Edmund Hollander Is an Advocate for the Trees

Linda Lee

Adjacent to the house designed by Annabelle Selldorf, the pool sits on a plinth to enhance views to the preserved agriculture. Photography courtesy of Hollander Design.

It is common for landscape architects to move trees—big trees, important trees. The New York landscape architect Edmund Hollander makes a habit of discovering big, forgotten trees and keeping them in place—even if it means moving the house.

At a project in Sag Harbor, New York, a large Victorian house was surrounded by massive catalpa trees—some within four feet of the house. Referred to often as “weed trees,” they grow fast, and have pretty, white, fragrant flowers in the early summer, but those flowers drop in sloppy messes, and in the fall the trees add long seed pods and elephant-ear leaves to the lawn.

“Those catalpas had enormous character,” Hollander says, in defense of the trees he worked so hard to preserve. He took a similar approach to a grove of Kwanzan cherry trees on the property, which he cleaned up and turned into the driveway. When the cherry trees flower, “you get to drive over a pink carpet—what could be cooler?” he asks.

On another estate, wild black cherry trees were rescued—this time because of the beauty of their wind-sculpted trunks. They are now the focal point of the front lawn. He is not opposed to bringing in mature trees, of course. For Bill and Ruth Ann Harnisch’s meditation labyrinth in Southampton, which is 82 feet in diameter, and based on the floor at Chartres cathedral in France, he imported 13 mature Yoshino cherry trees, which in the spring fill the labyrinth with white blossoms. “You walk it and you reach another place spiritually and physically,” he says.

An infinity swimming pool creates a mirrorlike surface to reflect the pool house and the main house.

Hollander went to Vassar shortly after it began admitting men, and while completing a degree in history, cataloged the trees on campus. The botany bug had struck, and he completed a program in ecology and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden School of Professional Horticulture.

He met his business partner, Maryanne Connelly, at the University of Pennsylvania, when he spotted her at her drawing board with a plant book. He challenged her to pick any plant and said he could tell her all about it. She looked up, said “What an ass,” and went back to work.

But he says, “I had no artistic ability, and she could draw like the wind.” They started their company in 1991. They were both at Penn because of the faculty head, Ian McHarg, who had written the seminal book Design with Nature and inspired 30,000 students to gather for Earth Day in 1971. McHarg had founded the department on the principles of ecological design. Also influential were A.E. Bye, who once designed residences for George Soros, and Laurie Olin, an enormously influential landscape architect who recently did the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Edmund Hollander

At a distance, the house is fully surrounded by mounds of fescue grass meadow on all sides.

“Landscape architecture is driven by spirit and place, by the connection between people and place, between buildings and landscape,” says Hollander, who still teaches at the university. “Take Ian, an old Scots Bible thumper, and Ed Bye, an ethereal human being, and Laurie Olin, the single most talented landscape architect—they all have a generosity of spirit. You learned passion from Ian, from Ed you learned movement, and from Laurie you learned design.”

McHarg instilled something else in Hollander: an ability to see not only the land’s surface, but what lies beneath. He likes to point out, for instance, that a similar microclimate exists on a Manhattan rooftop as a Hamptons beachfront. “Both are unusually harsh, with high winds, salt-air pollutants; in Manhattan, sulfur dioxide. So what works is junipers, bayberry, roses, hydrangeas. You think of the ecological elements. That’s the nugget of Ian that never leaves you.”

Hollander, at 63, remembers the great elms and chestnuts that used to line main streets in the East, and mourns their loss. “You know,” he says, “we’re now told that we should not plant two trees of the same species next to each other because of disease.” But he thinks that’s a mistake as well. No more allées of Kwanzan cherries or cypress trees. Maybe, he says, we should not sacrifice beauty for fear of a future pest. “So you have 75 years instead of 200 years,” he says. Then you plant something else.