawson had been surrounded by artists and architects at the American Academy, the Cornell students would now be part of a design school’s creative milieu, training alongside their future collaborators. Lawson became a close friend of his student Michael Rapuano and a frequent visitor at the Rapuano home in Syracuse, where Lawson was often a guest at Thanksgiving. Lawson coached his star student for the 1927 Rome Prize competition, which he won handily. Lawson was himself invited back as a visiting professor the following year.
That fall, Rapuano and Lawson embarked on a marathon motor tour to visit hundreds of gardens throughout Italy, France, and Spain, traveling in a secondhand Fiat. For Rapuano, the trip was like a personalized graduate seminar in landscape history and theory. He returned from Italy two years later to a job that Lawson had helped arrange—a coveted position with Gilmore D. Clarke of the Westchester County Park Commission, Lawson’s old Cornell classmate.
Rapuano was not Lawson’s only star student: Richard C. Murdock, recipient of the 1930 Rome Prize, went on to help plan the United Nations Headquarters and the campus of Vanderbilt University. Neil Park won the 1931 competition, squeezing past another Lawson student and finalist, Stanley W. Abbott, who later designed the Blue Ridge Parkway. Morris E. Trotter of Charlotte, North Carolina, won the 1933 Rome Prize and later taught camouflage design at Ohio State during World War II. Lawson’s greatest hitting streak came between 1935 and 1939, when his Cornell boys bagged five consecutive Rome Prize fellowships—James M. Lister in 1935, Robert S. Kitchen in 1936, John F. Kirkpatrick in 1937, Stuart M. Mertz in 1938, and Frederick W. Edmondson in 1939. Lawson shepherded so many students to the American Academy in Rome that its fellowship in landscape architecture became known as the “Cornell Prize.”
But all was not well in Lawson’s life. Colleagues noted his odd tendency to identify more closely with students than faculty peers—a peculiarity Bryant Fleming attributed to the fact that Lawson “had no real family background” and “little or no personal family life.” At the time, Lawson was resident director of Architects’ House—the former Ezra Cornell mansion on the edge of campus that had been converted into a residence for College of Architecture seniors. He helped make the rambling house a home, furnishing it with his own curtains and mirrors, hanging tapestries and prints in the hallways, even putting his Victrola and records out for the students to enjoy.
But early in 1931 something terrible happened at Architects’ House that forced Lawson to leave town so quickly that he left nearly all his possessions behind. As Dean George Young Jr. later put it in a memo, Lawson’s “conduct of Architects’ House came near to disaster for us all.” What exactly occurred remains a mystery, but it may well have had something to do with alcohol. By now Lawson was struggling with a serious drinking problem, and it’s possible he had procured liquor—illegally, of course; this was the height of Prohibition—for a house party that got out of control. Lawson was forced to take an unpaid leave of absence and by September was in Rochester miserably running a solo practice. He desperately missed Cornell and pleaded with Young in letters and phone calls to bring him back. “My ambition in life,” he wrote, “is to teach.”
Chastened, Lawson was finally given his old job back in 1933. The next 10 years were among the most fruitful of his career. In 1935 Gilmore Clarke was appointed Cornell’s first professor of city planning and succeeded Young as dean of the College of Architecture shortly afterward. Clarke was very fond of his old friend, but he had little interest in Renaissance garden design: Clarke regarded Lawson as a charming relic of a lost age.
Lawson was targeted by someone intent on outing his homosexuality, though the identity of his accuser remains a mystery. On March 13, 1943, Lawson was arrested by a federal agent in White Hall and charged with committing mail fraud for having received three letters containing “language of an obscene nature.” Bail was set at $3,000, a huge sum at the time. Lawson quit his job two days later; he would never teach again.
An old Cornell hand, Fitch Hibbard Stephens, was called upon to defend the professor. Gilmore Clarke, still dean of the College of Architecture, moved decisively to save his friend. He wrote a letter of support to the federal judge handling the case, Frederick Bryant, and convinced Cornell President Edmund Ezra Day to do the same. President Day also quietly arranged to have Lawson examined by Dr. Oskar Diethelm, a prominent New York psychiatrist and chair of Cornell’s Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic. He was hospitalized through the spring.
On May 20, Lawson was arraigned at the U.S. District Court in Syracuse. Stephens at first attempted to plead no contest on his client’s behalf. But the prosecuting U.S. Attorney, Ralph L. Emmons—a devout Catholic and father of nine—would not let Lawson off so easily. He objected and the request was refused by the court, after which Stephens entered a guilty plea, imploring Judge Bryant for leniency in his sentence. Here the letters from Clarke and Day proved crucial, for after delivering a stern lecture, Bryant deferred sentencing Lawson pending good behavior. He spared Lawson further humiliation by adjourning the court for lunch until two o’clock but quietly taking up the arraignment a half hour early; thus the court-room was empty, and no reporters were present. Lawson’s bail money was returned, but he was made to post a personal bond of $500. It was backed by sureties from two men who owed Lawson their careers—Gilmore Clarke and Michael Rapuano.
Jobless and disgraced, banished from his beloved Cornell and no longer young, Edward Lawson found refuge in his friendship with Ezra Winter, forged 30 years earlier at the American Academy in Rome. Winter was one of the great mural painters of his generation—his work graces the lobby of Radio City Music Hall and the reading rooms of the Library of Congress—and his wife, Patricia Murphy Winter, was a serial entrepreneur who had just established one of the nation’s first herbal nurseries, the House of Herbs, in Salisbury, Connecticut, near the couple’s 300-acre farm. Lawson became Pat Winter’s aide-de-camp, and the two found solace in each other when, in April 1949, Ezra Winter took his life with a double-barrel shotgun. Lawson remained in Salisbury for 20 years, designing the display garden, testing recipes, brewing and packaging herbal vinegars, and tending the patchwork of planting fields about the homestead.
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