Savannah Morning News
March 5, 2017
Everyone has a Clermont Lee story. And they’re all pretty much the same. They all circle around the same words – curiosity, tenacity, focus – and the same visual memory: Clermont, landscape architect extraordinaire, in khaki pants with brown socks pulled over her pants, a khaki shirt and a hat with a long bill, clipboard in hand, a pair of yellow clippers in her backpack and a 10-power microscope dangling from a string around her neck.
That’s who I saw when I met her some 20 years ago. She was out in a field “botanizing” – her word – and categorizing – another favorite activity – the trees, plants, flowers and vines on a mutual friend’s farm. It was 96 degrees. Clermont was 78 years old and doing what she loved best – keeping track of blooming plants, making lists, looking for unusual behavior in the world of botany. She was finding leaves to pluck, crush and smell, all the better to identify them. On this day at the end of July the leaf came from a beautyberry, “An American beautyberry,” she said. “We used to call them mockingbird leaves.” Into the leaf book a new intact leaf went, along with the botanical name, the common name, the color and a description of where she found it.
Last week Clermont Lee, responsible for designing so many of Savannah’s downtown squares, historic homes and private residences, made it into the Georgia Women of Achievement Hall of Fame. The ceremony, held at Wesleyan College in Macon, also welcomed Atlanta Constitution photographer Caroline MacKenzie Carter and State of Georgia library head Lucile Nix. All three share “first women (in their field)” status.
Clermont’s place in this august line-up was a no-brainer.
As a professional, a woman, a Savannahian, she defied all odds from the get-go. From the Pape School, the predecessor to Savannah Country Day, she went to a girls’ boarding school in Charleston, S.C., where she told me students had to wear white gloves and could never go to town without an escort. In 1932, she made the big leap north to Barnard College in New York City. Two years later she transferred to Smith College in Amherst, Mass.
What did she learn in college? “You don’t strain your brain by using it.”
She didn’t go to school intending to be a landscape architect. She’d never really heard of it. But when it came time to choose a major she couldn’t find anything on the list she thought she could pass. The one subject that piqued her interest was pre-med but she figured there were already enough doctors in the family, namely her father, the late Dr. Lawrence Lee, and two brothers. So she chose the second to the last major on the list – landscape architecture – in which she earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree.
It was a good fit, she said, especially since she always seemed to remember the names of plants better than people, especially since people’s tastes change. “When I first started practicing people bought their plants at the ten cent store,” she said. “Now people associate landscape architecture, really the combination of art and science, with the art of sculpture.”
When she couldn’t find a job up North Clermont, whose nickname was Monty, returned to Savannah. In 1940 she started supervising landscaping for the city’s first low-rent housing projects at Fellwood Homes and Yamacraw Village. Working with the city’s park and tree department – and Mills B. Lane, Jr. – she designed five squares – Warren, Washington, Greene, Troup and Madison.
Stephen Bohlin, director of the Andrew Low House Museum, met her in the late 1970s when he was working at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace.
“I was intimidated by her,” he said from his office. “I had heard of her all my life growing up. Everyone knew of her. When she came to inspect the gardens at the Birthplace, she’d stand with her hands on her hips, look over the whole garden and ask lots of questions. ‘What happened here? Why isn’t that being done there?’ She was practicing xeriscape gardening and looking for native plants in the 30’s, way before anyone else.
She liked sweet violets as border plants – except tending them was like herding cats. They required lots of maintenance. The same with ivy, which were lovely but high maintenance. Same with dianthus. She was fond of tea olives, sweet shrubs and Savannah holly, but she was very much a purist, Bohlin said. She wanted gardens to correspond to the time period of the building.
“She was very firm in her opinion,” he said. “There wasn’t much arguing with her. I think because of her gender she went unrecognized. She had to work hard to get where she was. That might have given her a tough exterior. Now if you ask someone to name a famous Georgian, they might say Scarlett O’Hara. That’s sad, isn’t it? For me it was a privilege to have known Clermont Lee.”