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History of Early American Landscape Design


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A free-standing structure in the garden that provided shelter from the sun or rain was often called a summerhouse. It was found in both public and private gardens throughout colonial and early republican America. As early as 1696 Gov. Francis Nicholson, who laid out the colonial capitals of Annapolis, Md., and Williamsburg, Va., suggested a summerhouse for the public grounds. Examples were plentiful in eighteenth-century publications and pattern books, and they exhibited a broad stylistic range: classical [Fig. 1], Gothic [Fig. 2], and Chinese, to name a few. Historic evidence corroborates that summerhouses were constructed in a rich variety of styles, such as the Gothic example at Sedgeley, near Philadelphia [Fig. 3]; the classical temple style at Charles Willson Peale’s Belfield in Germantown, Pa.; and the Georgian summerhouse at the garden of William Paca in Annapolis, Md.

From New England to South Carolina, “summerhouse” seems to have been used as an umbrella term, which subsumed more specific terms for a variety of garden structures such as “hermitage,” “kiosk,” “temple,” “pavilion,” and “Chinese seat.” The materials and scale ranged widely. At the high end was the summerhouse at the Elias Hasket Derby Farm in Peabody, Mass. This extant building, designed by Samuel McIntire (1795), is a well-documented example of federal-period architecture. Rev. Manasseh Cutler in 1778 described a richly decorated summerhouse that had three rooms and contained a large library, works of art, and a piano. The summerhouse described by Juliana Margaret Connor (1827), which was constructed of eight cedar trees chained together, presented a very different type of structure. In the Horticulturist, A. J. Downing referred to this variety of types when he explained that structures ranged from light wooden frames covered in painted canvas to highly finished, fanciful structures, such as those illustrated in his journal. He echoed many earlier writers who concluded that summerhouses served three purposes: First, they provided shelter and resting places; second, they were sited to command the finest points of view [Fig. 4]; and third, they provided the termination of a view or prospect.

Some summerhouses had additional utilitarian functions, such as those which surmounted cellars and vaults. An icehouse under the summerhouse was reported in 1791 at the Vassall-Craigie-Longfellow House [Fig. 5]. Both Pleasant Hill in Charlestown, Mass. [Fig. 6], and Charles Will- son Peale’s Belfield had summerhouses that incorporated hothouses. The summerhouse at John Burgwin’s Hermitage in Wilmington, N.C., served as a tool shed. At Monte Video, according to Benjamin Silliman (1824), the summerhouse was used to shelter a boat. These and other examples capitalized on a favorable spot and ornamented an otherwise strictly utilitarian feature.

-- Therese O'Malley






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History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Summerhouse," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Summerhouse&oldid=10347 (accessed October 19, 2021).

A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts

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