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History of Early American Landscape Design

Ha-Ha/Sunk fence

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(Ah Ah, Ah-ha, Foss, Fosse, Ha ha, Ha! Haw)
See also: Deer park

Anthony St. John Baker, Riversdale, near Bladensburg, 1827.

From the early eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, treatises praised the ha-ha as a useful design solution for the construction of barriers without interrupting views.[1] Several writers recall the origin of the name as the expression of surprise at finding a sudden and unperceived check to one’s walk. A ha-ha, also known as a sunk fence, blind fence, ditch and fence, deer wall, or foss, was formed by a ditch (sometimes with a fence at its lowest point), a steep bank, or a wall built into the side of a hill. Whatever the method of construction, the ha-ha created a barrier that was not visible from one side or, if a ditch, all directions. Anthony St. John Baker’s 1827 sketch of Riversdale, in Maryland, illustrates a ha-ha wall built into the ground that created a barrier while permitting unobstructed views from the house [Fig. 1].[2] The deer depicted in the foreground underscore the function of the feature: to keep a pasture or a park separate from the lawn and garden near a house (see Deer park).

John Nancarrow, Plan of the Seat of John Penn, jun'r: Esqr: in Blockley Township and County of Philadelphia, c. 1784.
Benjamin Henry Latrobe, "Principal Story of a Military School," 1800. Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
George Flower, Park House, Albion, Edwards County, Illinois--Home of George Flower, c. 1820.

Despite the broad date range of treatise recommendations, usage records suggest that in American practice most of these features were constructed in the late eighteenth century and that they were exceptional, although notable. The feature seems to have been limited to the estates of the landed elite and larger institutions. Ha-has at John Penn’s estate in Philadelphia; Rosewell in Virginia [Fig. 2]; Mount Vernon; Monticello; Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s plan for a military school [Fig. 3]; and the Woodlands, near Philadelphia, were all constructed in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Monticello’s landscape improvements extended into the first decade of the nineteenth, and an image of Park House in Albion, Ill., shows a ha-ha dating to around 1820 [Fig. 4]. These sites were among the most elaborate in America in their landscaping programs. George Flower’s haha at Park House, which permitted a view of reclining cattle and grazing sheep, conformed to the notion that Flower’s “success allowed him to live a life approximating that of an English country gentleman.”[3]

The ha-ha seems to have been used at the edge of lawns and gardens to separate the spaces immediately surrounding the dwelling from pasture land and grazing animals. Mount Vernon’s ha-ha, which George Washington referred to as both a “ha haw” and a deer wall, separated the west lawn from the deer park below, leaving a clear view from the house to the Potomac river and distant Maryland shore. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson took advantage of the mountain’s high topographic relief by building his ha-ha into the hillside along the southern side of his newly leveled lawn using a retaining wall of stone. This ha-ha (elsewhere called a terrace wall), allowed views of the panorama beyond and screened much of the working area along Mulberry Row when viewed from the house and lawn. John Nancarrow’s plan of John Penn’s estate, now the site of the Philadelphia Zoo, also indicates placement of a ha-ha at the edge of the pleasure ground, in this case just along the southern border of his property [Fig. 2].

A visitor to Monticello in 1823, who lacked the vocabulary to describe what he saw, wrote, “As we approached the house we rode along a fence which was the only one of the kind I ever saw. Instead of being upright, it lay upon the ground across a ditch, the banks of the ditch raised the rails a foot or two above the ground on each side of the ditch so that no kind of grazing animals could easily cross it, because their feet would slip between the rails. It had just the appearance of a common post and rail straight fence, blown down across a ditch.”[4] Several explanations may be posited for the limited appearance of the haha in America as compared with its more prevalent use in Britain. One explanation may be that large-scale landscape gardens and parks associated with ha-has were less common in America (see English style). A ha-ha not only required the space to create the feature and a garden of proportions to match, but also involved an expenditure of labor and materials. Jefferson’s notes from 1804 express his concern with cost savings as he planned to reuse stone from other parts of the plantation to construct the masonry section of his ha-ha.[5] Perhaps the aesthetic of the uninterrupted view was not sufficiently compelling among the majority of landowners to warrant the expense and effort of the ha-ha.

The seeming tolerance and incorporation of fences into landscape designs of even the most “naturalistic” style may explain the infrequent mention of this feature (see Fence). The ha-ha was not effective as a barrier against deer, a major threat to garden vegetation in much of the country. While the sunken fences were a deterrent to grazing animals such as cattle and sheep, it took fences such as the ten-foot-high paling fence that Jefferson constructed around his kitchen garden to keep out deer.[6] In addition, in the late eighteenth century, when the ha-ha was most often utilized, many plantations had separate farms or “quarters” where the more intensive agricultural and animal production took place far enough from the main house and its adjacent gardens to eliminate worry of stray animals (see Plantation). The pastoral image of farm animals lying just beyond the reach of the lawn or sheep grazing at the edge of the ha-ha still evoked an agrarian ideal as late as 1849 in A. J. Downing’s writings, but by that time the appeal of the ha-ha was largely aesthetic and symbolic, rather than practical.

-- Elizabeth Kryder-Reid






Common Usage

  • Washington, George, 1785, describing Mount Vernon, plantation of George Washington, Fairfax County, Va. (Jackson and Twohig, eds., 1978: 4:86;[7] Johnson 1953: 100[8])
"[8 February] Finding that I should be very late in preparing my Walks & Shrubberies if I waited till the ground should be uncovered by the dissolution of the Snow—I had it removed Where necessary & began to Wheel dirt into the Ha! Haws &ca.—tho’ it was it exceeding miry & bad working. . . . [Fig. 6]
"[11 March] Planted . . . 13 Yellow Willow trees alternately along the Post and Rail fence from the Kitchen to the South ha-haw and from the Servants’ Hall to the Smith’s Shop.”
  • Hamilton, William, 30 September 1785, in a letter to his secretary, Benjamin Hays Smith, describing the Woodlands, seat of William Hamilton, near Philadelphia, Pa. (quoted in Madsen 1988: A3)[9]
“Step also the Diameter of the circle or ring that encloses the Ice House Hill & tell me the space from one to the other side of the walk & of the Ha.Ha.
  • Hamilton, Alexander, 1803, describing Hamilton Grange, estate of Alexander Hamilton, New York, N.Y. (quoted in Lockwood 1931: 1:263)[10]
“It has always appeared to me that the ground on which our orchard stands is much too moist. To cure this, a ditch round it would be useful, perhaps with a sunken fence as a guard.”
  • Jefferson, Thomas, c. 1804, describing Monticello, plantation of Thomas Jefferson, Charlottesville, Va. (quoted in Nichols and Griswold 1978: 107)[11]
“General ideas for the improvement of Monticello “all the houses on the Mulberry walk to be taken away, except the stone house . . . and a ha! ha! instead of the paling along it for an inclosure. This will of course be made when the garden is levelled, and stone for the wall will be got out of the garden itself, in digging, aided by that got out of the level in front of the S.W. offices, the old stone fence below the stable, and the lower wall of the garden, which is thicker than necessary.”
  • Kirkbride, Thomas S., April 1848, describing the pleasure grounds and farm of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, Philadelphia, Pa. (American Journal of Insanity 4: 349)
“Between the north lodge and the deer-park, separated from the latter by a sunk palisade fence, is a neat flower garden.”
  • [Dézallier d’Argenville, A.-J.], 1712, The Theory and Practice of Gardening ([1712] 1969: 77) [12]
“At present we frequently make Thorough-Views, call’d Ah, Ah, which are Openings in the Walls, without Grills, to the very Level of the Walks, with a large and deep Ditch at the Foot of them, lined on both Sides to sustain the Earth, and prevent the getting over, which surprises the Eye upon coming near it, and makes one cry, Ah! Ah! from whence it take its Name.”


  1. As Steven A. Mansbach relates in his brief survey of the history of the ha-ha in England, the term entered English garden literature with John James’s 1712 translation of Dézallier d’Argenville’s La théorie et la practique du jardinage (1709). Charles Bridgeman, Lord Cobham’s head gardener at Stowe, employed the ha-ha in the extensive enlargement of the gardens in the 1720s. See Steven A. Mansbach, “An Earthwork of Surprise: The 18th-Century Ha-Ha,” Art Journal 42 (Fall 1982): 217–21.
  2. Like similar barriers at Mount Vernon and Monticello, the Riversdale wall was ineffective at deterring deer, and Rosalie Calvert Stier complained that deer were eating tulips under her windows. She, unfortunately, failed to mention the wall so we do not know whether she referred to it as a ha-ha (Margaret Law Calcott, personal communication).
  3. Judith A. Barter and Lynn E. Springer, Currents of Expansion: Painting in the Midwest, 1820–1940 (St. Louis, Mo.: St. Louis Art Museum, 1977), 40.
  4. Silvio A. Bedini, Thomas Jefferson: Statesman of Science (New York: Macmillan, 1990), 410.
  5. William Kelso, Kingsmill Plantations, 1619–1800: Archaeology of Country Life in Colonial Virginia (Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1984), 167.
  6. Thomas Jefferson, The Garden Book, ed. Edwin M. Betts (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1944), 377.
  7. Jackson, Donald, and Dorothy Twohig, eds. 1978. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia.
  8. Johnson, Gerald W. Mount Vernon: The Story of a Shrine. New York: Random House, 1953.
  9. Madsen, Karen. 1988. “William Hamilton’s Woodlands.” Paper presented for seminar in American Landscape, 1790–1900, instructed by E. McPeck. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. view on Zotero
  10. Lockwood, Alice B., ed. 1931–34. Gardens of Colony and State: Gardens and Gardeners of the American Colonies and of the Republic before 1840. 2 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s for the Garden Club of America. view on Zotero
  11. Nichols, Frederick Doveton, and Ralph E. Griswold. 1978. Thomas Jefferson, Landscape Architect. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. view on Zotero
  12. [Dézallier d'Argenville, A.-J. (Antoine Joseph)]. [1712] 1969. The Theory and Practice of Gardening; wherein is fully handled all that relates to fine gardens, . . . containing divers plans, and general dispositions of gardens; . . . English-language edition prepared by John James from the 1709 French original and printed in London by Geo. James. Reprint, Farnborough, England: Gregg. view on Zotero

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