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History of Early American Landscape Design

Andrew Jackson Downing

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A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1849)

A. J. Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America;..., 4th ed. (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, [1849]1991)[1]

  • Section I (pp. 21, 30, 42–44)
“THE ANCIENT STYLE. A predominance of regular forms and right lines is the characteristic feature of the ancient style of gardening. The value of art, of power, and of wealth, were at once easily and strongly shown by an artificial arrangement of all the materials; an arrangement the more striking, as it differed most widely from nature. And in an age when costly and stately architecture was most abundant, as in the times of the Roman empire, it is natural to suppose, that the symmetry and studied elegance of the palace, or the villa, would be transferred and continued in the surrounding gardens. . . .
“Whatever may have been the absurdities of the ancient style, it is not to be denied that in connexion with highly decorated architecture, its effect, when in the best taste—as the Italian—is not only splendid and striking, but highly suitable and appropriate. . . .
“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.”

  • Section II (pp. 62, 63)
“The beauties elicited by the ancient style of gardening were those of regularity, symmetry, and the display of labored art. These were attained in a merely mechanical manner. . . .The geometrical form and lines of the buildings were only extended and carried out in the garden. . . .
“Indeed, as, to level ground naturally uneven, or to make an avenue, by planting rows of trees on each side of a broad walk, requires only the simplest perception of the beauty of mathematical forms, so, to lay out a garden in the geometric style, became little more than a formal routine, and it was only after the superior interest of a more natural manner was enforced by men of genius, that natural beauty of expression was recognised, and Landscape Gardening was raised to the rank of a fine art.
“The ancient style of gardening may, however, be introduced with good effect in certain cases. In public squares and gardens, where display, grandeur of effect, and a highly artificial character are desirable, it appears to us the most suitable; and no less so in very small gardens, in which variety and irregularity are out of the question. Where a taste for imitating an old and quaint style of residence exists, the symmetrical and knotted garden would be a proper accompaniment; and pleached alleys, and sheared trees, would be admired, like old armor or furniture, as curious specimens of antique taste and custom.

  • Section III (pp. 89–90, 92, 95)
“In these gardens, nature was tamed and subdued. . . . The stately etiquette and courtly precision of the manners of our English ancestors, extended into their gardens, and were reflected back by the very trees which lined their avenues, and the shrubs which surrounded their houses . . . the gay ladies and gallants of Charles II’s court . . . fluttering in glittering processions, or flirting in green alleys and bowers of topiary work. . . .
“The beautiful and the picturesque are the new elements of interest, which, entering into the composition of our gardens and home landscapes, have to refined minds increased a hundred fold the enjoyment derived from this species of rural scenery. Still, there is much to admire in the ancient style. Its long and majestic avenues, the wide-spreading branches interlacing over our heads, and forming long, shadowy aisles, are, themselves alone, among the noblest and most imposing sylvan objects. Even the formal and curiously knotted gardens are interesting, from the pleasing associations which they suggest to mind, as having been the favorite haunts of Shakespeare, Bacon, Spenser, and Milton. They are so inseparably connected, too, in our imaginations, with the quaint architecture of that era, that wherever that style of building is adopted . . . this style of gardening may be considered as highly appropriate, and in excellent keeping with such a country house. . . .
“And as the Avenue, or the straight line, is the leading form in the geometric arrangement of plantations, so let us enforce it upon our readers, the GROUP is equally the key-note of the Modern style. The smallest place, having only three trees, may have these pleasingly connected in a group; and the largest and finest park—the Blenheim or Chatsworth, of seven miles square, is only composed of a succession of groups, becoming masses, thickets, woods. . . .

  • Section IV (pp. 154, 161, 168, 182, 193, 257)
“It [the White American Elm] is one of the most generally esteemed of our native trees for ornamental purposes, and is as great a favorite here as in Europe for planting in public squares and along the highways. Beautiful specimens may be seen in Cambridge, Mass., and very fine avenues of this tree are growing with great luxuriance in and about New Haven. . . .
“In avenues it [the plane tree] is often happily employed, and produces a grand effect. It also grows with great vigor in close cities, as some superb specimens in the square of the State-house, Pennsylvania Hospital, and other places in Philadelphia fully attest. . . .
“In this country the European lime is also much planted in our cities; and some avenues of it may be seen in Philadelphia, particularly before the State-house in Chestnut-street. . . .
“When handsome avenues or straight lines are wanted, the Horse-chestnut is again admirably suited, from its symmetry and regularity. . . .
“It is unnecessary for us to recommend this tree [the maple] for avenues, or for bordering the streets of cities, as its general prevalence in such places sufficiently indicates its acknowledged claims for beauty, shade, and shelter. . . .
“Where there is a taste for avenues, the Tulip tree ought by all means to be employed, as it makes a most magnificent overarching canopy of verdure, supported on trunks almost architectural in their symmetry.”

  • Section X (pp. 455–57)
“The simplest variety of covered architectural seat is the latticed arbor for vines of various descriptions, with the seat underneath the canopy of foliage; this may with more propriety be introduced in various parts of the grounds than any other of its class, as the luxuriance and natural gracefulness of the foliage which covers the arbor, in a great measure destroys or overpowers the expression of its original form. Lattice arbors, however, neatly formed of rough poles and posts, are much more picturesque and suitable for wilder portions of the scenery.
“There is scarcely a prettier or more pleasant object for the termination of a long walk in the pleasure-grounds or park, than a neatly thatched structure of rustic work, with its seat for repose, and a view of the landscape beyond. On finding such an object, we are never tempted to think that there has been a lavish expenditure to serve a trifling purpose, but are gratified to see the exercise of taste and ingenuity, which completely answers the end in view. . . .
“Figure 84 is a covered seat or rustic arbor, with a thatched roof of straw. Twelve posts are set securely in the ground, which make the frame of this structure, the openings between being filled in with branches (about three inches in diameter) of different trees—the more irregular the better, so that the perpendicular surface of the exterior and interior is kept nearly equal. In lieu of thatch, the roof may be first tightly boarded, and then a covering of bark or the slabs of trees with the bark on, overlaid and nailed on. The figure represents the structure as formed round a tree. For the sake of variety this might be omitted, the roof formed of an open lattice work of branches like the sides, and the whole covered by a grape, bignonia, or some other vine or creeper of luxuriant growth. The seats are in the interior.” [Fig. 10]

  • Appendix V (pp. 531)
“The only situation where this brilliant [white] gravel seems to us perfectly in keeping, is in the highly artificial garden of the ancient or geometric style, or in the symmetrical terrace flower garden adjoining the house. In these instances its striking appearance is in excellent keeping with the expression of all the surrounding objects, and it renders more forcible and striking the highly artificial and artistical character of the scene; and to such situations we would gladly see its use limited.”

The Architecture of Country Houses (1850)

  • Part I, Section IV (pp. 112-13)
“In the Design before us . . . there is an air of rustic or rural beauty conferred on the whole cottage by the simple, or veranda-like arbor, or trellis, which runs round three sides of the building; as well as an expression of picturesqueness, by the roof supported on ornamental brackets and casting deep shadows upon the walls.
“To become aware how much this beauty of expression has to do with rendering this cottage interesting, we have only to imagine it stripped of the arbor-veranda and the projecting eaves, and it becomes in appearance only the most meagre and common-place building, which may be a house or a barn: at the most, it would indicate nothing more by its chimneys and windows, than that it is a human habitation, and not, as at present, that it is the dwelling of a family who have some rural taste, and some love for picturesque character in a house.” [see Fig. 1]

  • Part II, Section X (pp. 281)

“As a marked defect in this design . . . was the absence of all veranda, arcade, or covered walk—without which no country-house is tolerable in the United States, we have added a veranda in the angle between the library and drawing-room. . . .

  • Part II, Section XI (pp. 354, 356)
“We see refined culture symbolized in the round-arch, with its continually recurring curves of beauty, in the spacious and elegant arcades, inviting to leisurely conversations, in all those outlines and details, suggestive of restrained and orderly action, as contrasted with the upward, aspiring, imaginative feeling indicated in the pointed or Gothic styles of architecture. . . .
“[Referring to Design XXXII.] Standing in the middle of the vestibule, the arcade extends to the drawing-room, affording a broad and airy promenade, nearly 60 feet long, sheltered from sun and rain.” [Fig. 11]


Magazine of Horticulture

  • 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.”


  • October 1847, describing Montgomery Place, country home of Mrs. Edward (Louise) Livingston, Dutchess County, N.Y. (Horticulturist 2: 155)
“Its ribbed roof is supported by a tasteful series of columns and arches, in the style of an Italian arcade. As it is on the north side of the dwelling, its position is always cool in summer; and this coolness is still farther increased by the abundant shade of tall old trees, whose heads cast a pleasant gloom, while their tall trunks allow the eye to feast on the rich landscape spread around it.” [Fig. 10]

  • February 1849, “Design for a Suburban Garden” (Horticulturist 3: 380)
“At the end of this wall, we come to the semicircular Italian arbor, D. This arbor, which is very light and pleasing in effect, is constructed of slender posts, rising 8 or 9 feet above the surface, from the tops of which strong transverse strips are nailed, as shown in the plan. The grapes ripen on this kind of Italian arbor much more perfectly than upon one of the common kind, thickly covered with foliage.
“Beyond this arbor, and at the termination of the central walk, is a vase, rustic basket, or other ornamental object, e. The semi-circle, embraced within the arbor, is a space laid with regular beds.” [Fig. 11]

  • 1849, describing Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pa. (Horticulturalist 4: 10)
Laurel Hill is especially rich in rare trees. We saw, last month, almost every procurable species of hardy tree and shrub growing there—among others, the Cedar of Lebanon, the Deodar Cedar, the Paulownia., the Araucaria, etc. Rhododendrons and Azaleas were in full bloom; and the purple Beeches, the weeping Ash, rare Junipers, Pines, and deciduous trees were abundant in many parts of the grounds. Twenty acres of new ground have just been added to this cemetery. It is a better arboretum than can easily be found elsewhere in the country.” [Fig. 4]

Other Writings

  • December 31, 1846, in a letter to Thomas P. Barton, describing Montgomery Place, country home of Mrs. Edward (Louise) Livingston, Dutchess County, N.Y. (quoted in Haley 1988: 21) [2]
“I am delighted to learn that you are about to add to the great charms of Montgomery Place by the formation of an arboretum. How few persons there are yet in this country who know any thing of the individual beauty of even our own forest trees! I wish you success in so laudable an undertaking.”
  • October 1847, describing Montgomery Place, country home of Mrs. Edward (Louise) Livingston, Dutchess County, N.Y. (quoted in Haley 1988: 45, 53) [2]
“On the east it [the natural boundary of the estate] touches the post road. Here is the entrance gate, and from it leads a long and stately avenue of trees, like the approach to an old French chateau. Halfway up its length, the lines of planted trees give place to a tall wood, and this again is succeeded by the lawn, which opens in all its stately dignity, with increased effect, after the deeper shadows of this vestibule-like wood. . . .
“Among those more worthy of note, we gladly mention an arboretum, just commenced on a fine site in the pleasure grounds, set apart and thoroughly prepared for the purpose. Here a scientific arrangement of all the most beautiful hardy trees and shrubs, will interest the student, who looks upon the vegetable kingdom with a more curious eye than the ordinary observer.” [Fig. 3]

  • 1851, describing plans for improving the public grounds in Washington, D.C. (quoted in Washburn 1967: 54) [3]
“I propose to take down the present small stone gates to the President’s Grounds, and place at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue a large and handsome Archway of marble, which shall not only form the main entrance from the City to the whole of the proposed new Grounds, but shall also be one of the principal Architectural ornaments of the city; inside of this arch-way is a semicircle with three gates commanding three carriage roads. Two of these lead into the Parade or President’s Park, the third is a private carriage-drive into the President’s grounds; this gate should be protected by a Porter’s lodge, and should only be open on reception days, thus making the President’s grounds on this side of the house quite private at all other times. . . .” [Fig. 8]




  1. A. J. Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America;..., 4th ed. (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, [1849]1991) view on Zotero
  2. 2.0 2.1 Jacquetta M. Haley, ed., Pleasure Grounds: Andrew Jackson Downing and Montgomery Place (Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Press, 1988) view on Zotero
  3. Wilcomb E. Washburn, ‘Vision of Life for the Mall’, AIA Journal 47 (March 1967): 52–59. view on Zotero

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