A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art
History of Early American Landscape Design


[http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/research/casva/research-projects.html A Project of the National Gallery of Art, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts ]
Revision as of 15:52, July 27, 2015 by B-zweig (talk | contribs) (→‎Usages)


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.”

  • Grant, Anne, 1769, describing Oswego, N.Y. (1809: 236)
“A summer house in a tree, a fish-pond, and a gravel-walk, were finished before the end of May.”

  • Eddis, William, 1 October 1769, describing the Governor’s House, Annapolis, Md. (1792: 117)
“The garden is not extensive, but it is disposed to the utmost advantage; the centre walk is terminated by a small green mount, close to which the Severn approaches; this elevation commands an extensive view of the bay, and the adjacent country.”

  • Fithian, Philip Vickers, 18 March 1774, describing Nomini Hall, Westmoreland County, Va. (1943: 109)
“The Area of the Triangle made by the Wash-House, Stable, & School-House is perfectly levil, & designed for a bowling-Green, laid out in rectangular Walks which are paved with Brick, & covered over with burnt Oyster-Shells.”

  • Adams, John, 23 February 1777, describing Mount Clare, plantation of Charles and Margaret Tilghman Carroll, Baltimore, Md. (quoted in Sarudy 1989: 139)
“There is a most beautiful walk from the house down to the water; there is a descent not far from the house; you have a fine garden then you descend a few steps and have another fine garden; you go down a few more and have another.”

  • Hazard, Ebenezer, 31 May 1777, describing the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va. (quoted in Shelley 1954: 405)
“At this Front of the College is a large Court Yard, ornamented with Gravel Walks, Trees cut into different Forms, & Grass.”

  • Rush, Dr. Benjamin, 15 July 1782, describing the country seat of John Dickinsen, near Philadelphia, Pa. (quoted in Caemmerer 1950: 87)
“The ground contiguous to this shed was cut into beautiful walks and divided with cedar and pine branches into artificial groves. The whole, both the buildings and walks, were accommodated with seats.”

  • Washington, George, 28 February 1785, describing Mount Vernon, plantation of George Washington, Fairfax County, Va. (quoted in Johnson 1953: 99–100)
“My Gardens have gravel walks (as you possibly may recollect) in the usual Style, but if a better composition has been discovered for these, I should gladly adopt it. the matter however which I wish principally to be informed in, is, whether your walks are designed for Carriages, and if so, how they are prepared, to resist the impression of the Wheels. I am making a serpentine road to my door, and have doubts . . . whether any thing short of solid pavement will answer.”

  • Washington, George, 1785, describing Mount Vernon, plantation of George Washington, Fairfax County, Va. (Jackson and Twohig, eds., 1978: 4:96, 97)
“[28 February] Planted all the Mulberry trees, Maple trees, & Black gums in my Serpentine walks and the Poplars on the right walk—the Sap of which and the Mulberry appeared to be moving. Also planted 4 trees from H. Hole the name unknown but of a brittle wood which has the smell of Mulberry. . . .

“[2 March] . . . Planted the remainder of the Ash Trees—in the Serpentine walks—the remainder of the fringe trees in the Shrubberies—all the black haws—all the large berried thorns with a small berried one in the middle of each clump—6 small berried thorns with a large one in the middle of each clump—all the swamp red berry bushes & one clump of locust trees.”

  • Cutler, Rev. Manasseh, 2 July 1787, describing Middletown, Conn. (1987: 215–16)
“At the northern end of the city is a walk of two rows of buttonwood trees, from the front gate of a gentleman’s house down to a summer-house on the bank of the river, by far the most beautiful I ever saw. He permits the people of the city to improve it as a mall.”

  • Cutler, Rev. Manasseh, 13 July 1787, describing the State House Yard, Philadelphia, Pa. (1987: 1:263).
“The numerous walks are well graveled and rolled hard; they are all in a serpentine direction, which heightens the beauty, and affords constant variety. That painful sameness, commonly to be met with in garden-alleys, and others works of this kind, is happily avoided here, for there are no two parts of the Mall that are alike. Hogarth’s ‘Line of Beauty’ is here completely verified. The public are indebted to the fertile fancy and taste of Mr. Sam’l Vaughan, Esq., for the elegance of this plan. It was laid out and executed under his direction about three years ago.”

  • Enys, Lt. John, 2 December 1787, describing the mall in Boston, Mass. (Cometti, ed., 1976: 202).
“After Dinner we took a walk on the Mall as it is called which is a very excellent: Gravel walk about half a Mile in Lenth with Trees on each side which is kept in very good order and is by far the best thing of the kind I have yet seen in america.”

  • Morse, Jedidiah, 1789, describing the State House Yard, Philadelphia, Pa. (p. 331)
“The state house yard, is a neat, elegant and spacious public walk, ornamented with rows of trees; but a high brick wall, which encloses it, limits the prospect.”

  • Constantia [pseud.], 24 June 1790, describing Gray’s Garden, Philadelphia, Pa. (Massachusetts Magazine 3: 414)
“The serpentine gravel walks, which are irregularly regular, seem to point different ways; they however terminate in one object.”

  • L’Enfant, Pierre-Charles, 22 June 1791, describing Washington, D.C. (quoted in Reps 1967: 17)
“I placed the three grand Departments of State contigous to the principle Palace and on the way leading to the Congressional House the gardens of the one together with the park and other improvement on the dependency are connected with the publique walk and avenue to the Congress house in a manner as most [must] form a whole as grand as it will be agreeable and convenient to the whole city which form [from] The distribution of the local [locale] will have an early access to this place of general resort and all along side of which may be placed play houses, room of assembly, accademies and all such sort of places as may be attractive to the learned and afford diversion to the idle.”

  • Trumbull, John, 1792, describing Yale College, New Haven, Conn. (Yale University Library, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale Picture Collection, 48A-46, box 1, folder 2)
“The Temples of Cloacina (which it is too much the custom of New England to place conspicuously,) I would wish to have concealed as much as possible, by planting a variety of Shrubs, such as Laburnums, Lilacs, Roses, Snowballs, Laurels. &c, &c—a gravel walk should lead thro [sic] the Shrubbery to those buildings. . . .

“The yellow is intended to express the gravel walks—& the green the grass and planting. . . .

“The Eating Hall should likewise be hidden as much as the space will admit with similar shrubs. ...

“The ground in front of the Buildings to be divided by two broad walks leading up to the Chapel and Lecture Rooms, and the sides of the walks to be planted with Elms or other Forest Trees. . . .

“Behind the buildings, the walks may be irregular and winding, beginning behind the two Chapels, and corresponding to the two broad ones in their front.” [Fig. 8]

  • Drayton, John, 1793, describing the Battery Park, New York, N.Y. (quoted in Deák 1988: 1:130)
“After passing these islands [Governor’s, etc.], we came opposite the battery; which is at the extreme point of the town. . . . It has no merlons, or embrasuers; but the guns . . . are placed upon carriages on a stone platform en barbette, some few feet above the level of the water. Between the guns, and the water is a public walk; made by a gentle decline from the platform: and going round the ground upon which the battery is placed. Some little distance behind the guns, two rows of elm trees are planted; which in a short time will afford an agreeable shade.”

  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry, 19 July 1796, describing Mount Vernon, plantation of George Washington, Fairfax County, Va. (1977: 165)
“The ground on the West front is laid out in a level lawn bounded on each side with a wide but extremely formal serpentine walk, shaded by weeping Willows.” [Fig. 9]

  • Brooks, Joshua, 1799, describing Mount Vernon, plantation of George Washington, Fairfax County, Va. (quoted in Riley 1989: 18)
“At the back of the house is a covered staircase to the kitchen or cellar. Here many male and female negroes were at work digging and carrying away the ground to make a level grass plot with a gravel walk around it, at one end of which is an ice house.”

  • Ogden, John Cosens, 1800, describing Bethlehem, Pa. (pp. 14, 18)
“In the rear of this [girl’s school], is another small enclosure, which forms a broad grass walk and is skirted on each side by beds devoted to flowers, which the girls cultivate, as their own. . . .

“Among the varied enjoyments of this settlement [Bethlehem], is a pleasant walk on the banks of the river Lehigh. Nature has furnished a shade, by means of the trees, which grow near the margin. But, this is improved by a row of locust trees between them and the road or walk.”

  • Clitherall, Eliza Caroline Burgwin (Caroline Elizabeth Burgwin), active 1801, describing the Hermitage, seat of John Burgwin, Wilmington, N.C. (quoted in Flowers 1983: 126)
“These [gardens] were extensive and beautifully laid out. There was [sic] alcoves and summer houses at the termination of each walk, seats under trees in the more shady recesses of the Big Garden, as it was called, in distinction from the flower garden in front of the house.”

  • Pintard, John, 1801, describing New Orleans, La. (Sterling, ed., 1951: 231)
“The only public walk is the leveé, which is externally thronged with all sorts & conditions of people. It is far from an eligible promenade for the ladies—who are obliged to frequent it for exercise—It is about 8 feet wide, the slope towards the river presents all the shipping of the harbour with their usual concomitants of noisey [sic] drunken labourers & sailors.”

  • Anonymous, 1801, describing in the Supplement to the Warner & Hanna Directory Chatsworth’s Gardens, Baltimore, Md. (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
“CHATSWORTH’S GARDENS, Situated in a westerly direction, about half a mile from town, at the intersection of Green and Saratoga streets. The present proprietor, Mr. Mang, has been but a short time there—the arrangement of these Gardens are said to be extremely neat, such as forming pleasant summer house, serpentine walks, shady groves, and every other rural appearance, which may give a pleasing relaxation to the leisure hours of the industrious citizen.”

  • Jefferson, Thomas, July 1806, describing Monticello, plantation of Thomas Jefferson, Charlottesville, Va. (1944: 323)
“The hill is generally too steep for direct ascent, but we make level walks successively along it’s side, which in it’s upper part encircle the hill & intersect these again by others of easy ascent in various parts.”

  • Drayton, Charles, 2 November 1806, describing the Woodlands, seat of William Hamilton, near Philadelphia, Pa. (Drayton Hall, Charles Drayton Diaries, 1784–1820, typescript)
“The Garden consists of a large verdant lawn surrounded by a belt or walk, & shrubbery for some distance. the outer side of the walk is adorned here & there, by scattered forest trees, thick & thin. It is bounded, partly as is described—partly by the Schylkill [sic] & a creek exhibiting a Mill & where it is scarcely noticed, by a common post and rail. The walk is said to be a mile long—perhaps it is something less. one is led in to the garden from the portico, to the east and left hand. or from the park, by a small gate contiguous to the house. traversing this walk, one sees many beauties of landscape.”

  • Anonymous, 2 January 1808, describing in the Washington Expositor the national Mall, Washington, D.C. (quoted in O’Malley 1989: 99–100)
“At present these large appropriations afford an increase to the pasturage of the city, more beneficial to the poor citizens, than their culture in the ordinary courses. . . . by laying off those in their occupancy so as to afford ample walks open at seasonable hours and under proper regulations to the public, it will give to the city, much earlier than there is otherwise reasonable cause to hope for, agreeable promenades, as conducive to the health of the inhabitants, as to the beauty of the places.”
  • Graydon, Alexander, 1811, describing the garden of Israel Pemberton, Philadelphia, Pa. (pp. 34–35)
“laid out in the old fashioned style of uniformity, with walks and allies nodding to their brothers, and decorated with a number of evergreens, carefully clipped into pyramidal and conical forms.”

  • Gerry, Elbridge, Jr., July 1813, describing the White House, Washington, D.C. (1927: 180)
“Lengthways of the house, and thro’ the hall, is a walk, which extends on a terrace at each end for some way.”

  • Ripley, Samuel, 1815, describing Gore Place, summer home of Christopher and Rebecca Gore, Waltham, Mass. (pp. 272–73)
“The house is a spacious and noble building. . . . It is situated in the centre of pleasant grounds, tastefully laid out, surrounded by a walk of a mile in circuit, intersected by several other walks, on all of which are growing trees and shrubbery of various kinds.”




  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.

Retrieved from "https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Walk&oldid=12739"

History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Walk," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Walk&oldid=12739 (accessed January 27, 2023).

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

National Gallery of Art, Washington