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Laura Leggett Barnes

Laura Leggett Barnes

Laura Barnes

My first project at the Foundation was processing the Laura Barnes papers. It was clear to me that, as the feminist slogan goes, “behind every great man is a great woman.” As Dr. Barnes was passionate about art education, Mrs. Barnes was the champion of horticulture. 

Dr. Barnes met Laura Leggett while both were vacationing in Milford, Pennsylvania in the summer of 1900. They became engaged in October 1900 and married on June 4, 1901 in Brooklyn.

With the establishment of the Foundation, Mrs. Barnes was appointed vice president of the Board of Trustees. Throughout her life she attended landscape architecture, horticulture, and botany courses; assembled a small library of horticulture and botanical books; travelled to see famous gardens abroad; and corresponded with arboretums and horticulturists all over the country. She was heavily involved with the activities of the Arboretum and began adding to the living collections in 1922. Following the death of Captain Wilson in 1928, she became the director of the Arboretum.

In 1940, with the help of Assistant Professor of Botany and Curator of the Herbarium of the University of Pennsylvania’s Morris Arboretum Dr. John Milton Fogg Jr., Mrs. Barnes began the Arboretum School of the Barnes Foundation. The Arboretum School’s mission was, and remains today, to provide courses in practical, scientific, and aesthetic phases of botany, horticulture, and landscape architecture. She taught classes from 1940–1966, including Plant Materials, Cultivated Shrubs, and Cultivated Trees.

While going through these materials, it became obvious that Mrs. Barnes was strict on attendance, not allowing students to stay on if they missed three classes. Her students, however, were extremely grateful and sent many cards expressing thanks for the classes and field trips. 

student letter
(click letter for full-size version)

Laura Barnes also contributed heavily to the landscaping of Ker-Feal, the Barnes’ Chester County home. She designed the terrace garden, planted fruit trees and flowers, and converted a quartz quarry into a botanical garden.

Following Dr. Barnes’s death in 1951, she became president of the Board of Trustees. The condolence letters that she received are particularly moving and display the love and respect he had commanded.

Letter from the Morgans

Altripp letter        Bond letter
(click letters for full-size versions)

Laura Leggett Barnes died on April 29, 1966, at the age of 91. Most of her estate was left to Philadelphia-area hospitals; her personal art collection, which was separate from that of the Foundation, was left to the Brooklyn Museum.

Although it is difficult to get a sense of her as a woman via her own papers, since they are not personal in nature, I found it helpful to read through oral histories. Her students recall her love of the color blue, of lilacs, and her immense pride in the grounds at Ker-Feal. Faculty recount her ability to stand up to Dr. Barnes despite his strong personality. As Dr. Fogg described her in a 1979 oral history, “Everybody who came in touch with her was very impressed, I think by her personality…she lived, of course, under the shadow of Dr. Barnes, who was [an] outspoken, almost overbearing character. And yet, she held her own with him. She knew her mind and he wasn’t going to push her around.”

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