Impressive gardens: revisiting the Golden Age in America

‘The Golden Age of American Gardens’ begins “In the 1880s America’s millionaires were looking for new ways to display their new wealth, and the acquisition of a grand house with an equally grand garden became their passion.”

It is said that the style of architecture and gardens, evidenced in Lila Vanderbilt Webb’s 1886 model agricultural farm Shelburne Farm (among others) “was a mix of eclecticism and the latest advances in artistic and cultural developments as promoted in popular English style books and periodicals of the time.” The tubbed bay trees on the terraces overlooking Lake Champlain, as a consequence, were said to have been climatically challenged!

The Golden Age ended with the Jazz Age in which a distinctly American sensibility in gardens and lifestyle emerged. European influences still dominated design ideas, but new approaches were gradually emerging as is shown in the Chartes Cathedral Window Garden (photograph by Saxon Holt shown above), one of three walled gardens on the estate.

Filoli, the home of shipping heiress Lurline Roth, whose daughter debuted to jazz strains in 1939 at the property, maintains a strong jazz tradition.

Perhaps she danced to the classic‘I wish I could shimmy like my sister Kate’, said to be a charleston/belly dance fusion, and which inspired The Beatles to release a song of the same name in 1962?

6 thoughts on “Impressive gardens: revisiting the Golden Age in America

  1. Tom Turner

    My guess is that the aesthetic inspiration of music and gardens more often have a common parent (‘the soul’) than they influence each other. One could make two botanical analogies (1) xerophytic plants in Australia, Africa, China and America have characteristics in common (2) primitive plants in different continents have characteristics in common.
    This leads me to wonder about ‘Jazz Age’ as a categorization of garden style. Would it be a suitable name for the painting, architecture, politics, clothing and technology of the inter-war period? If not, why should it be applied to gardens? Is it because American gardens in this period have other characteristics in common with gardens? ‘Golden Age’ is also problematic – because history has many golden ages.
    Despite this, I do think there are parallels between jazz and an aspect of American gardens in the period. But how would one check on this?

  2. Christine

    The Jazz Age is a wider time designation than a design style, so it is similar to the idea of the time period the mid twentieth century (loosely the decade 1955-1965). The technology of this period is highly relevant: in particular items that directly effected the affluent lifestyle cars, planes and electric lights. Clothing is also central to the Jazz Age, as are perhaps particular athletic and recreational pursuits such as swimming and tennis. [ ]
    Dance is foremost.

    The Jazz Age may or may not apply to painting and architecture. (More on that in later blogs.) In politics it is quite probably associated with the universal franchise of women in America see the 19th Amendment.
    [ ]

    Yes I am convinced that Jazz music and gardens were very closely associated during this period. How garden spaces were used is one aspect, how they were laid out is another and what was incorporated in them is another (ie dance floors and swimming pools).

    1. Tom Turner

      I think Tudor is a reasonable categorization for a period in the history of architecture and gardens, because the Tudor monarchs were leaders in the arts. But Georgian, though a nice word, is much less appropriate and Edwardian is a complete irrelevance. So I try to avoid the names of kings and queens when categorizing styles of garden design.
      Turning to music, Medieval, Baroque and Romantic seem useful terms because they capture thet zeitgeist. Maybe Jazz does this too – and if so it could well be applied to architecture, which is desperately in need of a replacement for the time-expired term Modern. Is the style still to be called ‘Modern’ in 100 or 1000 years time? If not, it needs another name.
      ‘For Le Corbusier neither jazz nor a skyscraper is a “deliberately conceived creation,” he continues “if architecture were at the point reached by jazz, it would be an incredible spectacle. I repeat: Manhattan is hot jazz in stone and steel”‘. [Andrew Ballantyne Architecture theory: a reader in philosophy and culture p 223]

  3. Christine

    Wow! Thankyou for the lead on the potential influence of jazz in Manhattan architecture. Yes, modern is definitely the correct label for the style despite its ability to sound outdated. The Jazz Age is technically pre-modern (transitional) like the work of Berlage (in Amsterdam) and Mackintosh (in Scotland). Transitional architecture is incredibly interesting as it has the seeds of modernism within it (and possibly much more).

  4. Tom Turner

    Life expectancy is increasing all the time – so if you live for 1,000 years will you still want to call modern architecture ‘Modern Architecture’ – or do you have an idea for what else it might be called?

  5. Christine

    I guess the difficulty with labels is that the term ‘Modern Architecture’ actually represents several aspects of a phenonmenon. ‘Modern Architecture’ is 1)a time term (approximately early twentieth century), a style term (design with particular characteristics based however closely to a particular theory of design) and a philosophical term (based on a particular way of thinking).

    The Age of Reason for example is associated with the early eighteenth century.
    [ ] However, despite the passage of time reason is still considered an important attribute of contemporary life.

    So in this sense, I believe that a new way of thinking (based on sustainable development) will necessitate a new style(s) that will be as significant as the transition from pre-modern to modern design. Hopefully it will be still modern in the same way that we are still reasonable.
    However the precise relationship with or dependence on modernism is currently unclear.

    Will this new way of thinking last for a 1,000 years? Yes, in the sense that this transition in time is an important period. However, an new set of concerns could potentially arise in an 1000 year time horizon with equal importance.

    So, yes a new name will be necessary for architecture, but it is not yet obvious to me what it should be called.


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