The Landscape Guide

American Colonial Gardens and Nineteenth Century Landscape Architecture

George Washington's Mount Vernon  Andrew Jackson Downing  Frederick Law Olmsted

The first permanent settlements in America were made in Virginia in 1607 and in Massachusetts in 1620. Other colonies were planted soon after, notably the one at New Amsterdam (now New York), the one in Maryland, Penn’s settlement at Philadelphia, and the Carolinas. The early American colonists found some crude gardening already practised amongst the Indians. They found many useful native fruits and herbs (they were, for example, greatly impressed by the abundance of native grapes); and they were all under the stern necessity of making the utmost efforts towards supplying their own wants. Thus they were gardeners by example and by compulsion. They immediately began the cultivation of all economic plants. They formed small enclosures about their homes, and in what were literally gardens, they soon brought to blossoming, urged by a higher spiritual need, the favourite flowers of their old English homes and gardens.

Some of these early Colonial American gardens were reasonably commodious and notably fruitful. Abundant records remain of Governor Endicott’s garden in Salem, Governor Winthrop’s garden in Plymouth, and of the gardens of Charleston dating back to 1682. Yet for the first hundred years there were no great gardens of princely scope, nor indeed anything more than American cottage gardens, properly speaking. A few were larger and better furnished than the others; but the typical picture is that of a small garden plot next the humble colonial dwelling, in which cabbages, beans and corn were grown for food, and hollyhocks, rosemary, penny royal, coriander and sweetbrier were cultivated about the windows and in the front yard. No particularly fine or famous gardens have come down to us from those colonial days. [Editors note: many gardens have been restored in Colonial Williamsburg, which was the capital of the Crown Colony of Virginia]. Yet there are remembered Mount Airy, built in 1650; Tuckahoe, from 1700; Stratford Hall, in 1725; and Westover (Fig. the home of Colonel Byrd, built in 1726. Magnolia-on-the-Ashley (South Carolina) dated from 1671; and John Bartram’s famous botanical garden in Philadelphia from 1728.’ [References to these items are to be found in Earle, Old Time Gardens, New York, 1913; Tabor, Old Fashioned Gardening, New York, 1913; Historic Gardens of Virginia, Richmond, 1923.]

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Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, is the only one of these colonial gardens which has ever appealed warmly to the popular imagination. This was not formed on its present lines until the colonial period had closed with the revolutionary war.

It was not in any sense an elaborate “estate,” but was a very simple country home. Tens of thousands of citizens to-day own places larger, more elaborate or artistically better. Yet it was one of the best of its time ; it was well planned; above all it was the home and the handiwork of the “ Father of his Country,” and it has been carefully preserved to the present time. These circumstances have contributed to its celebrity. Yet even Mount Vernon has had no perceptible influence on American gardening, though the house has been copied many times in many forms. It should be added that the “ colonial period in general has been held in high repute in later years and has had a considerable influence in many fields of art. Colonial architecture, colonial furniture and colonial gardens belong to this category; and there has been a good deal of conscious effort to reproduce the atmosphere of those simple, dignified old homes of pre-revolutionary times.

From the War of Independence to the Civil War (1776—1861) the country changed little except for its westward expansion, both in Canada and the United States. Such building and gardening as were done followed the colonial models, but with decreasing fidelity. Towards the close of this period certain new movements were observable, but it is more convenient to treat of them under the period of their fruition, which came after the Civil War, than here. The great Civil War began in 1861 and gripped the nation wholly till 1865. At the end the country was exhausted and nearly bankrupt. A new era then opened, but unfortunately one of very bad art. In architecture, sculpture, poetry and gardening, inspiration was denied and taste fell to the lowest levels. 

Yet beneath this ruck of stupidity good beginnings were being made. For there had already arisen that great luminary of landscape gardening, Andrew Jackson Downing, who had flamed a moment in the sky, and then gone down to his untimely death. All this was before the Civil War. Downing was born in 1815 at Newburgh on the Hudson, New York, and died near the same spot in 1852. He represented very clearly the Reptonian tradition in America. He preached the doctrine of the English or natural style (the two terms were interchangeably current) of landscape gardening, and his preaching found a ready response in the best American thought. In his editorials in the Horticulturist (1846—52) and in his classic treatise on Landscape Gardening (first edition 1841) he completely captured the popular taste.

This noble leadership, though implanted before the Civil War, flowered and bore its fruit after that interregnum. And in this later period it was reinforced and ably continued in the leadership of Frederick Law Olmsted, Senior. Olmsted was born at Hartford, Conn., in 1822 and died in Brookline, Mass., 1903. He came to public notice during the war, but his real work as landscape architect had begun in 1857, when he was appointed superintendent of the new Central Park, New York City, then under construction. This project was resumed under his direction after the war; and at about the same time he began to make plans for other important parks in Brooklyn, N.Y., New Britain, Conn., San Francisco, Calif., Chicago, Ills, and other cities. With him was associated for a time Calvert Vaux, a capable English-trained architect, who had previously been the professional partner of Downing.

Olmsted continued the traditions of Downing. He strongly favoured the English or natural style of landscape architecture (this term has to be used rather inexactly, since a strict analysis will show that every “natural style “ is more or less conventionalised, and by each worker in his own way). He was the first man in America to organise and practise the profession of the landscape architect on a large scale. For a time he had associated with him Charles Eliot (lamented for his early death); also his stepson John C. Olmsted and his son Frederick Law Olmsted, Junior. The firm is still very active. During all these years, mainly the time from 1870 to 1890, a number of young men worked with the firm, afterward setting up for themselves, thus propagating in wider circles the Olmsted influence.

Olmsted, with sore misgivings, took the style of landscape architect, discarding the earlier nomenclature; and his example, more than anything else, fixed the use of “landscape architect “ and “ landscape architecture “ on America in place of the older English terms, "landscape gardener “ and “ landscape gardening.”

Frederick Law Olmsted wrote little for the public. His great influence was exerted through his personal disciples and through his works. These works were very many, of large proportions, widely placed throughout the United States and Canada, and lay in the main trend of the developments of the period. This period might fairly be called the park era. The construction of Central Park in New York (already advocated by Downing before his death) advertised widely both the park idea and the landscape architect in charge. American cities were multiplying and growing under the impetus of heavy immigration and the first burst of modern industrialism, and the park idea matched the times. Frederick Law Olmsted and his associates designed many parks besides those enumerated above, insomuch that his ideas were easily dominant throughout this distinct chapter in American landscape architecture.

Briefly, the Olmstedian principles may be described as follows: (i) preserve the natural scenery and if necessary restore and emphasise it; (2) avoid all formal design except in very limited areas about buildings; (3) keep open lawns and meadows in large central areas; (4) use native trees and shrubs, especially in heavy border plantings; (5) provide circulation by means of paths and roads laid in wide-sweeping curves; (6) place the principal road so that it will approximately circumscribe the whole area. These principles may still be seen exemplified in several of his parks, perhaps best of all in Mount Royal Park, Montreal, and in Franklin Park, Boston.

Along with the park movement, and as an integral feature of it, came the park cemetery. This idea is a distinctively American contribution to landscape architecture, for, while park cemeteries have been made in other countries, the first and most numerous successes were those in the United States and Canada. The first park cemetery to attract wide attention was Mount Auburn, near Boston, founded in 1831. Spring Grove Cemetery at Cincinnati came about twenty years later and was generally admired. But perhaps the most influential example of all has been Graceland Cemetery in Chicago (Fig. 656), of still later date. 

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Graceland was designed and constructed by Mr. O. C. Simonds, who soon became famous as a designer of park cemeteries. In following years he designed some hundreds of these. Various factors contributed to the vogue of the park cemetery in America. The comparative cheapness of land, the popular taste for naturalistic garden design, and the coincident rise of the park movement, may be enumerated. Beyond all these, however, lies the fact that the idea is inherently sound and appealing. At the present time park cemeteries are the rule, not the exception. They are made by corporations, religious societies, municipalities, and even by the Federal Government.

In order to complete the discussion of American park design a few observations on later work may be added, Two new conditions began to change the park problem soon after Olmsted’s death. The first of these was the further growth and industrialisation.

Of American cities, requiring" neighbourhood “ playgrounds of a new type. The second was the introduction of new means of passenger transit, at the outset the electric tram and later the much more influential automobile. The local playgrounds had to be relatively small and had to bear very intensive use. Neither requirement was compatible with the open scenic park idea. The playgrounds were therefore a new development in American landscape architecture. Thousands of them were built and furnished, some of the most successful being designed by Olmsted’s business successors.

In contrast to these small playgrounds, scattered thickly through the residential sections of cities, stand the large exterior parks made possible by the improvement of transport. The first fruit was seen in the Metropolitan Park System of Boston, founded under the leadership of Charles Eliot. Many other cities have adopted the same principle, such as New York; Minneapolis, where an excellent zone of outer parks has been acquired through the energy of Mr. Theo. Wirth; and Chicago, where the Cook County Forest Preserves have been built up under the leadership of Mr. Jens Jensen. A considerable portion of the energy in this park movement, however, was later diverted into the demand for state and national parks, forests and other rural playgrounds—a movement so important as to require extended treatment under a separate head.

Reference has already been made to the fact that in America the fundamental taste for the natural style of landscape gardening has developed in two different aspects. On the one hand has been the tendency to lay out private estates and city parks in a naturalistic, informal manner; on the other has been the movement to preserve considerable areas of native landscape for purposes of education, health, and recreation. Natural scenery is reserved for use. These reservations have been extensive ; and this aspect of American landscape architecture is perhaps the most significant of all. While many of these reservations have been made by private purchase, or by private clubs holding the land for hunting and fishing, or merely as “ country clubs “ for general recreation, by far the largest and most important areas are dedicated to public ownership and use. The principal types of reservations are (i) the national parks, (2) the national forests, (3) the national monuments, (4) the state parks, (5) the state forests, and (6) sundry historic localities.