As early as 1787, Americans recognized the alcove as a distinct garden feature that could follow one of two types: an ornamental building in a garden or a recessed niche cut into live plant material.
As a garden building, an alcove could be a freestanding or semidetached structure, typically possessing three sides and housing a seat. Alcoves provided shelter from the sun in summer but were particularly welcome in the northern winter, since they were often enclosed against the winds and open to the sun. As sheltered sun-catchers, alcoves were logical appendages to bathhouses as indicated in Samuel Vaughan’s 1787 plan of Berkeley Springs, Va. (later W.Va.) . Like other garden buildings, such as summerhouses and pavilions, alcoves provided shade and gave visual and physical structure to the garden by serving “as terminations to grand walks,” as Eliza Caroline Burgwin Clitherall (active 1801) and Bernard M’Mahon (1806) both explained. Alcoves, situated at the end of long walks or avenues, created visual focal points and secluded destinations for people using the garden [1007, 1688].
When conceived as a recessed niche, an alcove was typically set into or cut out of densely planted vegetation, such as privet. Alexander Walsh’s 1841 account of diminutive alcoves exemplifies this second type . In Walsh’s plan, the alcoves act as portals between the ornamental pleasure ground and compartments devoted to flowers and culinary vegetables (see also M’Mahon 1806). These portals were elevated, much like those described in the Horticultural Register of 1837, and thus provided both enclosure and privacy as well as a vantage point from which to view the landscape.