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History of Early American Landscape Design

Ancient style

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The term ancient did not refer simply to garden design of antiquity but was used in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to refer to Renaissance and baroque gardens. As Horace Walpole described this style in 1784, “All the ingredients of Pliny’s corresponded exactly with those laid out by London and Wise on Dutch principles. He talks of slope, terrace, a wilderness, shrubs methodically trimmed, a marble bason, pipes spouting water, a cascade falling into the bason, bay-trees, alternately planted with planes, and a straight walk, from whence issued others parted off by hedges of box, and apple-trees, with obelisks placed between every two. There wants for nothing but the embroidery of a parterre, to make a garden in the reign of Trajan serve for a description of one in that of King William.”1 Walpole’s description and Robert Castell’s reconstruction of ancient gardens [Fig. 1] were exemplified by many gardens of the early American colonies [Figs. 2–4].

This category of garden style was generally described in relation or in contrast to a modern style, a dualism continuing the traditional argument of the ancient versus the modern that had characterized intellectual debate since the seventeenth century.2 In late eighteenth- and early nineteenth- century garden theory, landscape art was divided into one or the other general ategory. A. J. Downing’s A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1849) opens with a vignette illustrating these two modes [Fig. 5]. The geometric and regular gardens associated with premodern styles, such as the Dutch, French, and Italian [Fig. 6], became foils for the newer, irregular styles of the picturesque movement. When Benjamin Henry Latrobe visited Mount Vernon, he sketched it from vantage points that emphasized its natural park-like setting. However, he criticized the parterres of the Upper Garden, which were designed in an ancient geometric mode “laid out in squares, and boxed with great precision. For the first time since I left Germany, I saw here a parterre, clipped and trimmed with infinite care into the form of a richly flourished Fleur-de-Lis, the expiring groans I hope of our Grandfather[s’] pedantry.” At the end of the eighteenth century, the ancient style was seen as retarditaire in the face of the emerging and more fashionable modern style.

Downing illustrated the “regularity, symmetry, and the display of labored art of the ancient style” in his treatise with an illustration of the Dutch school [Fig. 7]. He, as did many British and American writers, used the term geometric interchangeably with that of ancient (see Geometric style). Downing described the method of executing this style as simply extending the geometrical lines of architecture into the garden. It was this link to architecture as opposed to nature that was often the source of criticism of the ancient style.

Many of the garden buildings and ornaments later associated with the modern garden, such as temples, summerhouses, architecture, sculpture, and water features, also appeared in the ancient-style garden. The difference between the two, as Bernard M’Mahon made clear in his extensive description “Of Ancient Designs” (in his American Gardener’s Calendar, 1806), lay in the disposition of these parts and their relationship to one another. Symmetry, uniformity, and order prevailed as did a conspicuously artificial arrangement of parts and plant material.

Long after the taste for the modern style was fully entrenched in America, however, the ancient style was still tolerated in public spaces or where classical architecture was involved, as George Watterston wrote in 1844. Espoused by theorists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, this principle was based on the requirements of harmonic design, which demanded the continuation of symmetry and regularity in the garden if the building had been designed predominantly in the classical mode.

The association of the American political system with the democracy of ancient Greece or republican Rome was a frequent argument for the appropriateness of the neoclassical over the romantic style in public or governmental projects during the early national era.3 For this reason it seems that in spite of the fashion for the natural or irregular garden style, the “old and formal style of design” never disappeared.4 In fact, according to a writer in the Horticulturist in 1852, it remained the predominant style throughout “Yankeedom.” Even Downing, the chief exponent of the modern style in America, employed the ancient or geometric style for portions of his design for the national Mall in Washington, D.C.5

In his description of “Plantations in the Ancient Style” [Fig. 8], Downing contributed a political valence to the history of the style when he wrote that “symmetrical uniformity governed with despotic power even the trees and foliage.” This interpretation of the neoclassical styles in garden and architectural design might explain why Downing declared it expressive of power and therefore appropriate for public edifices and their immediate grounds. Despite his preference for the modern style, Downing justified the ancient style in America, writing that its distinct artifice would give more pleasure by contrast to the surrounding landscape, which, in America, was abounding with natural beauty.6 Both Downing and his predecessor, J. C. Loudon, sought to highlight the hand of the artist seen in contrasting designed or improved scenery with the natural appearance of a given site. Thus the ancient style survived the overwhelming preference or taste for the modern style (see Modern style).

-- Therese O'Malley


  • Quincy, Josiah, 3 May 1773, describing the country seat of John Dickensen, near Philadelphia, Pa. (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
“Take into consideration the antique look of his house, his gardens, green-house, bathing- house, grotto, study, fish-pond, fields, meadow, vista, through which is distant prospect of Delaware River.”

  • Downing, A. J., January 1837, “Notices on the State and Progress of Horticulture in the United States” (Magazine of Horticulture 3: 8)
“The finest single example of landscape gardening, in the modern style, is at Dr. Hosack’s seat, Hyde Park, and the best specimens of the ancient or geometric style may probably be met with in the neighborhood of Philadelphia.”

  • W., February 1842, “An Account of Lowell Cemetery,” Lowell, Mass. (Magazine of Horticulture 8: 49)
“In laying out these grounds, the skill of the designer has been displayed, in combining somewhat the ‘ancient or geometric style’ with the natural or irregular. In some parts, the regular forms and right lines are well adapted to the location of the ground, while in others, the varied and gradually curving forms give an air of grandeur and boldness, and in combining these with the natural scenery, cannot fail to call forth, in the minds of visitors, impressions of love and veneration.”

  • Downing, A. J., 1849, describing Belmont Mansion, estate of Judge William Peters, near Philadelphia, Pa.; Lemon Hill, estate of Henry Pratt, Philadelphia, Pa.; and Clermont, estate of Robert R. Livingston, Germantown, N.Y. (pp. 42–44)
“The seat of the late Judge Peters, about five miles from Philadelphia, was, 30 years ago, a noted specimen of the ancient school of landscape gardening. . . . Long and stately avenues, with vistas terminated by obelisks, a garden adorned with marble vases, busts, and statues, and pleasure grounds filled with the rarest trees and shrubs, were conspicuous features here. . . .
“Lemon Hill, half a mile above the Fairmount waterworks of Philadelphia, was, 20 years ago, the most perfect specimen of the geometric mode in America, and since its destruction by the extension of the city, a few years since, there is nothing comparable with it, in that style, among us. All the symmetry, uniformity, and high art of the old school, were displayed here in artificial plantations, formal gardens with trellises, grottoes, spring-houses, temples, statues, and vases, with numerous ponds of water, jets-d’eau, and other water-works, parterres and an extensive range of hothouses. The effect of this garden was brilliant and striking; its position, on the lovely banks of the Schuylkill, admirable; and its liberal proprietor, Mr. Pratt, by opening it freely to the public, greatly increased the popular taste in the neighborhood of that city.
“On the Hudson, the show place of the last age was the still interesting Clermont, then the residence of Chancellor Livingston. Its level or gently undulating lawn, four or five miles in length, the rich native woods, and the long vistas of planted avenues, added to its fine water view, rendered this a noble place. The mansion, the greenhouses, and the gardens, show something of the French taste in design, which Mr. Livingston’s residence abroad, at the time when that mode was popular, no doubt, led him to adopt. . . .
“Judge Peters’ seat, Lemon Hill, and Clermont, were [the best specimens] of the ancient style, in the earliest period of the history of Landscape Gardening among us.”


  • M’Mahon, Bernard, 1806, The American Gardener’s Calendar (pp. 55, 59, 65–69)
“In designs for a Pleasure-ground, according to modern gardening; consulting rural disposition, in imitation of nature; all too formal works being almost abolished, such as long straight walks, regular intersections, square grass-plats, corresponding parterres, quadrangular and angular spaces, and other uniformities, as in ancient designs; instead of which, are now adopted, rural open spaces of grass-ground, of varied forms and dimensions, and winding walks, all bound with plantations of trees, shrubs, and flowers, in various clumps; other compartments are exhibited in a variety of imitative rural forms; such as curves, projections, openings, and closings, in imitation of a natural assemblage; having all the various plantations and borders, open to the walks and lawns. . . .
“Regular compartments and figures, in various forms, are also sometimes introduced in some extensive grounds, for variety; in contrast with the irregular works, and still to preserve some appearance of the remains of ancient gardening; such as straight walks, verged with borders of flowers, &c. regular parterres, in flower borders; square spaces, circles, and octagons, &c. inclosed with low clipped hedges; hedge-work, formed into various devices; detached ever-greens, formed into pyramids and other regular figures; regular grass-slopes, formed on the side of some declivity or rising ground; elevated terrace’s, clumps of trees, surrounded with low evergreen hedges; straight avenues of trees, in ranges, &c. a little of each being judiciously disposed in different situations, may prove an agreeable variety, by diversifying the scene, in contrast with the rural works before mentioned. ...
“Designs, in ancient gardening, for a Pleasure-ground, consulted uniformity in every part, exact levels, straight lines, parallels, squares, angles, circles, and other geometrical figures, &c. all corresponding in the greatest regularity, to effect an exact symmetry and proportion.
“Grand parterres were very commonly presented immediately on the front of the main house, having a grand walk of grass or gravel directly from the house through the middle, or dividing the parterre ground into two divisions. . . . :“These works were in great estimation in ancient gardening, and were commonly situated, directly in front of the house, generally the whole width of the front, or sometimes more. . . .
“In the more interior parts, large tracts of ground were frequently divided by

straight grass-walks, into many square and angular divisions of wilderness, each division surrounded by regular hedges of various kinds of trees and shrubs, kept in uniform order by annual clippings . . . and all the walks generally led into uniform openings of grass, particularly to a grand circle or octagon, forming some central part.

“Frequently there were partitions of regular hedge-work, particularly of ever-greens, surrounding large squares of grass-ground, designed as pieces of garden ornaments, the hedge-work being often formed into various uniform devices; such as pilasters, arcades or arches, porticoes, galleries, amphitheaters, pavilions, cabinets, bowers, pediments, niches, and cornices; likewise regular arbors, having the sides formed into arcades, and sometimes the top vaulted; and with various other formal imitations, all performed in hedge-work, which were often so arranged and trained, as to effect an air of grandeur and art. High hedges were also in great repute, as boundaries to grand walks and avenues, sometimes carried up from fifteen or twenty, or thirty or forty feet high; . . . all sorts of hedge-work was generally esteemed so ornamental in ancient gardening, that almost every division was surrounded with regular hedges of one sort or other, presenting themselves to view in every part, shutting out all other objects from sight; but in modern designs, such hedges are rarely admitted; every compartment of the plantation being left open to view, from the walks and lawns, in order to afford a full prospect of the various trees, shrubs, and flowers, which consequently are more beautiful than continued ranges of close hedges; but for the sake of variety, a little ornamental hedge-work might still be introduced in some particular parts of the ground.
“Labyrinths or mazes of hedge-work, in the manner of a wilderness, also prevailed in many large gardens. . ..
“Detached trained figures of ever-greens, as yew, cypress, juniper, holly, box, and various other close-growing ever-green plants, were also very predominant in ancient designs, and generally disposed in regular ranges along the borders and other verges of grand walks; being trained by clipping into various formal shapes, as pyramids, obelisks, columns, &c. in a variety of forms, with other formal figures, all placed in the most exact arrangement. :“Straight rows of the most beautiful trees, forming long avenues and grand walks, were in great estimation, considered as great ornaments, and no considerable estate and eminent pleasure-ground were without several of them. :“The perpetual show of stiff formality, displayed by this kind of fancy, has induced many to discontinue it; but some of these run into the contrary extreme, by excluding all formal regularity and uniform appearances; and substituting various dissimilar arrangements, in the formation of the different compartments, in fancied imitation of natural rurality as much as possible.”



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