The Man Who Built South Florida: The Landscape Designs of William Lyman Phillips

Imagine the wilderness of South Florida. In your head, right now. Born and raised native, resident, or visitor, everyone can concoct a vision of sprawling mangroves clasping the shoreline, sawgrass slicing through the slough, or lush sea grape hanging over the sand dunes. Feel the breeze. Let any version of being outside in the tropics come into your thoughts. Relax.

Fairchild Tropical Garden, Nov. 1943

There’s a man who lived in Miami who is almost solely responsible for whatever you just visualized. And you’ve most likely never heard of him. His name is William Lyman Phillips and he is one of the most important people in the history of Miami’s current physical landscape and throughout its nascent history. In South Florida alone, an incomplete list of places he had a hand in, or led the landscape design on, is as follows: the Overseas Highway to the Keys, Venetian and Rickenbacker Causeways, Royal Palm State Park in the Everglades, Matheson Hammock, Fairchild Tropical Garden, Greynolds Park, Crandon Park, Virginia Key, Haulover, Fruit and Spice and of course, the University of Miami. Outside of students of landscape architecture and scholars of Miami history, his name is almost entirely unknown.

William Lyman Phillips was born in West Somerville, Massachusetts in 1885 and was very much a product of his environment. Born to a middle class family that summered every year in Maine, his mother was a housewife and father was a man of letters. First a high school principal, then a chemist in a paper mill, his father’s interests were varied; he published a book of poetry and believed steadfastly in education for both men and women. Phillips grew up in what we might imagine as an idyllic, white, middle class turn-of-the-century life, all the while diligently sketching his environs in Massachusetts and Maine.

William Lyman Phillips
(photo courtesy of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden)

As a young man, Phillips attended Harvard University in in 1910 in the newly formed and innovative program awarding Masters of Landscape Architecture degrees under Charles Eliot and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the son of Frederick Law Olmsted who famously designed Central Park in New York City and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Harvard was establishing a groundbreaking new field of study that combined architecture, design, civil engineering, the arts, horticulture, geology, and countless other disciplines needed in order to manipulate natural landscapes to enhance both their usefulness and their beauty. They were focused on unifying all of the elements of landscape—such as plants, water, architecture and their form, color and scale—into a seamless and integrated experience for people. There was a need for landscape architects because of the vast swaths of land the United States had that was yet to be properly cultivated in the early 20th century. The program also put into place the basic tenets of the field of study which is still very much in demand today. Phillips graduated and was immediately offered a job with the Olmsted Brothers firm, evidence of his already burgeoning mastery of the field.

But he passed on the offer, hoping to create some distance from his teachers and make a name in his own right. After university, he went to work in Montreal, but ended up returning to America to finally work for the Olmsted Brothers, a partnership that would influence all of them for the rest of their lives. Phillips briefly left their employ to go on “the Grand Tour,” travelling around Europe, sketching every possible landscape and soaking in what his predecessors on the continent had developed. While there, he was offered a position working in Panama in the area surrounding a new canal project. Afterward he bounced around various design and architecture jobs until 1924 when he was sent by the Olmsted Brothers to head up the Mountain Lake Sanctuary, now famous for its gothic revival Bok Tower. He was finally in Florida, where he would find inspiration in the tropics for the rest of his life and make an indelible mark on the land with his work.

A good deal of Phillips’ Florida work was done for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a New Deal national public works revitalization initiative launched by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the Great Depression. Phillips joined this project in 1933 and contributed until 1941 as the project superintendent for Royal Palm Park in the Everglades, Greynolds, Matheson Hammock, Fairchild, and others. Still today, these are many people’s introductory points for understanding and experiencing tropical cultivated landscapes.

As Phillips wrote, “the swamp is silent, windless, monotonous,” a feeling no person wants when outside for a pleasant stroll. In his work, Phillips took the wild and actually dangerous and tamed it for human consumption. He removed the treachery of the swamp and made it leisurely, while still allowing the wild to be present and felt. This is the reality we experience and feel; his work has profoundly affected how both residents and visitors alike understand South Florida.

Matheson Hammock: An early, ill-conceived conservation attempt

It takes two eight foot tables to hold one of the 87 massive folders, that each contain a stack of the original drawings, blueprints and photographs of William Lyman Phillips’ landscape design work. Some of the drawings, nearly 100 years old, have been taped in a show of early and misguided restoration, the adhesive dark brown of the tape deeply aged with chips of the aging paper fallen off. They are meticulously drawn, as architectural designs are, on both blue and brown print paper. The most beautiful moments of handling the old sketches are the considerable and colorful plant bunchings, in various hues, as well as the hundreds of lines of scientific classifications for each species included, representative of Phillips’ methodical style and hands-on approach.

Joanna Lombard, Professor of the University of Miami School of Architecture, knows these drawings well and has written extensively about Phillips. She confirms he was influential in picking these tree and plant bunchings. Phillips, Lombard explains, was hyper focused on the need for local plants, and recognized that taking out the native, and bringing in things people thought were beautiful, was wrong. According to Lombard, he believed in the place—South Florida—and understood that Florida is a place of subtlety. Of Phillips’ mindset in creating, she says he was operating under the assumption that, “we need to frame places that make people live better lives,” and that “it’s not about us, it’s not about this one little moment in time, it’s about how do we connect the deepest ambitions and desires to be significant and how to make places that support that.”

Greynolds Park notes on riverside planting, Dec. 1945

Greynolds Park is a good example of Phillips’ vision, which, according to Lombard, was built upon an ancient marine terrace that reaches as far as Jacksonville. During his time with the CCC, he was hired to build the park, donated by A.O. Greynolds of the Ojus Rock Company. The rock on site was used to build early road systems all over South Florida and the property even included several old quarries, pieces of left-behind machinery, and an abandoned spur of the Florida East Coast Railroad, which created an elevation on the site. He changed the quarry pits into lagoons and lakes, while clearing extensive trails through the mangrove but leaving the hammock intact. Utilizing the elevation—and needing a way to get rid of the abandoned machinery—he collected all of the equipment and covered it with stone and built a coral rock castle on top of it for an observation mound, one of the most iconic features of any Miami-Dade park. In 1936 when the park opened to regular people who didn’t work in a fancy office building or couldn’t afford a trip in an airplane, it was the only elevation they could experience. Phillips’ topographic studies and planting plans for Greynolds are in Special Collections.

The impetus for this particular piece of writing was a request from the Miami-Dade Parks and Recreation department. They reached out to Special Collections in order to continue compiling Phillips’ designs for their archive. Explains Maria Nardi, Deputy Director of Miami-Dade Parks, “his work is instrumental in establishing the framework of the parks system in Miami-Dade County.” Nardi herself studied Phillips as a graduate student and helped save some of his designs from destruction before Hurricane Andrew. William Lyman Phillips designed six of the seven “Heritage Parks” in Miami-Dade County, a designation reserved for the largest and most important green spaces we have. She goes on to explain that “today these drawings are instrumental in the reclamation of an extraordinary design legacy for the Miami-Dade County Parks Department.” It should be comforting to the city of Miami that Nardi, so carefully cognizant of Phillips’ work and overall importance, is overseeing our parks today.

Matheson Hammock Fishing Concession, Nov. 1943

In Special Collections, the drawings and designs themselves show Phillips’ seal and signature, presented in a businesslike and unassuming fashion. The rest of his life’s work is spread out. University of Miami has these 87 crucial folders of drawings which encompass his work at Miami sites such as Woodlawn Cemetery and the Indian Creek Club. There are also designs for Greynolds, Redland, Phipps, Matheson Hammock and Fairchild Tropical Gardens and his work at the University of Miami amongst others. Harvard University has his professional correspondence, more drawings and his thesis, while HistoryMiami has his personal papers, journals, and correspondence.

It’s rare that one person has such a wide sweeping influence on the natural face of an entire city. Green space in Miami today remains what Phillips originally envisioned. What Phillips did with these places was mold a raw and dangerous natural landscape into a polished and imperfect microcosm. Obtained through the balance of the wild and the cultivated, the work of William Lyman Phillips is now the only way we understand the genesis of South Florida as a built experience.

Nathaniel Sandler, Book Detective for UM Special Collections