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History of Early American Landscape Design


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As an integral element of circulation routes through the designed landscape, walk is one of the most common terms in American garden descriptions. Walks were highly varied in their composition, arrangement, and plantings. While widths varied, a narrow walk limited to foot traffic was often called a path, while a broad, straight walk lined with trees was often called an avenue (see Avenue). Walks were configured in numerous ways and composed of different materials such as brick, shell, gravel, packed dirt, tan (or tan bark), and turf. From most images of walks it is difficult to discern their composition, but contrary to brick paving, which was popular only in colonial revival gardens, textual references appear to indicate that gravel was a surface commonly used. William Forsyth in his 1802 treatise recommended sand or sea-coal ashes on a foundation of brick rubble or gravel for building a walk in a kitchen garden. He noted the ease of maintenance of such surfaces, which were weeded simply by raking. It is interesting to note that despite changing trends in garden styles, treatises remained remarkably consistent in their advice and instruction. Entire passages were frequently borrowed or adapted from earlier publications.

Walks were planted in a variety of ways. They could have borders of low shrubbery or plants, as in a painting by Charles Fraser [Fig. 1], or be lined with pots or statues, as at Vauxhall Garden in New York in 1816. Lombardy poplars and other tall, straight trees accentuated the linearity of axial walks and the formality of urban avenues, including Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C. [Fig. 2]. Such spreading shade trees as elm, myrtle, and live oak formed arching canopies over walks, an effect that John James in his 1712 translation of A.-J. Dézallier d’Argenville called “Close” walks. Although this term does not appear to be used in America, the technique, which framed views and invited cooling strolls, was described at sites such as Boston Common.

While their form varied widely, walks served essentially the same functions: to provide passage and to direct movement through the garden; to focus a viewer’s gaze toward an object, building, or prospect; and to structure and divide the garden. In colonial gardens, the walk was often the principal structuring element of the space, dividing a small garden adjacent to a structure into regular geometric shapes, such as the walks depicted in an unidentified late eighteenth-century garden [Fig. 3]. In more naturalistic and picturesque designs that became popular in the nineteenth century, walks created routes by which visitors were led to carefully sited garden structures or to crafted vistas, as described in Thomas Jefferson’s c. 1804 plan for his mountaintop landscape [Fig. 4] or A. J. Downing’s 1849 plan for a country seat. In addition, walks offered a means to organize the visual logic of a site by directing a visitor’s gaze to distant views or focal points within the garden, such as obelisks, pavilions, gates, or seats. Walks could also create the illusion of distance if their designers manipulated their dimensions and layout. This resulted in an impression of greater depth, a particularly useful effect in smaller urban lots. The dimensions of walks were determined by the scale of their settings and their use. Forsyth (1802), for instance, recommended that walks be wide enough to admit a cart in kitchen gardens, and Joseph Breck (1851)cautioned designers to leave enough room for persons to “walk comfortably in a social manner.”

In pictorial representations, walks served many of these same functions. In a perspective view of a building’s front façade, the viewer is often encouraged to focus upon the main entrance located at the terminus of a central walk or avenue [Fig. 5]. In the backgrounds of portraits, particularly those from the second half of the eighteenth century, artists often depicted glimpses through a window of their sitters’ gardens, in which walks were presented in perspective with converging sides to suggest the illusion of depth [Fig. 6]. In aerial views, walks were often the principle means of indicating the location and existence of a garden, since plants, changing topography, and surface treatments were less easily rendered in plan. In other images, the walk invites the viewer to dwell upon a destination, such as a garden seat or viewing point, or to venture further into the unseen garden, as in John Trumbull’s 1792 plan for Yale College. In all of these types of images, tracing the line of the walk conveys a sense of movement through the landscape, much as a visitor might have experienced surprising “discoveries” of views.

In addition to being a common feature in early American gardens, walks were also the setting for much recorded activity. William Byrd II in his diary (1732) frequently mentioned his own perambulations in the garden, either alone or with gentlemen guests after he had entertained them with a meal. Charles Willson Peale described strolling through the gardens of Annapolis, Md., in language that echoes published accounts of British and European tours. [1] Walks were social venues in public landscape designs such as Boston Common, the State House Yard in Philadelphia, a levee in New Orleans, the Battery Park in New York, Fairmount Park in Philadelphia [Fig. 7], and the avenues of Washington, D.C. They were places to see and be seen, and images of them in the second quarter of the nineteenth century portray their rising popularity as promenades for the general populace. Numerous descriptions and treatises of this period also praised the health-giving properties of these walks and the virtues of fresh air and exercise, particularly for the infirm, mentally ill, and urban poor.

-- Elizabeth Kryder-Reid


  • Smith, John, 1629, describing the Charles River in Massachusetts (quoted in Miller and Johnson 1963: 2:399)
“in the maine you may shape your Orchards, Vineyards, Pastures, Gardens, Walkes, Parkes, and Corne fields out of the whole peece as you please into such plots, one adjoyning to another, leaving every of them invironed with two, three, foure, or six, or so many rowes of well growne trees as you will, ready growne to your hands, to defend them from ill weather.”

  • Penn, William, 19 March 1685, in a letter to James Harrison, regarding Pennsbury Manor, country estate of William Penn, near Philadelphia, Pa. (quoted in Thomforde 1986: 59)
“If Ralph this fall, could gett twenty yound populars, about 18 inch round beheaded, to twenty foot, to plant in a walk below ye Steps to ye water It were not emiss. perhaps to 15 foot long for a Round head, may do as well, plant ym in ye 8 mo. [October] is well.”

  • Penn, William, 15 October 1685, describing Pennsbury Manor, country estate of William Penn, near Philadelphia, Pa. (quoted in Thomforde 1986: 54)
“I desire a . . . handsome walk to ye house of Gravel, or paved wth pitt stones—smooth stones.”

  • Jones, Hugh, 1724, describing the Governor’s Palace, Williamsburg, Va. (quoted in Lockwood 1934: 2:48)
“stands the Palace or Governor’s House, a magnificent structure built at the publick Expense, finished and beautified with Gates, fine Gardens, Offices, Walks, a fine Canal, Orchards, and with a great number of the best arms nicely posited by the ingenious Contrivance of the accomplished Colonel Spotswood.”

  • Byrd, William, II, 28 September 1732, describing the estate of Gov. Alexander Spotswood, near Ger-manna, Va. (1970: 357–58, 360)
“After Breakfast the Colo. and I left the Ladys to their Domestick Affairs, and took a turn in the Garden, which has nothing beautiful but 3 Terrace Walks that fall in Slopes one below another. . . .

“The afternoon was devoted to the ladys, who shew’d me one of their most beautiful Walks. They conducted me thro’ a Shady Lane to the Landing, and by the way made me drink some very fine Water that issued from a Marble Fountain, and ran incessantly.”

  • Anonymous, 2 February 1734, describing property for sale in Charleston, S.C. (South Carolina Gazette)
“To Be Let or Sold. . . . On the island is a New Dwelling House &c. built on a high Bluff, which commands an entire prospect of the Harbour, from the Barr to the Town. A delightful Wilderness with shady Walks and Arbours, cool in the hottest Seasons. A piece of Garden-ground, where all the best kinds of Fruits and Kitchen Greens are produced, and planted with Orange-, Apple-, Peach-, Nectarine-, and Plumb-trees, capable of being made a very good Vineyard.”

  • Pinckney, Eliza Lucas, c. May 1743, describing Crowfield, plantation of William Middleton, vicinity of Charleston, S.C. (1972: 61).
“From the back door is a spacious walk a thousand foot long; each side of which nearest the house is a grass plat ennamiled in a Serpenting manner with flowers.”

  • Moore, Francis, 1744, describing the Trustees’ Garden, Savannah, Ga. (quoted in Marye and Marye 1933: 15)
“The Garden is laid out with Cross-walks planted with Orange-trees, but the last Winter a good deal of Snow having fallen, had killed those upon the Top of the Hill down to their Roots, but they being cut down, sprouted again, as I saw when I returned to Savannah.”

  • Stiles, Ezra, 30 September 1754, describing Springettsbury, near Philadelphia, Pa. (Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 16: 375)
“passing a a long spacious walk, set on each side with trees, on the summit of a gradual ascent, we saw the proprietor’s house, & walkt in the gardens, where besides the beautiful walk, ornamented with evergreens, we saw fruit trees . . . [with] oranges, limes, lemons, citrons. . . . Spruce hedges cut into beautiful figures, &c., all forming the most agreeable variety, & even regular confusion & disorder.”

  • Callender, Hannah, 1762, describing Belmont Mansion, estate of Judge William Peters, near Philadelphia, Pa. (Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 12: 455)
“A broad walk of English Cherry trees leads down to the river. The doors of the house opening opposite admit a prospect of the length of the garden over a broad gravel walk to a large handsome summer house on a green.”





  1. Elizabeth Kryder-Reid, “The Archaeology of Vision in Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake Gardens,” Journal of Garden History 14, no. 1 (spring 1994): 42–54. view on Zotero.

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