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History of Early American Landscape Design


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The term park denotes both private and public expanses of ground. Eighteenth-century writers used park to refer exclusively to private grounds often enclosed by fences, walls, or ha-has; if devoted to keeping deer, it was sometimes called a deer park (see Deer park). Early nineteenth-century lexicographers continued to stress the definition of park as an expanse of private property, although Noah Webster in 1828 noted that parks also designated army encampments, perhaps anticipating the term’s increasing association with public grounds. Writers also focused upon the material advantages of parks, which included the production of timber in addition to grazing land. It is clear from treatises that parks also fulfilled aesthetic and symbolic functions.

J. C. Loudon, for example, stated in 1826 that a park added “grandeur and dignity to the mansion.” The notion of park as part of a large estate was closely connected to eighteenth-century British land practices, and, in particular, to the idea that land ownership provided both prestige and economic security.1 The concept translated to America despite differences in landholding practices and in the legal system. As landscape gardener A. J. Downing noted in 1851, Americans generally would have much smaller parks than their British counterparts because inheritable land and money typically were divided among descendants instead of passing only to the first son, as was the case in Great Britain.

One of the earliest documented private parks in North America, dating from the period of British colonization, was the park that surrounded the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Va., begun in 1699 [Fig. 1]. Hugh Jones, when describing the grounds of the College of William and Mary (1722), distinguished between the gardens immediately surrounding the building and those located in the larger 150-acre park. Nineteenth-century treatise writers maintained this distinction between gardens that were situated near the house and parks that encompassed the outlying area.

Writers of garden treatises, including Downing, specified how to arrange the key components of a park—grassy areas, woods, rolling hills, and water and how to establish desirable views. As styles in gardening changed, so did the arrangement of parks. Loudon in 1826 contrasted parks executed in the ancient (or geometric) style, which were “subdivided into fields . . . enclosed in walls or hedges,” with parks done in the modern (or natural) style “to resemble” the landscape of a “scattered forest.” One key aspect of parks executed in the latter style was the introduction of plantations or belts of trees to unify the landscape visually with patterns of lines of light and shadow formed by groupings of trees. Practitioners of the modern style, such as Downing, were concerned with creating discrete boundaries for parks: they often relied upon plantings either to define or to occlude views (see Ancient style and Modern style).

Landowners, such as William Hamilton, took the existing topography of their estates and manipulated it to fit the prevailing aesthetic. Views of late eighteenth-century estates often featured smooth lawns punctuated with clumps of trees and woods [Fig. 2]. In country house portraits, trees were often important elements—framing the house or drawing the viewer’s attention to the background. This emphasis paralleled treatise writers’ concern with trees as key components in park designs [Fig. 3]. Downing argued that artfully sited large trees added nobility, dignity, and a sense of age to a park, and he believed that such trees allowed American landscapes to rival those of the English.

Public parks, open landscaped spaces under government control, accommodated a wide variety of functions. Generally located in urban settings, many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century parks evolved from land originally set aside for commons, city squares, bowling greens, or other forms of pleasure grounds (see Common). Pierre-Charles L’Enfant described his plan for the national Mall in Washington, D.C., as a “place of general resort.”2 With the growth of towns and cities in the first half of the nineteenth century and attendant fears of crowding and disease, civic improvement campaigners repeatedly expressed a desire to designate green spaces or parks that could act as “lungs” to bring in fresh air and mitigate toxic urban ills. Moreover, with the marked popularity of rural cemeteries in the 1840s, it became evident that urban populations were interested in open spaces. Public spaces were called parks early in America, but were also described as public grounds, public gardens, pleasure grounds, or pleasure gardens, to underscore either their accessibility to citizens or their leisure function (see Pleasure ground and Public garden).

A desire for sites of public commemoration also stimulated the development of public parks. The designation of the national Mall in Washington, D.C., as a park was linked intimately with the mission of public education envisioned by its founders. For example, in 1851 Downing described the Mall as a “sylvan museum”—an institution that would shape public taste in landscaping and in the selection of trees and plants.3

As was the case with many city parks, the land for present-day City Hall Park in New York originally was set aside as a common early in the city’s history. In 1803, when City Hall was erected on a site next to it, this land was designated as a park. Ornamented with gates, fountains, and plantings, it provided an elegant setting for the public building, according to the descriptions of William Dickinson Martin (1809) and John Lambert (1816), and a printed view of the park area (c. 1849) [Fig. 4]. Similarly, the oval Union Park in New York, often illustrated, had a large central fountain [Fig. 5]. Both parks featured broad walks and trees and shrubs. In these parks and others, significant goals of civic improvement—clean water, fresh air, green spaces—were united.4 Bowling Green [Fig. 6] and Battery Park [Fig. 7] are two more New York public parks that date from the early eighteenth century.

Although New York City’s most important park, Central Park, was not designed until 1856, the idea for large-scale open space for the city dates much earlier. In 1811, the Streets Commission of New York produced a survey of the city, plotted by John Randel, Jr., to serve as a template for future development, and it put into place the grid that today still distinguishes the city. This grid also included open spaces, most significantly a “Grand Parade,” 240 acres bounded by Third and Seventh Avenues, and 23rd and 34th Streets, and this area was intended for military exercise, assembly, and, if necessary, “the force destined to defend the City.”5 The concept of open space in the city was taken up again in the late 1840s and early 1850s, perhaps most notably by Downing in the Horticulturist. Claiming that the city’s existing parks were inadequate for the task of providing “exercise and refreshment of her jaded citizens,” Downing pushed for the creation of a large park, more than five hundred acres, to be located between 39th Street and the Harlem River. He proposed that it contain, among other attractions, carriage rides, monumental sculpture, water works, and walks set within green fields. Although Downing did not live to see this vision realized, his proposal anticipated Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s Central Park, and more generally, the American park movement.6

-- Anne L. Helmreich






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History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Park," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Park&oldid=18118 (accessed December 6, 2023).

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