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History of Early American Landscape Design


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Fig. 1, Victor de Grailly, The Tomb at Mount Vernon, c. 1840—50.

The term eminence, indicating an elevated rise or hill, functioned in landscape design as a site for monuments, dwellings, and other structures, and as a topographic feature in the landscape. While the terms mound and mount were also used to describe a raised portion of a garden, an eminence generally denoted a natural feature that was larger in scale.

Fig. 2, Joseph Steward, The Reverend Eleazar Wheelock (1711—1779), 1st President of Dartmouth College (1769—1779), 1793—1796.

As a building platform for a dwelling or a garden structure, an eminence created the opportunity to view the surrounding landscape from the garden. This raised feature also enhanced the prominence of any structure on it, thus making it visible from a distance (see Prospect and View). Both effects were noted by visitors to Mount Vernon, which William Russell Birch in 1808 described as “founded upon a rocky eminence, a dignified height on the Potomac” [Fig. 1]. Garden structures, such as the tower (proposed in 1831) at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the rustic pavilion recommended by A. J. Downing (1848), and the fanciful building depicted in the 1790s by Joseph Steward at Dartmouth College [Fig. 2], were placed on eminences to provide a retreat in which to enjoy the prospect.

In addition to their enhanced visual and, by extension, social status, properties built on eminences were more easily defensible in America’s frontier settings and took advantage of cooling breezes in warmer climates. Structures on eminences also offered visual command of an estate, as noted in the 1817 advertisement of a farm in Culpeper County, Virginia. Such surveillance was a vital part of maintaining the plantation labor system of large slave populations. In urban settings, town planners sited key monuments on eminences, making them focal points in the townscape and thus accentuating seats of power. For example, Francis Nicholson in 1694 placed the Anglican church and the colonial Capitol on eminences in his town plan of Annapolis, Maryland, and Pierre-Charles L’Enfant's plan for Washington, DC, was predicated upon an elevated setting for the capitol building.

Fig. 3, John Caspar Wild, Fairmount Waterworks, 1838.

As a topographical landscape feature, the eminence served as a focal point, a viewing platform, and a backdrop, like the “parklike eminences” in Cincinnati, Ohio, described by Harriet Martineau in 1835. At Mount Auburn Cemetery, the eminence rising 125 feet above the Charles River was described in 1831 by H. A. S. Dearborn as “a prominent and imposing feature in the landscape, of which it becomes the centre.” An eminence, such as the one described by the Rev. Manasseh Cutler at Gray’s Tavern in Philadelphia in 1787, also offered a gradual slope against which to plant a variety of flowers and shrubs. An eminence was also significant in American gardens for establishing the relationship of the garden to the surrounding landscape and for capitalizing on views of broad rivers, valleys, and other features of the “New World” setting. Sites on riverbank eminences, such as that at Fairmount Park in Philadelphia depicted in 1838, were particularly valued for their views of water [Fig. 3].

Elizabeth Kryder-Reid



  • Cutler, Manasseh, June 30, 1787, describing the estate of Charles Wyllys Elliott, near Hartford, CT (1987: 1:211)[1]
“I also called on my classmate, Colonel Hezekiah Wyllys. He lives with his father, Colonel Wyllys, the Secretary of the State, in an elegant seat just outside the city, situated on a high eminence which overlooks the city and commands a most enchanting prospect of the river, meandering through rich meadows and fertile fields, for ten or fifteen miles. The landscape from this seat far exceeds any I have ever seen in any part of the country.”

“We at length came to a considerable eminence, which was adorned with an infinite variety of beds of flowers and artificial groves of flowering shrubs.”

  • Enys, Lt. John, February 12, 1788, describing Mount Vernon, plantation of George Washington, Fairfax County, VA (Cometti, ed., 1976: 246)[2]
“From hence is one of the most delightfull Prospects I ever beheld. It had the Command of a View each way of some Miles up and down the River
Potowmack whch [sic] is here about two Miles broad On which during the Summer there are constantly ships moving. The Hills arrownd it are coverd with plantations some of which have Elegant houses standing on them all of which being situated on Eminences form very beautifull Objects for each other.”

  • Anonymous, October 2, 1798, describing in the Virginia Herald a property for sale in Spotsylvania County, VA (Colonial Williambsurg Foundation)
“The improvements on it are, a comfortable dwelling house, with all necessary out houses, situated on a beautiful eminence, commanding a view of the greater part of the lower ground.”

  • La Rochefoucauld Liancourt, François-Alexandre-Frédéric, duc de, 1799, describing The Woodlands, seat of William Hamilton, near Philadelphia, PA (quoted in Madsen 1988: B3)[3]
“You pass the Schuylkill at Gray’s-Ferry, the road to which runs below Woodlands, the seat of Mr. William Hamilton: it stands high, and is seen upon an eminence from the opposite side of the river.”

  • Anonymous, March 27, 1803, describing in the Virginia Herald a property for sale in Westmoreland, VA (Colonial Williambsurg Foundation)
“FOR SALE, the Tract of Land, whereon I reside. . . stand on an eminence, commanding a beautiful and extensive view of the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers.”

  • Birch, William Russell, 1808, describing Mount Vernon, plantation of George Washington, Fairfax County, VA, The Country Seats of the United States of North America (n.p.)[4]
“This hallowed mansion is founded upon a rocky eminence, a dignified height on the Potomac. . . The additions of a piazza to the water front, and of a drawing room, are proofs of the legitimacy of the General’s taste.”

  • Warden, David Bailie, 1816, describing Analostan Island, seat of Gen. John Mason, Washington, DC (quoted in Phillips 1917: 49)[5]
. . . Annalostan Island is evidently of modern formation. . . The highest eminence, on which the house stands, is fifty feet above the level of the river. The common tide rises to the height of three feet. I can never forget how de-lighted I was with my first visit to this island. The amiable ladies whom I had the pleasure to accompany, left their carriage at Georgetown, and we walked to the mansion-house under a delicious shade. The blossoms of the cherry, apple, and peach trees, of the hawthorn and aromatic shrubs, filled the air with their fragrance. . . The house, of a simple and neat form, is situated near that side of the island which commands a view of the Potomac, the President's House, Capitol, and other buildings. The garden, the sides of which are washed by the waters of the river, is ornamented with a variety of trees and shrubs, and, in the midst, there is a lawn covered with a beautiful verdure. The summer-house is shaded by oak and lin-den-trees, the coolness and tranquility of which invite to contemplation. The refresh-ing breezes of the Potomac, and the gentle murmuring of its waters against the rocks, the warbling of birds, and the mournful as-pect of the weeping-willows, inspire a thousand various sensations. What a delicious shade-
"Ducere sol[l]icitae jucunda oblivia vitae"
The view from this spot is delightful. It embraces the picturesque banks of the Po-tomac, a portion of the city, and an expanse of water, of which the bridge terminates the view. . . A few feet below the sum-mer-house the rocks afford the seats, where those who are fond of fishing may indulge in this amusement. From the portico on the oppo-site [139] side of the house, Georgetown, Calorama, the beautiful seat of Joel Barlow, Esq. and the adjacent finely-wooded hills, appear a vista."

  • Anonymous, December 24, 1817, describing in the Virginia Herald a property for sale in Culpeper County, VA (Colonial Williambsurg Foundation)
“For sale. . . the dwelling house stands on an eminence, having in view the whole farm.”

  • Bryant, William Cullen, August 25, 1821, in a letter to his wife, Frances F. Bryant, describing the Vale, estate of Theodore Lyman, Waltham, MA (1975: 108–9)[6]
“He took me to the seat of Mr. Lyman. . . It is a perfect paradise. . . A hard rolled walk, by the side of a brick wall. . . led us to a grove of young forest trees on the top of [an] eminence in the midst of which was a Chinese temple.”

Fig. 4, Thomas Doughty, View of the Fairmount Waterworks, Philadelphia, from the Opposite Side of the Schuylkill River, c. 1824–26.
  • Sheldon, John P., 10 December 1825, describing Fairmount Waterworks, Philadelphia, PA (quoted in Gibson 1988: 5)[7]
“The celebrated works on the Schuylkill, by which the water of the river is raised to the top of an eminence which is elevated far above any house in the city, are beyond all praise.” [Fig. 4]

  • Trollope, Frances Milton, 1830, describing Baltimore, MD, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832: 1:290)[8]
“The noble column erected to the memory of Washington, and the Catholic Cathedral, with its beautiful dome, being built on a commanding eminence, are seen at a great distance.”

“It has been ascertained that the most lofty eminence is one hundred and twenty-five feet above Charles river, which gracefully sweeps round its gently sloping base; and, when crowned by the proposed tower, will become a most interesting place of resort, as commanding an extensive panoramic view of that richly variegated region of magnificent scenery, embraced within the far distant heights which encircle the metropolis, and the waves of the ocean, while it will present a prominent and imposing feature in the landscape, of which it becomes the centre.”

  • Hawthorne, Elizabeth Manning and Hawthorne, Nathaniel describing Mount Auburn Cemetery, in American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge 1, no. 1 (September 1834: 9)[10]
. . . The inner portion, which is set apart for the purposes of a Cemetery, is covered, throughout most of its extent, with a vigorous growth of forest trees, many of the of large size, and comprising an unusual variety of kinds. This tract is beautifully undulating in its surface, containing a number of bold eminences, steep acclivities, and deep shadowy valleys. A remarkable natural ridge with a level surface runs through the ground from south-east to north-west, and has for many years been known as a secluded and favorite walk. The principal eminence, called Mount Auburn, in the plan, which has been published, is 125 feet above the level of Charles river, and commands from its summit one of the finest prospects which can be obtained in the environs of Boston.

  • Martineau, Harriet, 1835, describing a garden in Cincinnati, OH, Retrospect of Western Travel (1838: 2:51)[11]
“The proprietor has a passion for gardening, and his ruling taste seems likely to be a blessing to the city. He employs four gardeners, and toils in his grounds with his own hands. His garden is on a terrace which overlooks the canal, and the most parklike eminences form the background of the view. Between the garden and the hills extend his vineyards, from the produce of which he has succeeded in making twelve kinds of wine, some of which are highly praised by good judges.”

  • Anonymous, April 1, 1837, describing Landscape Gardening (Horticultural Register and Gardener's Magazine 3: 130)[12]
"Few are able to devote much ground or much expense in extensive ornamental plantation; but all may decorate the immediate vicinity of their residencies. The house should be situated at some distance from the road, which distance should be greater or less according as the house is large or small, and it should be on a moderate rise of ground. There should be a spacious open lawn or grass ground in front, which should be unoccupied by any objects except an occasional small groups of trees. . . If it is situated on an eminence, the back as well as front view may be exhibited to great advantage. . ."

  • Hovey, C. M. (Charles Mason), August 1841, “Notes made during a Visit to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, &c.,” describing the U.S. Capitol, Washington, DC (Magazine of Horticulture 8: 127)[13]
The Grounds of the Capitol, which should judge contain about twenty acres, are situated upon an eminence which commands a fine view of the surrounding country, and are laid out with broad avenues of various widths, which intersect one another, and lead to the steps of the Capitol.”

  • Trego, Charles, 1843, describing Harrisburg, PA, A Geography of Pennsylvania (1843: 232)[14]
“The public buildings belonging to the State occupy a commanding position on an eminence in the northern part of the town.”

Fig. 5, James Smillie and E.G. Dunnel (engraver), “View from Mount Auburn, Mount Auburn Cemetery,” in Cornelia W. Walter, Mount Auburn Illustrated (1847; repr., 1850), opp. 112.
“THE highest eminence of the cemetery ground is denominated Mount Auburn; and from this elevation the view has been drawn which appears in the present work. In the summer-season, when the thick trees have put on their full array, and appear in all their beauty, the panorama is nearly lost to the view of the spectator; but in the autumn of the year, a scene is presented from this high land, which is worthy of the poet or the painter.” [Fig. 5]

“849. Monticello, the seat of Jefferson, is situated on the summit of an eminence commanding extensive prospects on all sides.”

  • Horticola [pseud.], March 1852, “Notes on Gardens and Country Seats Near Boston,” describing Oakley Place, seat of William Pratt, Boston, MA (Horticulturist 7: 127)[17]
“The mansion house is approached by a noble avenue of trees, and stands on the brow of an eminence overlooking the whole country around.”

  • Watson, John Fanning, 1857, describing the residence of Edward Shippen, Philadelphia, PA, Annals of Philadelphia (1857: 1:368)[18]
“It was for many years after its construction beautifully situated, and surrounded with rural beauty, being originally on a small eminence, with a row of tall yellow pines in its rear, a full orchard of best fruit trees close by, overlooking the rising city beyond the Dock creek, and having on its front view a beautiful green lawn, gently sloping to the then pleasant Dock creek and Drawbridge, and the whole prospect unobstructed to the Delaware and the Jersey shore.”


  • Johnson, Samuel, 1755, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755: 1:n.p.)[19]
E’MINENCE. n.s. [eminentia, Latin.]
“1. Loftiness; height. . .
“4. A place where one is exposed to general notice.”

“In other parts are sometimes discovered eminences, or rising grounds, as a high terrace, mount, steep declivity, or other eminence, ornamented with curious trees and shrubs, with walks leading under the shade of trees, by easy ascents to the summit, where is presented to the view, an extensive prospect of the adjacent fields, buildings, hamlets, and country around, and likewise affording a fresh and cooling air in summer.”

  • Parmentier, André, 1828, “The Art of Landscape Gardening” (quoted in Fessenden 1828: 186)[21]
“If the house is placed on an eminence or side-hill, the prospect will be much more beautiful if you can enjoy the view of water.”

  • Webster, Noah, 1828, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828: 1:n.p.)[22]
EM’INENCE, EM’INENCY, n. [L. eminentia, from eminens, emineo, to stand or show itself above; e and minor, to threaten, that is, to stand or push forward. . .]
“1. Elevation, highth [sic], in a literal sense; but usually, a rising ground; a hill of moderate elevation above the adjacent ground.
“The temple of honor ought to be seated on an eminence. Burke.

  • Teschemacher, James E., November 1, 1835, “On Horticultural Architecture” (Horticultural Register 1: 412)[23]
“In forming ascents to rising grounds, where prospects are to be enjoyed, there is some art required to make the attainment of the elevation easy; this is done by cutting low steps at considerable intervals, say ten or twenty feet, according to the nature of the ground. . . Such paths to eminences are preferable when they wind round and gradually reach the summit.”

  • Anonymous, April 1, 1837, “Landscape Gardening” (Horticultural Register 3: 129–30)[24]
“Architectural and other ornaments may be introduced, according to the means of the proprietor. When properly distributed they add much to the effect. Seats and arbors should be placed at points affording interesting views, alcoves and rotundas on eminences, and hermitages in secluded places. . .
“If it [the house] is situated on an eminence, the back as well as front view may be exhibited to great advantage, and the effect will be heightened if a view of water can be then enjoyed. Limited prospects and neighboring buildings not worthy of notice, may be concealed by plantations of trees. The appearance of distance may be increased by planting trees of dark green and large dense foliage on the foreground, and those of light and airy foliage in the distance; this will produce the same effect as shades in a landscape picture.”

Fig. 6, Anonymous, “An octagonal Rustic Pavilion for an eminence,” one of four “Designs for Rustic Buildings,” Horticulturist 2, no. 8 (February 1848): pl. opp. 345, fig. 2.
  • Watterston, George, May 1844, “Landscape Gardening” (Southern Literary Messenger 10: 310)[25]
“Repton conceives that the difference between painting and gardening consists in the following particulars:
“‘Thirdly. The view from an eminence down a steep hill is not to be represented in painting, although it is often one of the most pleasing circumstances of natural landscape.’”

“As a contribution to the stock of ideas of the novice in rustic work, we have offered a few sketches in our Frontispiece of this month—all of which may be improved upon by the adept in rustic buildings.
Fig. 2, is an octagonal RUSTIC PAVILION for an eminence.” [Fig. 6]






  1. 1.0 1.1 William Parker Cutler, Life, Journals, and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, LL.D. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1987), view on Zotero.
  2. Elizabeth Cometti, ed., The American Journals of Lt. John Enys (Syracuse, NY: Adirondack Museum and Syracuse University Press, 1976), view on Zotero.
  3. Karen Madsen, “William Hamilton’s Woodlands,” (paper presented for seminar in American Landscape, 1790–1900, instructed by E. McPeck, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, 1988), view on Zotero.
  4. William Russell Birch, The Country Seats of the United States of North America: With Some Scenes Connected with Them (Springland, PA: W. Birch, 1808), view on Zotero.
  5. Philip Lee Phillips, The Beginnings of Washington: As Described in Books, Maps, and Views (Washington, DC: The author, 1917), view on Zotero.
  6. William Cullen Bryant, The Letters of William Cullen Bryant, ed. William Cullen II Bryant and Thomas G. Voss (New York: Fordham University Press, 1975), view on Zotero.
  7. Jane Mork Gibson, “The Fairmount Waterworks,” Bulletin, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 84 (1988), 5–40, view on Zotero.
  8. Frances Milton Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, 2 vols. (London: Wittaker, Treacher & Co., 1932), view on Zotero.
  9. Malthus A. Ward, An Address Pronounced Before the Massachusetts Horticultural Society (Boston: J. T. & E. Buckingham, 1831), view on Zotero.
  10. Cemetery of Mount Auburn, in American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge 1, no. 1 (September 1834): 9 view on Zotero.
  11. Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, 2 vols. (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838), view on Zotero.
  12. Horticultural Register and Gardener's Magazine, edited by Joseph Breck, (April 1, 1837), 130, view on Zotero.
  13. Charles Mason Hovey, “Notes Made during a Visit to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, and Intermediate Places, from August 8th to the 23rd, 1841,” Magazine of Horticulture, Botany, and All Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Rural Affairs 8, no. 4 (April 1842): 121–29, view on Zotero.
  14. Charles B. Trego, A Geography of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Edward C. Biddle, 1843), view on Zotero.
  15. Nehemiah Cleaveland, Green-Wood Illustrated: In Highly Finished Line Engraving, from Drawings Taken on the Spot/by James Smillie/With Descriptive Notices, by Nehemiah Cleaveland (New York: R. Martin, 1847), view on Zotero.
  16. J. C. (John Claudius) Loudon, An Encyclopaedia of Gardening; Comprising the Theory and Practice of Horticulture, Floriculture, Arboriculture, and Landscape-Gardening, new ed. (London: Longman et al., 1850), view on Zotero.
  17. Horticola [pseud.], “Notes on Gardens and Country Seats near Boston,” Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste 7, no. 3 (March 1852): 126–28, view on Zotero.
  18. John Fanning Watson, Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in the Olden Time; Being a Collection of Memoirs, Anecdotes, and Incidents of the City and Its Inhabitants, and of the Earliest Settlements of the Inland Part of Pennsylvania, from the Days of the Founders, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: E. Thomas, 1857), view on Zotero.
  19. Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language: In Which the Words Are Deduced from the Originals and Illustrated in the Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers, 2 vols (London: W. Strahan for J. and P. Knapton, 1755), view on Zotero.
  20. Bernard M'Mahon, The American Gardener’s Calendar: Adapted to the Climates and Seasons of the United States. Containing a Complete Account of All the Work Necessary to Be Done . . . for Every Month of the Year. . . (Philadelphia: Printed by B. Graves for the author, 1806), view on Zotero.
  21. Thomas Fessenden, The New American Gardener (Boston: J. B. Russell, 1828), view on Zotero.
  22. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, 2 vols. (New York: S. Converse, 1828), view on Zotero.
  23. James E. Teschemacher, “On Horticultural Architecture,” Horticultural Register, and Gardener’s Magazine 1 (November 1,1835): 409–12, view on Zotero.
  24. Anonymous, “Landscape Gardening,” Horticultural Register, and Gardener’s Magazine 3 (April 1, 1837): 121–31, view on Zotero.
  25. George Watterston, “Landscape Gardening,” Southern Literary Messenger 10 (May) (1844), 306–15, view on Zotero.
  26. A. J. Downing, “Hints and Designs for Rustic Buildings,” Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste 2, no. 8 (February 1848): 363–65, view on Zotero.
  27. Sotheby’s New York, Important American Schoolgirl Embroideries (January 2012), view on Zotero.

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