Clermont Huger Lee

Clermont Huger Lee

Landscape architect, a pioneer in her time, designed much of the Historic District


Historic preservation is a cornerstone of Jekyll Island, one that envelops not only the island’s famed buildings but also the gorgeous grounds on which they stand. A pioneering landscape architect, Clermont Huger Lee, was instrumental in developing a master plan for the island in the 1960s to restore the area once known as “Millionaire’s Village” to its original state.

Lee was born in 1914 to a prominent Savannah family and attended prep schools in Savannah and Charleston before enrolling in Barnard College in New York City. She eventually transferred to Smith College in Massachusetts, where she majored in landscape architecture as an undergraduate. She went on to earn a master’s degree in the same field.

“While at Smith, she was invited to take classes at the prestigious Harvard Graduate School of Design due to low enrollment numbers during World War II, and she took full advantage of that opportunity,” said landscape historian Ced Dolder, who interviewed Lee shortly before her death in 2006 and has authored numerous articles about her life and work.

Preliminary landscape restoration plan for the Historic District, 1968

After completing her education, Lee worked as an assistant to Talmadge Baumgardner Jr., a well-regarded landscape architect with the Sea Island Company, a hospitality and real estate corporation. During that time, she supervised planting operations and helped design landscapes for several projects in Brunswick and Savannah. “Her interest in historic gardens also began about that time when, at a friend’s request, she drew plans for a garden at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation in Brunswick based on circa 1910 photographs,” Dolder said.

Lee left the Sea Island Company in 1949 and established a private practice in Savannah, where she was a key figure in the renovation of several city squares as well as the planting designs for many historic buildings. In the late 1960s, Horace Caldwell, director of the Jekyll Island Authority, hired her as part of a team tasked with developing a plan to restore the island’s Historic District. The work began in the fall of 1966 and continued through 1968.

Lee portrait (courtesy Juliette Low Birthplace).

Although budget constraints prevented Lee’s plans from being fully implemented, she continued to collaborate with the Jekyll Island Authority to design a colonial garden for Horton House, a landscape and parking lot blueprint for Rockefeller Cottage, and a restoration plan for what is now known as the National Historic Landmark District. “Lee did all of her own drawings, and they are works of art,” Dolder said. “She also knew how to create designs that would withstand the passage of time.”

Andrea Marroquin, curator of Mosaic, Jekyll Island Museum, notes that Lee carefully documented each of her designs. “She had slides and she listed plant names, all of which were part of a larger scheme, so that even work done later utilizes her research.”

Horton House looking north across new gardens, 1973

Lee’s dream of landscape restoration on the island lives on. Under the supervision of Cliff Gawron, director of landscaping and planning for the Jekyll Island Authority, seven properties within the historic district have been restored and several others have been landscaped in the spirit of their original design.

That would surely make Lee happy. “Clermont was dedicated to historic preservation,” said her cousin Hugh Golson of Savannah. “She was strong and determined and way ahead of her time. I remember as a child seeing her drafting plans in the evenings, which was really something back then because all the women I knew were hosting dinner parties and mixing drinks.”

This article first appeared in Volume 7 Number 1 of 31•81, the Magazine of Jekyll Island.

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