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History of Early American Landscape Design


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In American landscape design, the wall was a masonry construction of dry laid or mortared stone or brick. While treatises and dictionaries often referred to walls as a type of fence and sometimes as a “stone fence,” in American usage, wooden barriers were referred to exclusively as fences (see Fence).

As J. C. Loudon noted in 1834, walls were generally composed of three sections: the foundation, the body formed by courses of stone or brick, and, if desired, the coping (a decorative or protective course on top of a masonry wall). Foundations varied from a single course to a three-foot, below-ground stone foundation, such as the one used for the hog yard at Waldwic Cottage (formerly Little Hermitage), described by William Ranlett (1851). The coping could consist of the same material as the wall, as seen in John William Hill’s 1847 painting of Blandford Church in Petersburg, Va. [Fig. 1], or could be built of contrasting material such as stone or marble, which was used at St. Philip’s Parish in Charleston, S.C., in 1826. William Forsyth recommended wooden coping in order to attach nets that would discourage birds from eating nearby fruit.1 Walls were sometimes topped with palisades, which extended their height and deterred intruders while providing a visually permeable bar

rier. This feature provided additional ornament, as the ironwork palisade on the wall at the Governor’s House in New York [Fig. 2] demonstrates.

The choice of materials for the body of the wall depended upon its use and upon the materials that were available. In arid regions, particularly areas with Spanish building traditions, adobe was frequently used.2 Stone walls were common in New England, where field stones turned up by plows provided ready material for dry laid walls, as that depicted in the painting of Ralph Wheelock’s farm in Pennsylvania (1822) [Fig. 3].3 It has been suggested that wall designs from British treatise and pattern books, such as those published in Batty Langley’s The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs (1740), were reworked in wood in the American context. Wooden posts were used in place of piers, wooden members in place of stone fenestration, and baseboards in place of stone bases.4 The earthen- and pitch-covered wooden walls described by Loudon do not appear to have been employed in America, but fence posts were tarred as a preservative measure.

Walls, like related features such as fences, hedges, and ha-has, served as barriers, supports, and markers of property boundaries. Because of their strength, walls were also used to retain earth; this use is illustrated by the deer wall at Mount Vernon (1798) and the terrace wall at the Deaf and Dumb Asylum in New York [Fig. 4]. Walls were also used to shore up banks at waterfront gardens, as at Westover in Virginia, described by Thomas Lee Shippen (1783), where they served as bulkheads along the banks of the James River.

The vast majority of treatise references to walls discuss their use as supports and protection for fruit trees in orchards and fruit gardens. The length and detail of the instructions suggest the importance of walls as an adaptation to the range of American climatic challenges for fruit growers. A brick wall reflected heat during the day and retained warmth at night, providing a moderating micro-climate and promoting earlier ripening. Fruit walls for “forwarding” the fruit season were useful in the middle and eastern states, but they were not necessary in warmer climates. Brick walls with flues, discussed in detail in numerous treatises, were used in hothouse and conservatory construction (see Conservatory, Greenhouse, and Hothouse). Trellises for training trees and vines were easily attached to brick walls’ porous surfaces. Bricks’ porosity also helped them retain heat much better than stone, even when the stone was painted a dark color. In the rare instance when stone was used, authors suggested that it be faced with several courses of brick on the side on which fruit trees were to be grown.

Most walls were straight, although the merits of serpentine walls were debated in the literature. Some authors, such as Ephraim Chambers (1741–43), argued that the serpentine wall was strong and economical, requiring less thickness to maintain the same strength as a straight wall. These walls also could be used to shelter plants from winds coming from all directions. Thomas Jefferson used a serpentine wall for the faculty gardens at the University of Virginia [Fig. 5]. Others, such as Loudon (1834) and George William Johnson (1847), criticized the serpentine form, arguing that such walls had to be too thick to retain the necessary heat for fruit ripening.

While the practical functions of walls were much discussed, they also made significant aesthetic contributions to landscape design. Philip Miller suggested in 1759 that walls be disguised with “Plantations of Flowering Shrubs, intermixed with laurels, and some evergreens.” Thomas Bridgeman (1832), Edward Sayers (1838), and A. J. Downing (1849) all suggested the use of creeping vines and trellises to incorporate the wall into a naturalistic or picturesque garden setting.

Unlike worm and wire fences, a wall was a decidedly immovable barrier. Its permanence, durability, and scale made it particularly suitable to the monumental and stately requirements of churchyards, cemeteries, and public grounds, as noted in a 1770 description of the Annapolis Parade and as depicted in a view of the White House in Washington, D.C. [Fig. 6]. Loudon in 1834 described walls as the “grandest fences for parks,” although images of American urban parks suggest that by the second quarter of the nineteenth century ironwork fences were the enclosures of choice. In urban settings, walls provided residents with a visual screen from what lay beyond [Fig. 7] and, although not noted in descriptions, they probably served as an effective noise barrier as well. Walls were also used to ornament the front approaches to houses. An over- mantle painting of a house in Fairfield, Conn., illustrates a more decorative treatment of a wall directly in front of the house in contrast to walls and fences on other parts of the property [Fig. 8]. A well-kept wall came to signify the prosperity and good management of the farmer, and, as Timothy Dwight noted in 1796, such walls were “the image of tidy, skilful, profitable agriculture.”







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History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Wall," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Wall&oldid=18251 (accessed October 20, 2021).

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