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History of Early American Landscape Design


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  Terrace/Slope   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 Òmust be esteemÕd  very deficient.Ó 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. 1780Ð82 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.  616      
  terrace/slope     Terraces were also built adjacent to  buildings, and were often created from the  earth excavated from cellar construction.  The term ÒterraceÓ 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, Ò[T]hey are chiefly adapted for mansions  and places of considerable extent.Ó  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 MÕMahon, 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. LoudonÕs (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  figure 1. Anonymous, ÒThe Battery New York, By Moonlight,Ó in Illustrated London News (Oct. 27, 1849), p. 277. Library of Congress,  Washington, D.C. [associated term]    figure 2. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sketch of the grounds of the Vassall-Craigie-Longfellow House [detail], 1844. A Òturf terraceÓ  is noted to the left of the main house. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge. [inscribed term]    617     
16 Square-Thicket (pp. 584-628) 10/22/09 12:07 PM Page 618     terrace/slope     figure 3. Edwin Whitefield,  Sketch of Anson G. PhelpsÕs villa  in North Tarrytown, N.Y. [detail],  1851. Winterthur Library, Joseph  Downs Collection of Manuscripts  and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur,  Del. [attributed term]   certificate for the Horticultural Association  of the Hudson [Fig. 6] depicts an idealized  garden (possibly based on DowningÕs Highland  Place) that includes a terrace, seen at  right, framing an extended view of the  Newburgh Basin.1   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,  Òterrace,Ó as in William Dickinson MartinÕs  1808 description of a Òperpendicular terraceÓ  at Salem, N.C. Designs for public institutions,  such as Charles BulfinchÕs 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 buildingsÕ faades 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. DŽzallier dÕArgenville  (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 JeffersonÕs diagram  (c. 1804) for a garden olitory, in which  he specified a hedge at the Òfoot of the terrasÓ  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 HoveyÕs 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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History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Terrace/Slope," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Terrace/Slope&oldid=11059 (accessed February 2, 2023).

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