The Landscape Guide

The Country Place Era in American Garden Design

In the closing years of the nineteenth century several European countries, enthused by nationalism, looked back to their garden history. Americans, in a not unrelated frame of mind, looked to Europe. Steam-driven ocean liners made the trip to Europe much easier than it had been in the days of sail. Waugh, in 1928, saw the influence of Europe as coming through 'persons of wealth and persons of education'. He described the former as a 'largely parvenu' class who 'found Paris a place convenient for the spending of money by persons of limited imagination'. He had more respect for persons of 'more cultured minds' who 'began to be moved by Italian traditions'.

Frederick Law Olmsted, guided no doubt by the architect with whom he was collaborating, looked to France when designing an estate for for George W Vanderbilt in 1888. Biltmore has geometrical terraces near the mansion and a vast landscape park as its setting. The French renaissance palace at Blois was the model for Richard Morris Hunt's architecture. As Newton remarked 'the detailed area right around the house is not convincingly "French"' perhaps because the notion of historical imitation bothered Olmsted. The Olmsted firm continued to design large country estates after the founder's death in 1903 and played a vital role in the development of the art which Olmsted pioneered. Warren Manning, for example, worked in the firm before going on to establish his own practice. The Olmsteds also worked with Charles Platt.

Charles Adams Platt (1861-1933) was less concerned about historicism Olmsted. The child of a wealthy New York family with opportunities to study in France and visit Italy, Platt was a person of both wealth and education. He was also a fair designer and a good draughtsman. Making comparisons with England, one might classify him as better than Mawson but not so good as Lutyens and Jekyll. Platt published an illustrated book on Italian Gardens which led to a number of commissions. The plan of Platt's own house at Cornish (1892-1912) is not unlike that of a contemporary English Arts and Crafts garden but the detailing is more Italian. Platt had reviewed Blomfield's Formal Garden in England, in 1892, commenting that gardens could have both formal and informal areas. Owing to her fame as a novellist, Edith Wharton's Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904) contributed much to the understanding and appreciation of Italian gardens. She used the style for her own garden, The Mount, in Massachusetts. One of the most popular American artists of the period, Maxfield Parrish, produced illustrations for Wharton's book. He also used illustrations of Italian gardens in his magazine illustrations. There are examples of Italian-influenced at the Villa Vizcaya in Miami, the Swan House in Atlanta, Longwood Gardens in Delaware, and Filoli near San Francisco. The American landscape architecture profession was uneasy about the revival of 'formal' gardens and continued to advocate the picturesque style.

Beatrix Farrand (1872-1959) was the child of Edith Wharton's brother and had travelled abroad with her famous aunt. Later, she helped design Wharton and her architects design The Mount. In 1899 Farrand became a founder member of the American Society of Landscape Architects. She admired the work of William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll. There is a sensitivity and inventiveness in her detailed design which is more Arts and Crafts than Italian in style. This new freedom and openness to contemporary trends is even more apparent in the work of Fletcher Steele (1885-1971). After studying landscape architecture at Harvard Steele travelled in Europe and became the first American garden designer to take in contemporary painting, Art Deco and Modernism. His major design project is rightly included as the first Masterwork in Jane Brown's The Modern Garden (2000) but there is no mention of his work in Newton's Design on the land, published in the year of Steele's death. Thomas Church met Steele in the 1920s and quoted Steele's advice 'to take the wall around the tree' (Brown, p90).