For decades, Joe and I — first, as tourists; now, as residents — have looked around South Florida and said, “Florida, my Eden.” We’ve said it as we’ve marveled at the lush tree canopy of botanical gardens, as we’ve gazed at tables of flowers and fields of shrubs and trees in local nurseries, as we’ve walked about and worked in our own garden, and as I took photos for this post.
We can’t, though, take credit for those three words. That belongs to Frederic B. Stresau, a well-respected and award-winning Florida landscape architect who loved this subtropical landscape. In 1986, his reference book, Florida, My Eden, was published. Its 300 pages of subtropical and tropical plant information, color photographs, and illustrations was the first time anyone had compiled that much material for Florida gardeners.
That honor has stood the test of time. Today’s nursery professionals and landscape architects continue to turn to Florida, My Eden as the Bible of Florida plants — and if the book carries that kind of reputation, one can only imagine how Mr. Stresau is remembered.
Simply stated, Mr. Stresau is the father of landscape architecture in Florida. Born in Massachusetts and raised in Chicago, he and his wife, Anne, graduated from the University of Illinois in 1935. In 1936, the couple followed Mr. Stresau’s parents to South Florida and opened a landscape architecture practice in Miami.
Following World War II, during which Mr. Stresau was the chief site planner for airbases in Bermuda and Brazil, the couple restarted their landscape architecture firm. While their early work focused on residential properties, it slowly expanded to include commercial and civic projects during the 1950s and ‘60s. His work included the glitzy stars of Miami during its Magic City heyday: the Fontainebleau, the Eden Roc, and the Diplomat hotels. There was also Miami International, Fort Lauderdale, and Tampa airports, as well as the American Hotel in San Juan, PR, the Trinidad Hilton Hotel, and the Florida exhibit at the 1964 NY World’s Fair.
While devoted to these projects, Mr. Stresau was also committed to elevating landscape architecture as a licensed profession in Florida. To that end, he worked with the Governor, State Legislature, and Department of Professional Regulation to achieve that goal. It was his belief the general public could benefit from licensed landscape architects for professional advice and knowledge for design, which could then enhance public safety. In the early ‘60s, Mr. Stresau’s dream was realized. Those first committee members were allowed to draw the first-ever Florida landscape architecture licensing numbers. Mr. Stresau’s license number was #5.
If all this weren’t enough, Mr. Stresau founded the Florida chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Over the course of his career, he received countless awards and honors — including two White House recognitions, one from Lady Bird Johnson and another from Pat Nixon. In addition, President Kennedy handpicked Mr. Stresau to accompany six other landscape architects to travel to Japan to study that country’s gardens and techniques.
Like his father, Frederic E. Stresau has a strong attachment to Florida. An alumnus of Fort Lauderdale High School, Mr. Stresau went on to graduate with a degree in Landscape Architecture from North Carolina State University in 1966, after which he registered for his Florida Landscape Architecture License (the same one his father fought for) as #00247. In 1968, he joined his parents’ landscape architecture firm.
Looking at his list of accomplishments, it appears South Florida loves Mr. Stresau as much as he loves South Florida. In 2009, he was voted the Most Distinguished Citizen of the Year and in 2017, as Neighbor Champion — and for very good reasons. Since the early ‘70s, he has held positions on the City of Fort Lauderdale Planning and Zoning Board, the City Board of Adjustments, the City Utility Advisory Committee, the Community Appearance Board, and the Infrastructure Task Force. His input on that committee is helping to shape the future of Fort Lauderdale as it reacts to the challenges created by climate change and rising sea levels.
Additionally, in 2012, Mr. Stresau was one of 32 landscape architects elected as a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects. That honor means he and his father are the only father/son Fellows in the 119-year history of that organization. It only made sense, then, to reach out to Mr. Stresau to gain a better understanding of his father and Florida, My Eden.
As luck would have it, Mr. Stresau and I are neighbors — if you can consider a 15-minute drive neighbors. The New River cuts through the heart of Fort Lauderdale. Mr. Stresau lives south of that river, and I live north. Recently, I contacted Mr. Stresau and despite a tremendously busy schedule, he graciously agreed to answer a few questions.
NGDM: Your father is, essentially, the father of Florida landscaping. What was it about Florida, South Florida in particular, that captivated him?
Frederic E. Stresau: There were several thoughts as to why my parents moved to South Florida:
- [My father] grew up in Chicago and served as a lifeguard on the North Shore. Cold!
- First and foremost, both he and my mother graduated from the University of Illinois. Cold and colder!
- They both went to work upon graduation at the Chicago Parks Department. Cold, Cold and Colder!
- [Dad’s] parents moved to Fort Lauderdale prior to [my] graduation from UI.
- Obviously, the weather influenced their decision to move to South Florida, where he was captivated by the wide landscape pallet of color and texture of the plants.
NGDM: Florida, My Eden is often seen as a groundbreaking work. In your opinion, what about it makes it a go-to reference book for the Florida gardener?
FES: For the first time in the library of the common person, Florida, My Eden, provided enough information for the backyard gardener to make intelligent choices as to what they might use in their gardens.
It is unfortunate that there were several hundred additional plants that were left out of the book, essentially because there just wasn’t space or money to keep adding pages. There are 3’ x 3’ Mylar sheets of drawings that were not used that still rest in my office files.
There has been much talk over the last 25 years, roughly since [my father’s] death in 1989, that I might write a second book on the design and selection of plants in the garden — not my cup of tea, either in the past or the future.
[Ultimately], one must recognize that in writing his book, Frederic B. Stresau was always interested in plant culture — not design. He was first and foremost a plantsman right from grade school through the end of his life. Orchids and their selective pollination were his passion for many, many years.
NGDM: What are the three most common mistakes you find homeowners making in their own yards?
FES: To outline any meaningful discussion on the pitfalls of the homeowners’ choice of plantings is a bit of a larger topic that probably doesn’t fit your format.
[Nevertheless] the larger mistake is underestimation of the growth potential of the plantings and how each plant should interface with the adjacent planting. By interface, I refer to the growth characteristics and spacing.
Secondly would probably be the age-old conflict with sun and shade exposure. New homeowners with little or no understanding select plants that require shade or vice versa. As their site matures, each of the trees they selected gradually shade out plantings that required full sun. That’s the stuff lawsuits are made of, as the homeowner now figures the landscape architect made a mistake in not selecting the proper plant exposure — that actually did come up at one point in my career!
The one glaring mistake that all property owners make is the lack of foresight or understanding for the need of proper maintenance. That includes everything from the use of mulch to the height of the grass cutting to the fertilization and, eventually, the tree trimming for hurricane-proofing one’s property. This lack of understanding of proper maintenance always is a result of the cost of providing the necessary effort to maintain the garden or the bank property.
While most of the landscape professionals stress the limited use of irrigation, most property owners believe more water is better and nothing could be further from the truth. The eventual cost of the unnecessary use of water and the lack of maintenance or deterioration of the irrigation system generally results in the demise of many of the precious plantings brought home from the local garden store.
NGDM: In addition to being landscape architects, both of your parents were avid gardeners. What’s one of your favorite gardening memories with them?
FES: That’s a difficult question to pin down with an answer. I have almost always responded about my guiding design memories that influenced my work and, thusly, my memories of my parents’ professional work as follows:
The academic environment of the early 1930s taught botany, horticulture, and a lot of formal garden design. One traveled, if time and money permitted, to Europe to study historical gardens, fountains, and, perhaps, some city planning. Everything one studies, either in books or in the field, was pretty much formal design in nature.
Thus, [my father’s] landscape design for our garden at our new home in Rio Vista [a Ft. Lauderdale neighborhood] in 1946 and the formal gardens at the Fontainebleau Hotel years later. His very, very formal design for our own residential site included lots of sculpture, flowers, and symmetrically placed trees that defined our backyard.
In 1952-ish, our family vacation took us by car to California, and in the process began [my father’s] study of the curvilinear forms of the new design movement of Thomas Church, Garrett Eckbo, and Roberto Burle Marx.
Upon our return from the West Coast — and buoyed by articles by Grady Clay, editor of Sunset Magazine, our backyard was immediately torn up and a new, much more modern design constructed. A free-form patio, a new curvilinear wall, and steps announced a small but delicate grade change on what had been a flat backyard, a highly articulated screening fence, and, of course, the introduction of all kinds of plant textures and colors not even considered in the formal gardens of the past.
NGDM: I read on the Cultural Landscape Foundation website that your father tutored you in landscape architecture. What was a key philosophy he instilled in you?
FES: I was fortunate, some say, to grow up in the office. There was no money for sitters, and so I learned firsthand what was expected of a landscape architect — from the daily practice of drawing, meeting with clients, nursery inspections, and how the office made or didn’t make money. I heard it at the breakfast/dinner table every day, and it so it was that when I went off to design school, I thought I knew everything. Little did I recognize what I didn’t know and am still learning today.
In July, I spoke at the State of Florida Conference of Landscape Architects and responded to your question thusly:
“My father imparted in my soul the need for design excellence and integrity.” Do the very best with what is given and never shortcut what is provided the client.