Gardening

The Man Who Brought Azaleas to Dallas

The story of landscape architect Joe Lambert, as remembered by his remarkable wife, Evelyn.

When Joe Lambert left Shreveport to plant his kiss on the world, he made his way to the edge of town, set down his suitcase, and stuck out his thumb. His dream was to attend Columbia University to study landscape architecture. Apparently, his was a private ambition.

“Joe’s family wanted him to stay closer to home,” Evelyn Lambert remembers from a portico overlooking her walled garden in colonial Cuernavaca, where magnolias, bougainvillea, and oleander exhaust themselves producing flowers, 90 minutes southwest of Mexico City. Joe’s father was a successful landscape architect in Shreveport and had been selected for such prestigious commissions as the azalea garden at Bellingrath Gardens in Mobile, Ala. Staying home would have been easy. But young Joe had his heart set on Columbia.

At 93, Evelyn Lambert is still very much the swirl of style and wit as featured in Vogue in the 1980s, holding court in a restored Palladian villa in the Italian Veneto. For two days recently, “The Entertaining Mrs. Lambert” hosted me in her art-filled home, built in the 16th century for a Spanish captain in the army of Hernan Cortes, to talk of her late husband—the man who made Dallas bloom, along with his brother, Henry, and their father through Lambert Landscape Company, which still operates in Dallas today.

When Joe finally made it to Morningside Heights on the Upper West Side, he marched into the admissions office and requested financial aid. “When he turned the form in,” Evelyn explains, “they looked at him and said, ‘You’re not old enough to come to Columbia.’ And he responded, ‘Where does it say anything about age in your brochure?’” Joe stood his ground, perhaps stayed at the thought of a thousand car rides home. “The admissions officer disappeared for a few minutes,” she continues. “When he returned, he said, ‘Well, we suppose you’re right.’” They accepted him on the spot.

So when folks in Dallas, 20 years later, dispirited by heat and capricious clay soils, informed Joe that azaleas would never grow in their backyards, they could be excused for not seeing within the fully grown and elegant man, a boy with an eye patch and a scar, standing in gravel, his jaw set on New York: Joe Lambert was never much for being told no.

“Joe had a fascination with beauty from the time he realized that he could see with only one eye,” Evelyn tenderly reminisces. Below us, on the bottom tier of her garden, a seven-columned sculpture by the Italian artist Balderie stares upward, rather like monks just out of earshot. Joe was born with a birthmark on the left side of his face. When he was 11 years old, his mother took him to a Shreveport doctor to have the birthmark removed. The surgery and subsequent radiation treatments rendered Joe blind in his left eye and with a cheek so tortured that it sentenced him to a lifetime of restorative surgery. The wound did not, however, disfigure his humanity. If anything, it elevated it. “Joe was so sensitive to people,” Evelyn smiles. “Especially to young people who lost an eye. He would go visit them. He always said, ‘With only half an eye you can still see how much the world needs beauty.’”

Shortly after his loss, Joe happened to observe a family friend, Rose Youree Lloyd, then living in Shreveport, unfold from a Pierce Arrow automobile in an outfit that matched the car, her arms overflowing with tulips. Joe was awestruck that anyone or anything could be so beautiful. Beauty, in every form, became his passion. Rose became Joe’s mentor of sorts and later offered him his first landscaping commission in Dallas. By then, Rose lived at the corner of Beverly Drive and Preston Road in what today is often referred to as the Cox Mansion. There was no stone wall back then, shielding the grounds that cascade into Turtle Creek. As first commissions go, Joe’s Dallas debut was a shot from a cannon.

Mahlon Perry spent a decade working as a landscape designer with Joe and another 30 on his own. It’s easy to get the feeling that he misses his boss, who died in 1970, and that talking about him awakens lines around the eyes and a hole in the gut. “Lambert’s was a mirror of Joe,” Mahlon tells me. “He had brilliant ideas and a wonderful personality. No matter what project he took on—Six Flags or a debutante party—Joe poured every bit of energy into it. Smaller customers were never made to feel like their needs were unimportant. I went to work for Joe only expecting to hang around for a year or so, but he made it so much fun that I stayed for 10. Until he retired.”

Through the force of Joe’s personality, the family firm won commissions for commercial projects such as Six Flags of Arlington, Atlanta, and St. Louis; SMU; Southwestern General Life; and Sedco. In addition to hundreds of residential commissions, Joe dabbled in real estate, well enough, in fact, that he was able to purchase a Rolls Royce. “He had a sign on the bumper,” Evelyn laughs, throwing back her head, “The sign read: ‘Your bushes did not pay for this car.’”

Joe had a love affair with Dallas. And Dallas loved him back. “He admired the courage of it,” Evelyn tells me more than once and with something approaching ferocity. “He loved the fact that there was no reason for it to be where it is.” Once, when the city was going to widen Turtle Creek Boulevard, Joe learned that the road expansion was going to result in the clearing of a great many mature trees. He decided to do something about it. He loved Turtle Creek. Joe’s first office had been in a service station near the Katy Trail trestle, down the slope from the Mansion Hotel. Evelyn tells the story with both hands. “Joe pulled together a group of ladies who called themselves the fashion group,” she says. “They all hung purple draperies on all the trees that were going to be lost.” Turtle Creek was ultimately widened, but less so after Joe marshaled his purple army. Today, the fountain that shoots green water high into the air across from Lee Park is dedicated to him.

At the Cathedral de la Asuncion in central Cuernavaca, completed in 1552 by Franciscan missionaries, $2 buys a climb up a series of irregular and cupped stone stairs to the roof of the sanctuary. The path to the bell tower is unmarked, requiring a pilgrimage of false starts and wrong turns. With each step, the laughter of children grows, rising from a swimming pool next door. From the very top, where ancient bells hang in the arched openings, Cuernavaca is revealed as a patchwork of walled Edens. You can see Evelyn Lambert’s home if you know where to look. The royal palms of her garden extend above roof lines and behind them stands a barely distinguishable green-walled apartment building. Lambert Green to be precise.

Joe was passionate in his belief that architects and landscape designers should work together from day one of a project. As things tend to go, the people who draw up kitchens and carports start first. The result is often an uneasy truce between a house and its grounds. Although Joe was unable to enter WWII due to his eye, he did contribute in the design of camouflage and found that the need for camouflage survived the peace. “When the war was over,” Nancy Hamon tells me, “the Army was practically giving away khaki green paint. Joe took it and mixed in a little red and a few other colors and made Lambert Green. I loved Lambert Green.” Joe originally intended Lambert Green to obscure architectural shortcomings. But the color was so universal that Jones Blair sold it like aspirin. They still prescribe it, in two shades, dark and light. “I had it on all my shutters and ironwork at the house on Shadywood in Bluffview,” Nancy gushes. “The house has been torn down. But I still have the ironwork in my apartment. So Joe’s color and design are still going.”

“Joe always believed that there should be a landscape plan for every house, no matter how great or modest,” Evelyn explains later, over a patio lunch of fruit, soup, and enchiladas. “It takes time for a garden to mature. Joe wanted great clumps of plants. Overscale. Never a single thing. He didn’t like dinky-winky plants in a garden. ‘If you have green,’ he would say, ‘it must flow.’”

When Dallas turns pink in the spring and photographers jockey for position all along Lakeside Drive, remember Joe Lambert: He brought azaleas to Dallas. Joe had already planted them at the Lloyd home when his father received a commission to plant more at the corner of Armstrong and Lakeside. Eventually everyone in between wanted them. “His secret for growing azaleas in Dallas was soil preparation,” Evelyn grins. I had long imagined azaleas requiring a complex mix of mulches and ingredients transported in unlabeled jugs. “Joe used to say, ‘All you have to do is remove the top 15 inches of topsoil and replace it with peat moss.’” Which sounds simple enough, but, on a lecturing trip to Oklahoma, Joe delivered his 15-inch speech only to be quoted in the Tulsa World as having instructed the color-starved Okies, “Dig a hole 15 feet deep and fill it with peat moss.” Somewhere, workers in an especially hard-packed corner have cleared the 14-foot mark and are calling for the peat.

When he retired, Joe sold his interest in the business to his brother, Henry, and their father. He wanted to restore a great garden in Italy. He and Evelyn looked for two years before they found the Villa Chericati. When they took over the Palladian house and its 25 acres, wheat was growing on the lawn. Two years later, there were more than 1,000 hortensias and two tulip beds dotting the naturalistic garden surrounding four lakes. Nine years ago, the villa was sold to a Japanese music conservatory.

“The last job that Joe ever did,” Evelyn tells me as lunch was carried away by a man in a white jacket, “was at the Tres Vidas Golf Club in Acapulco. He had already retired. Joe arranged the moving of 500 trees in one day with almost 1,000 Mexicans doing the work. It was the first time I realized that he was not strong. He asked me to drive him in a golf cart.” After a difficult trip to New York and persistent shortness of breath, medical tests revealed leukemia.

Joe was diagnosed in December. He died the following February. Mr. and Mrs. Harding Lawrence of Braniff sent the Alexander Calder-designed airplane to fly the funeral party from Dallas to Shreveport. “Joe loved Calder’s work,” Evelyn says, her eyes touching mine before resting on her garden. “It’s wonderful when you think that Joe left Shreveport the first time hitchhiking, and when he returned, finally, his friends returned with him. On the Calder plane.”

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