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History of Early American Landscape Design


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Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the lawn was an essential element of the American designed landscape. It was a stretch of grass turf occasionally referred to as grass-ground or greensward. Samuel Johnson defined “greensword” as “the turf on which grass grows.” These terms, however, were rarer in American usage than the term “lawn.”1 Although descriptions exist of public spaces having lawns, such as the former bowling green in New York, described by John Lambert (1816), and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, described by Margaret Bayard Smith (1828), other terms (such as square, park, green or bowling green, common, or mall) were more commonly used for public sites. The term “lawn” was used more often in descriptions of residential landscapes.

The scale of lawns ranged from modest to grand. Small dwelling yards contrasted with broad swaths of turf in settings as diverse as landscape parks at country homes, campuses [Fig. 1], hospitals, resorts, and public spaces that included greens and commons. Where rainfall, climate, and soil allowed, imported English grasses and cultivars, such as clover, were planted in lawns, and native meadow grasses were scythed to similar effect.2 George Washington mentions planting his lawn with “English grass Seeds” in 1785. Correspondence between Charles Carroll (of Annapolis) and his son reveals the planning and labor involved in planting a lawn: “Severall Small Boys & Girls Have been employed . . . in picking English grass & white Clover seed. Ye 1st was allmost all shed, of ye latter I think I shall send you enough. . . . In levelling yr ground I hope you have been Carefull to preserve ye top Soil & to lay it on again, Sowe yr Clover seed when ye Soil is moist, Rake it & when pretty dry Role it with yr Garden Roler is not too Heavy.”3

While turf was most likely cultivated in some fashion during colonial times, it was not until the last quarter of the eighteenth century that garden descriptions and other landscape writing registered the common practice of planting lawns, particularly among the larger gardens of the colonial elite.4 Lawns continued to grow in popularity in America, and by the mid-nineteenth century they were firmly established as a signa

ture of the prosperous American homeowner’s landscape. These lawns became a stage for the social dramas of leisure and sport, depicted at White Sulphur Springs in Virginia, Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J. [Fig. 2], and New Haven Green in Connecticut.5

Praising the merits of turf had a long tradition in treatise writing. Batty Langley (1728) included several unadorned “parter

res of grass” in his designs, noting that “the Grandeur of those beautiful Carpets consists in their native Plainness” [Fig. 3]. Treatises for American audiences continued to offer instructions for maintaining lush, green lawns and recommended frequent scything or mowing, sweeping, and rolling, while acknowledging the limitations of the often hotter and dryer American climate.

The qualities praised in the didactic sources in terms of color and texture were reflected in representations of the American lawn in both verbal and visual descriptions. The smooth, green plane provided a pleasing setting for views of a house, as suggested by Margaret Bayard Smith’s 1828 description of James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia, and by house portraits by such artists as Charles Fraser [Fig. 4], William Russell Birch [Fig. 5], and Benjamin Henry Latrobe [Fig. 6]. Distant views, such as Karl Bodmer’s painting of Point Breeze [Fig. 7], capitalized upon the effect of a house surrounded by an unobstructed lawn—the centerpiece of the estate presented like a jewel mounted on a swath of green velvet. In a similar manner, the unbroken plane of a green lawn provided a foreground for views from a main house. This idea was exemplified by several descriptions of Monticello, Mount Vernon, and William Hamilton’s seat, the Woodlands, near Philadelphia, and was depicted in paintings, such as Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s view from Mount Vernon [Fig. 8] and a view of the picturesque Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y., by James Smillie [Fig. 9]. This foreground effect of the lawn was further enhanced by planting trees at its edge in a diverging or undulating pattern, drawing the viewer’s attention outward, thus enhancing the distant view and accentuating the size of the lawn.

The appearance of an open lawn, freely blending with the landscape beyond, was an essential aspect of the “modern style” of English parks and of their American emulations. This effect was to be achieved, where possible, with the appearance of minimal human intervention. One technique was the use of the ha-ha (see Ha-Ha), or, later, the wire fence, which provided a measure of protection against wildlife without interrupting the effect of a continuous transition from the house and lawn to the surrounding countryside. Writers and artists alike admired the contrast of the lawn, “smooth as velvet,” with the irregular, shadowy outline of trees, which helped to create the contrast and diversity espoused by advocates of the natural and picturesque styles. The disposition of groups of trees and shrubs suggested by John Abercrombie (1817)

presented the lawn as a space through which one wandered, over which one’s gaze was carried to distant vistas, and on which animals grazed.6 The principle was one that

A. J. Downing espoused in A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1849) in his designs for residential gardens.

Despite the emphasis in treatise texts on the use of broad, sweeping lawns in large- scale plantation and estate gardens, lawns were also important design elements in small, enclosed spaces, such as the Friends Almshouse in Philadelphia [Fig. 10]. In numerous examples dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, lawns were enclosed with either a screen of trees or a barrier of fencing, walls, or hedges.7 Sometimes these enclosures were necessitated by space constraints, as seen, for example, in the anonymous painting of Col. George Boyd’s seat in Portsmouth, N.H. [Fig. 11], and, at times, by the desire to separate the lawn from other parts of the garden or work areas, as in Rebecca Couch’s painting of a Connecticut house [Fig. 12] (see Yard). Even in small lots, however, garden periodicals and treatises encouraged the juxtaposition of lawn and trees, beds, or shrubs to give the illusion of greater depth and to diversify the space [Fig. 13] (see Shrubbery).

While the pursuit of the picturesque landscape continued through the mid-nineteenth century (with proponents such as Bernard M’Mahon and Downing), another current of garden design was less concerned with mimicking the irregularity of nature than with the “clean unbroken line.” Promoted by British writers, such as Humphry Repton (1803) and

J. C. Loudon (1826), and by American writers, such as Thomas Bridgeman (1832) and James E. Teschemacher (1835), the lawn was praised as a setting for variety within the garden, whether its carpet-like surface was cut into by the regular forms of walks and flower beds, or embellished with furniture, benches, arbors, and statuary. In contrast to qualities of diversity and irregularity, the frequent use of adjectives such as “polish,” “neatness,” and “precision” conveyed the effect of the lawn as a kind of canvas into which regular elements were cut or placed. In addition to their visual significance in American landscape design, lawns held social and symbolic significance. In both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the lawn was perceived to be a sign of improved or “cultivated” space. For example, John Lambert in his 1816 account of the Hudson River area, found pleasure in the contrast between uncultivated woods and copses and cultivated lawns and meadows. In domestic residences, the green lushness sought after by admirers of the lawn was a mark of competence, investment, and, as Downing phrased it, “a universal passport to admiration.” Visitors often took note of a lawn’s color as a sign of its condition and a reflection of its owner’s

care: Margaret Bayard Smith (1828) reported that the lawn at Montpelier was “green as in spring,” while David Bailie Warden (1816) admired the “beautiful verdure” of Analostan Island, Gen. John Mason’s summer house in Washington, D.C. Turfing one’s grounds not only indicated an investment in the labor of planting and maintaining a lawn, but also signaled that one had the luxury of devoting time and space to something other than utilitarian kitchen gardens or orchards. Numerous portraits, such as that of Levin Winder [Fig. 14], depicted the sitter’s properties, including lawns expressive of status and wealth.

In addition to the lawn’s role as a marker of status, descriptions, such as that by Frederick Douglass of Col. Edward Lloyd’s Wye House in Talbot County, Md. (1825), as a scene of “Eden-like beauty,” reflected the broader rhetoric of America as the new paradise with its bountiful, limitless space untainted by the crowding and evils of the Old World. In seeming contradiction, the lawn was also read as a sign of having an affinity with the vast estates and pleasure parks of civilized Europe. Several writers describing American residences noted that lawn and tree groupings, even in modest scale, alluded to the great landscape gardens of English manor houses that were known through the descriptions and tours in such works as Thomas Whately’s Observations on Modern Gardening (1770).8 Both Douglass at Wye House and C. M. Hovey (1841)

at William Demming’s residence, Presque Isle, in Fishkill, N.Y., described in Downing’s Magazine of Horticulture, linked the American lawn to English parks.

In addition, in the second half of the eighteenth century the lawn referred to the agrarian roots of the new republic and to the classical villas, on which many of the planter gentry modeled their estates.9 In short, the lawn was equated with the land itself. Even a small patch of green in a muddy, smelly town alluded to a plantation or country house, presumed or real. Granted, the rhetoric of the lawn as the vestigial rural seat of the natural legislator was one shared by an elite few, but it was a symbol of an ideology that shaped much of the political philosophy of the revolutionary and early national period. Jefferson, in Notes on the State of Virginia (1784), echoed French Physiocratic philosophers in his presentation of the land as the only true and moral source of wealth. J.-P. Brissot de Warville wrote upon visiting Mount Vernon in 1788 that George Washington had often been “compared to Cincinnatus: the comparison is doubtless just. This celebrated General is nothing more at present than a good farmer.”10 America’s eighteenth-century landed gentry was not only versed in the arts of botany, geometry, astronomy, classics, and music, but also in farming their own land. The smooth spread of lawn, even at a modest scale surrounding an urban dwelling, could be read as a badge of allegiance to that agrarian ideal.







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