The Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

ca. 1960 - 1994

Molly Adams' prolific work as a garden and landscape photographer is evidenced by the collection of images donated to the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Gardens in 2003.

The Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection includes 35mm slides, photographic prints, negatives and transparencies of gardens located in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania dating from the early 1960s through mid 1990s.

Biographical Note

Molly AdamsMolly (Maida Babson) Adams was born in 1918 in Orange, New Jersey. She studied at the New York Institute of Photography and was a member of the New York Camera Club. She was also a long time member of the Garden Club of America (GCA) and once served as the organization’s official photographer, winning the Bulkley Medal in the 1980s for her contributions to a GCA postcard campaign.

As a freelance photographer, Adams documented hundreds of private gardens from the late 1950s through the 1990s, focusing on locations in New Jersey as well as gardens in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania.

Many of the mid-century gardens she photographed have since been subdivided or destroyed, thus the images in the collection are especially important as they may be the only surviving testaments to what these gardens once looked like.

Molly Adams at workMany of her images were published in newspapers and magazines such as House Beautiful, House and Garden, and the New York Times.Her work was also featured in exhibitions at the Newark Museum and the State Museum in Trenton. In addition, Adams supplied most of the images for the book How to Plan and plant Your Own Property (1967).

Adams has worked with several landscape designers before on different projects, including Nelva M. Weber, Alice Recknagel Ireys and Friede Stege.

After Adams' death in 2003, her family donated her collection of garden images to the Archives of American Gardens. A group of images showcasing nature and birds was donated to The Morristown and Morris Township Library in New Jersey.

Care and Management of the Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

Written by Kaitlyn Hay, 2009 intern and Garden Club of America's Garden History and Design Scholarship recipient

The Maida Adams American Garden Collection contains 35mm slides, photographic prints, negatives and transparencies. It is necessary to handle each type of photographic medium with appropriate care. Select images from each garden site in the collection are being scanned and entered digitally into the Smithsonian’s online catalog, SIRIS. After the scans are completed, the negatives and transparencies are inserted into protective sleeves and the photographs stored between archival paper.

Preservation and Cleaning

Each type of photographic medium is subject to deterioration—despite one’s best efforts to care for them. The goal of preservation is not necessarily to reverse the damage or restore lost areas to their original appearance, but to stabilize the object and prolong its life. To preserve the Molly Adams Collection, staff have undertaken basic cleaning techniques to ensure high-quality scanned images and safe storage. Surface dusting is a basic procedure that removes gritty dust from the surface of the negative or photograph by using an air bulb, soft-bristled brush, or compressed air. If not removed, dirt and dust can abrade images as they are handled and put into enclosures and even cause staining.


Photographs can suffer from buckling, slumping and warping if not stored properly. Photographs and film must fit well in their storage container—too much or too little room can cause damage. Photographs are housed in archival folders and stored upright to help maintain them in a flat plane and thus minimize the possibility of slumping and curling. Spacer boards and dividers are used to fill empty space in boxes.


The photographs can begin to degrade due to the chemicals used to produce them as well as the chemicals found in the storage enclosure. Most of the negatives in the Molly Adams Collection were originally stored in glassine sleeves. Though contemporary glassine sleeves can be acid-free, older products often became acidic over time and were extremely susceptible to a distortion pattern called “cockling” due to contact with moisture. Thus, film negatives in the Molly Adams Collection are re-housed in archival sleeves which protect them at the same time they are allowed to be viewed easily without having to be handled directly.

Acid-free paper is used to separate the photographs. This paper as well as the boxes used to store the film, prints and slides are made from products that have been treated with buffers to neutralize any acids existing in the product. Since a number of images in the Molly Adams collection are only partially identified, the original mounts, glassine sleeves and storage sheets are kept to help identify and define the photographic record.

Once digital scans are made, film, prints and slides are re-housed and moved into a cool storage facility. Environmental conditions, specifically air temperature and humidity, are among the most critical factors that affect the preservation of photographs. The greatest life expectancy for photographic images is achieved under conditions of low temperature and moderate relative humidity. A preservation environment monitor is typically used to record the temperature and relative humidity in cool or cold storage facilities. Data is downloaded to a computer and analyzed to make sure there are no major aberrations in the conditions. Light exposure is also a factor, especially for very old or color photographs produced with less stable chemicals.

Preserving Film

Given the diversity of media in the Molly Adams Collection, it is necessary to understand the chemical principles underlying the production of each type of media and how to best preserve them. The collection contains both negative and positive, color and black and white images on film. Film has a base to which a light-sensitive emulsion is applied. The light-sensitive quality of emulsion comes from a complex combination of chemicals such as albumen, gelatin and silver salts. The emulsion side usually appears less reflective or shiny than the base. When handling film, it is necessary to wear cotton gloves to protect it from damaging fingerprints, oils, and other stains. The emulsion layer is particularly susceptible to cracking or chipping along the edges.

Preserving Photographs

One of the simplest and most effective ways of preserving photographs is simply to “handle with care” by wearing gloves when touching the prints, housing them in a flat container, keeping all sharp objects and liquids at a safe distance, and storing them in an area that is not damp or subject to great temperature fluctuations. If a photograph is particularly brittle or weak, it is best to carry it on a board or heavy folder as a support. When setting down a photograph on a surface, ensure that the area is clean and flat to prevent surface abrasions or indentations. It is also important to only use pencils rather than pens when taking notes or labeling, as pencil is erasable.

Why Digitize?

Creating digital copies of photographic media, slides and negatives, serves as a “back-up.” Digital collections ensure that fragile media can be accessed and utilized without risk of damage due to repeated handling, thus prolonging the life of the original. Furthermore, digitization of the collection allows researchers and the general public more freedom of access to Smithsonian resources. Through SIRIS, interested parties can browse or search directly for an image. Digitization of the Molly Adams Collection illustrates the great benefit of the transition—now, garden history and design scholars and enthusiasts have access to a rich body of photographic work that might otherwise be unknown by most.

Garden Highlights

Ellistan Garden

Ellistan Garden | 1992-2006: Water Lily Pool and Fountain

Ellistan is a country property with views of the surrounding open fields and hills. Originally, the estate was a self-contained farm with no trees until the 1930s. The garden areas consist of the formal garden including the water lily pool, the terrace garden, and the children's garden. The main garden is an "old-fashioned" formal garden with straight paths, walls, hedges and deep herbaceous borders. View more images. Photo: Ellistan, Peapack, NJ. Photographed June, 1992

Buttrick Mansion Sculptural Ornaments

Buttrick Mansion | ca. 1965-1988: Sculptural Ornaments at an Entrance to the Garden

Mr. and Mrs. Stedman Buttrick developed extensive perennial gardens emphasizing irises. Several acres of land were terraced with iris, peonies, hemerocallis, lilies, phlox, and other perennials. In the 1950s, National Geographic published a feature article on the gardens. In 1965, the National Park Service bought the property and are currently in a state of disrepair. Photo: Buttrick Mansion, Concord, MA. Photographed 1965 [?]

 Sorensen Garden

Sorensen Garden | 1987-1990: Vegetable Garden and Barn

This garden has been designed by one of its owners and has been under development since the early 1980s. The site features a raised garden with flowering shrubs, trees, and perennials; espaliered fruit trees; roses on a pergola; and a chicken coop. The plantings are salt tolerant because of the garden's location near the Atlantic coast. Photo: Sorensen Garden, Rumson, NJ. Photographed May, 1989.