Clermont Lee – ground-breaking landscape architect

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.”

All aboard: Hello, Minot

Savannah Morning News

Feb. 26, 2017

The day after a 7,000-mile Amtrak train trip across the the northern part of the country on the Empire Builder, down the California coast on the Pacific Surfliner, then east on the Southwest Chief before catching the Capitol Limited and finally the Silver Star to Savannah, I sat up in my own bed and thought, “Why have we stopped? What’s going on? Where am I?”

Things were too quiet, too still. Something must be wrong with a coupler or a signal light. We must be waiting for a freight train to pass (freight trains have priority over Amtrak’s passenger trains and they’re not always very generous). Or was it Elyssa, a mechanic, dressed for bear, wielding her duct-tape-wrapped blow torch, who appeared early one morning in our car to unfreeze the sinks and shower? “They’re all froze up,” she said.

That was in Minot (rhymes with “Why not?”), North Dakota. We had stopped at 8 a.m. for a smoke break. And there was that issue with the frozen switches.  No kidding. The bank clock read “0 degrees.” A few weeks later on a return trip through Albuquerque, New Mexico, the conductor called the same stop a “fresh air break.” Same thing as far as I could see. “If you detrain” – that’s a word they use (really!) for when you step outside – “watch your time. We will not be waiting around for you.”

Trains are like that. Rumbling along at 79 miles an hour, they bring everything down to a human level. “Raise your hand if you need a 7:30 dinner reservation,” said a sharply dressed attendant striding through the car as if he were walking around the park, so comfortable was he with the rocking and rolling of the train. At night passengers slip off their shoes for slippers, young children change into one-piece flannel pajamas. During the day experienced travelers set up shop in the double-decker, floor-to-ceiling observation cars. Some knit. Others read, play solitaire, work crossword puzzles called Holy Land Places, watch movies. Or they look out the window at machine shops, spray-painted walls, old opera houses, boarded-up shops, rivers, waterfalls, hills, ballfields, scenes out of Edward Hopper.

The observation car is where you get some of your best conversations. That’s where I met an Amish couple. Their children (or maybe they weren’t their children but they were dressed alike) were playing Bible Bingo when I started talking to the adults. They were heading home to Indiana. The missus had just had dental transplant surgery in Tijuana, Mexico. They detrained in San Diego, walked across the street to the commuter train, caught the blue line and got off in San Ysidro at the Mexican border.

“Then we walked up with our passports – and a big smile – to the immigration office, passed through and took a taxi to the dentist’s office,” her husband said.

They were there in a hotel for one week. The first night was free. The dentist pulled all her teeth and prepped her for two implants. They’ll return in two months.

The Amish don’t like to fly. It’s too fast paced. This couple runs a general store. They put all their expenses on an Amtrak credit card – “See?” he said, holding up the card – and then travel on points. They seemed to be traveling with nine or ten friends. It was hard to tell who knew whom.

On the Empire Builder I spotted two more couples sitting with a beautiful triple-decker homemade coconut cake in the middle of a table in the observation car. One of the men – a professor in downstate Illinois – was celebrating a 65th birthday. When I eyed the cake they picked up the clue and gave me a piece and that’s when we got to talking. They were headed to Spokane, Wash., to interview a 90-year-old uncle. But before that they planned on stopping for a return visit to the Izaak Walton Inn at the foot of Glacier National Park in Montana.

When I got back to my seat I started thinking about the Inn, called them up and made a reservation for that night.  I was traveling on a 30-day USA Rail Pass. This allowed me to get on and off the train 12 times. I already had several segments planned for visits in Minnesota, Oregon and California.

That night around 8 I grabbed my suitcase, waited for the Essex, Mont. stop, and met up again with my four new friends. The inn had sent a van for us. The Essex station is what they call a flag station. The only people who get on and off are going to this Inn. There is very little to do in Essex. “It was the cake,” one of the men said when he saw me. “You wanted more cake.”

The Inn, which included rooms in several old refurbished cabooses, was built in 1939 by the Great Northern Railway for lodging railway workers. There are no televisions and no cell service. Digital detox at the Izaak Walton. My room was on the second floor. In the morning I woke to the sound of a crackling fire in the fireplace. Many people go there for the cross-country skiing. I considered it until I stepped outside and looked at the thermometer. Three degrees. Then I looked at my sneakers and jeans and opted for the outdoor hot tub. By the time I slid into the steamy water the first few inches of a predicted 30-inch snow fall had just begun floating overhead.

That night I caught the same 8 p.m. westward bound train, snuggled into my coach seat and fell asleep. No too many people travel that direction in winter so I had two seats to myself most of the way. In the morning I awoke to what I learned was the wild and wooly Columbia River running between us and the Cascade Mountains for what seemed like hours. A thin layer of snow dusted abandoned cars, the red roofs of train stations and parked Airstream trailers much like it covered that triple-decker homemade coconut cake. Time stood still.

By the time I got back to Savannah I had one segment left on my Rail Pass. I could still go somewhere. But how would I get home?