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History of Early American Landscape Design


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The term terrace, used to describe both natural and artificial landscape features, denoted a level area or platform, often slightly raised and of varying dimensions and materials. Although Stephen Switzer (1718) made subtle distinctions between kinds of terraces (terrace walks, great terraces, middle terraces, etc.), those distinctions were not generally followed in American usage. In practice, however, a variety of terrace types were incorporated into landscape designs throughout eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America. These included long narrow terraces that formed raised walks, platforms of earthen and architectural materials adjacent to buildings, and earthen terraces between slopes in falling gardens (see Fall). Native American platform mounds, such as the one described as a terrace by William Bartram in 1791, served as stages for the religious and ruling elite of the southeast before European contact. Visible for miles, these mounds are remarkable not only as architectural monuments but also as testimonies to the leadership that mobilized a massive labor force needed to move such a vast quantity of earth. In Anglo-American gardens, long, narrow terraces provided raised walks that offered excellent viewing platforms, formed circulation routes through the landscape, and made ideal venues for social promenade, as depicted at the Battery Park in New York by the Illustrated London News in 1849 [Fig. 1]. In 1718, Switzer declared that gardens without these elevated walks "must be esteem'd very deficient." Waterside terraces were particularly common in America, because they were created with the fill dredged from rivers and canals. Such terraces were built in residential settings, such as the gardens at Maycox Plantation in Virginia (described c. 1780-82 by Franois Jean Chastellux) and at the Vassall-Craigie-Longfellow House in Cambridge [Fig. 2]. In public areas, terraces were found at the Battery Park, described in 1793 by John Drayton, and at the waterfront of Alexandria, Va., visited in 1830 by Frances Milton Trollope. Terraces were also built adjacent to buildings, and were often created from the earth excavated from cellar construction. The term "terrace" referred to raised earthen platforms and to flat roofed structures, both of which were used as balconies, promenades, and viewing platforms. These terraces (paved, turfed, gravelled, or covered in metal compounds as advertised in the Federal Gazette in 1816) were occasionally also ornamented with statuary, vases, urns, and plantings such as flower beds or, more rarely, topiary. Charles Lyell recorded his observations of a highly ornamented terrace in Natchez, Miss., in 1846. A paved or turfed terrace extending from the house and often bounded by a balustrade was particularly popular in Italianate architecture of the 1830s and 1840s and was promoted by William H. Ranlett (1849) and Andrew Jackson Downing (1849). These terraces required substantial investment to construct and, when planted intensively, to maintain [Figs. 3 and 4]. As Jane Loudon observed in 1845, "[T]hey are chiefly adapted for mansions and places of considerable extent." Downing suggested that the function of the English paved terrace was often accommodated in America by the veranda (see Piazza). Broad terraces located adjacent to a building provided a transition between the built architecture and the grounds, as Batty Langley, Bernard M'Mahon, John Abercrombie, and A. J. Downing all noted. The terrace also provided a vantage point from which to admire views and vistas. Both Abercrombie (1817) and J. C. Loudon's (1850) discussions of terraces emphasize the importance of selecting sight lines and of building proportionally in order to create an appropriate visual setting for a house, as well as to establish a viewing platform for looking outward. For example, the terrace at Point Breeze, which was described by Trollope and depicted in an anonymous engraving after Thomas Birch [Fig. 5], was placed to take advantage of striking vistas. Similarly, flat roofs of buildings (such as those at Monticello; the Waterworks at Fairmount Park in Philadelphia; and the White House in Washington, D.C.) served as elevated terrace walkways with views of distant scenery. A certificate for the Horticultural Association of the Hudson [Fig. 6] depicts an idealized garden (possibly based on Downing's Highland Place) that includes a terrace, seen at right, framing an extended view of the Newburgh Basin. Terraces of varying widths were also employed in sites with a steep grade in order to make for arable and easily navigated level areas, to control erosion, and to create the visual effects made possible by a series of slopes and flats (see Fall). These terraces were supported by earthen slopes or masonry walls, supports which were referred to variously as banks, slopes, and terrace walls. They were also sometimes simply called by the more general term, "terrace," as in William Dickinson Martin's 1808 description of a "perpendicular terrace" at Salem, N.C. Designs for pUblic institutions, such as Charles Bulfinch's 1818 design for two wings to be added to the seat of Joseph Barrell in order to create the McLean Asylum [Fig. 7], used terraces to frame views of the buildings' fa&CCEDI;des while accommodating the slope of the land. The terraces of a falling garden were generally separated by turfed slopes or, less commonly, masonry walls. As A.-J. Dézallier d'Argenville (1712) noted, gardens were less susceptible to erosion if their terraces were created by cutting into an existing hillside rather than constructed out of fill [Fig. 8].The planting schemes of falling garden terraces varied from simple turf to kitchen and flower beds, although images of terraces rarely showed plantings in detail. Among the few surviving examples is Jefferson's diagram (c. 1804) for a garden olitory, in which he specified a hedge at the "foot of the terras" designed to accommodate differing heights of the lawn and kitchen garden. In 1840, C. M. Hovey referred to the efforts of the Messrs. Winship of Brighton, Mass., to transform the embankment of a railroad right-of-way on Hovey's land into an attractive terraced garden. While the use of terraces and slopes to create falling gardens seems to have declined in popularity after the early nineteenth century, its use continued through mid-century in large formal landscapes of public gardens, such as the University of Virginia, and anywhere uneven or steep topography offered a challenge.







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