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History of Early American Landscape Design


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Approaches, roads, avenues, and other circulation routes have always been an important component of American landscape design, but the term drive as a designation for a carriage road (as opposed to walks and paths for pedestrians and horseback riders) did not come into common usage in America until the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Even then it appears to have been used only by treatise writers. Although earlier sites, such as Monticello and Mount Ver.non, included similar serpentine ways leading to the house, these routes usually were designated as avenues or roads.

A. J. Downing distinguished a drive from an approach, placing emphasis on the loca.tion of the roadways within an estate. In his lexicon, an approach, whether straight in the manner of the “ancient style” or serpentine following the “modern style,” led the traveler from the public road to the house. The drive, in contrast, began where the approach terminated and carried the visitor through the estate, as with the several miles of grav.eled drives that he praised at Beaverwyck, near Albany, or the circuitous drives of Anthony Bleeker’s 1847 plan for Point Breeze [Fig. 1] in Bordentown, N.J. Other treatise writers, such as James E. Teschemacher in 1835, used the term “drive” more broadly to include curvilinear drives to the house, those that Downing would have called “approaches.” The majority of descriptions of drives, with their sweeping curves (which allowed one to experience the changing scenery of the landscape), relate to the large estates of America’s wealthiest families. Only by the mid-nineteenth century did the term’s meaning shift, when George Jaques in 1852 applied the term to circulation routes at residential dwellings of modest scale. As such, the meaning began to approximate the contemporary term driveway.

As the term itself implies, a drive was part of the processional experience of the natural or picturesque landscape.1 It offered the carriage traveler varied scenery, views of distant prospects, and glimpses of the main house [Figs. 2–4]. Views of the house that became evident as one approached from an oblique angle, Downing noted, were beneficial for “displaying not only the beauty of the archi.tectural façade but also one of the end eleva.tions.” Thus, the views gave “a more complete idea of the size, character, or elegance of the building.” Where possible, these modern drives took advantage of the natural scenery, as in Downing’s design for Montgomery Place on the Hudson, where he followed his own advice that a road “should never curve without some reason, either real or apparent [his ital.ics].” The intricacy of the circulation routes and their incorporation of views are further exemplified in John Notman’s plan of 1846 for Woodlawn in Princeton, N.J. [Fig. 5].

The feature of the drive in public space offered a more affordable venue for pedes.trians and horseback riders to enjoy the nat.ural and artificially constructed beauty of the Schuylkill River and Fairmount Water.works, Gray’s Ferry, and Laurel Hill Ceme.tery in Philadelphia [Fig. 6]. Downing’s plan for Washington, D.C., incorporated several miles of drives for carriages (as opposed to walks for pedestrians) to enable visitors to circulate through the national park. In this case, the drive was also a means to an end, allowing visitors to benefit from the didactic purposes of the “sylvan museum.”

The attention given in American land.scape designs of the 1840s to circulation routes suitable for carriages in both public and residential space may partly reflect the technological innovations in vehicle suspension systems that had developed in England. These improvements and the simultaneous efforts to develop roadways allowed faster travel that, in turn, was instrumental in the growing practice of touring British country estates.2 While touring was not as highly developed in America, landscape designs often incorporated the same aesthetic prin.ciples of opening views and creating a varied experience for the visitor driving through the landscape.3 Downing cautioned that “the curves should never be so great, or lead over surfaces so unequal, as to make it disagreeable to drive upon them.”

-- Elizabeth Kryder-Reid






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History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Drive," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Drive&oldid=17364 (accessed June 5, 2023).

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