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History of Early American Landscape Design


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Wood, as defined by Thomas Whately in 1770, referred to a planting feature composed of trees and shrubs, a description that made the feature quite similar to clump, grove, shrubbery, thicket, and wilderness. A.-J. Dézallier d’Argenville (1712), had described “Groves of a middle Height . . . groves opened in Compartiments, [and] Groves planted in Quincunce” as kinds of woods (see Grove). Whately, however, attempted to clarify the potential confusion that arose from such similarities. He stipulated that a wood contained both “trees and underwood,” and extended over “a considerable space.” It was the extent of a wood, for George William Johnson (1847), that distinguished it from a clump, which also contained trees and undergrowth (see Clump). In his drawing for the grounds of the White House in Washington, D.C., Benjamin Henry Latrobe indicated two distinct areas for clumps and for wood. The larger wooded area served as a perimeter border [Fig. 1].

Whately’s descriptions of woods, which were quoted in the treatise literature for the next century, corresponded to American gardeners’ descriptions and treatment of woods. Samuel Vaughan, when mapping the grounds of Mount Vernon in 1787, used Whately’s terminology—a hanging wood—to describe the clustering of trees on the steeply sloping bank that lay between the lawn and the river [Fig. 2]. Thomas Jefferson, who was anxious to design the grounds of Monticello in imitation of a modern-style English garden, struggled to render his “native” woods into a form acceptable to English design concepts while accommodating the harshness of Virginia’s summers. Unwilling to give up the expansive view created by a lawn, Jefferson (1806) recommended trimming his trees so as to create the illusion of open space while still retaining shade.

A sense of expanse is integral to many discussions of woods. J. C. Loudon, in An Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1826), established that a wood—“a large assemblage of trees”—was more extensive than a thicket or clump (see Thicket). Rev. Manasseh Cutler’s 1787 description of Gray’s Tavern in Philadelphia, in which he gave account of a “tall wood interspersed with close thickets,” reveals that he identified a difference of size, and specifically height, in his understanding of the two features.

Dézallier d’Argenville stipulated that woods be shaped with alleys or paths into such forms as a star or cross, which could house decorative objects, such as statues or waterworks. According to Hannah Callender’s 1762 description, the wood at Belmont Mansion, near Philadelphia [Fig. 3], was marked by avenues that gave access to internal spaces, in which were found a Chinese temple and an obelisk. These avenues also framed views beyond the garden, including “a fine prospect of the city.” At the Friends Asylum of the Insane, near Frankford, Pa. (1826), a winding walk led the visitor through the woods to a “Temple of Solitude,” shaded by tulip, oak, chestnut, and beech trees.

Alleys and paths were key to one of the chief functions of woods, as defined by Stephen Switzer (1718); they provided a place for walking. Philip Miller (1754) expounded upon the “Necessity of twisting of the Walks.” He argued that the intricate patterns allowed more pathways to be compressed into a space than a straight walk. Complex pathways necessitated careful attention, Miller explained, to the turns of the walks so that a balance was struck between open view or prospect and sheltered privacy, and between artfulness and naturalness.

Whether planted or natural, a wood could contribute greatly to an overall garden design. Dézallier d’Argenville, in his chapter entitled “Of Woods and Groves in general,” encouraged planting woods as a means of offering “Relievo” [his italics], in contrast to the “flat parts” of gardens, such as “Parterres and Bowling-greens.” Later, even as the lawn replaced these “flat parts,” writers remained concerned with the juxtaposition of the verticality of the wood and the horizontal sweep of flat elements of the garden or landscape.

The outline of the wood, Whately stipulated, should be varied by selectively placing a few trees or groups of shrubs at a slight distance from the main plantation. The wood might then offer a diverse and light effect while maintaining much of its mass and desired grandeur. Humphry Repton (1803) concurred when he cautioned against a strict contrast between wood and lawn for a “want of unity,” and instead advocated blurring the boundaries so that the “eye cannot trace the precise limits” of each feature. Many instances can be found of what Jefferson referred to as the English method of bounding lawn with woods, thus creating variety and contrast. John P. Sheldon reported in 1825 that at the Fair- mount Waterworks in Philadelphia the juxtaposition of woods and lawn added to the “pleasing variety of the scene.” A. J. Downing, in his 1849 discussion of the treatment of woods, argued that managing the convergence of woods and lawn was one of the most important components of the landscape garden. The proper arrangement of these two features—their light and dark shades—should “lead the eye to the mansion,” the central element of the entire design.

While Dézallier d’Argenville, Switzer, and Miller were all proponents of woods, they cautioned against allowing a wood to block or interrupt a view. Whately argued that woods could be used to enhance views from commanding eminences or prospects. One of the “noblest objects in nature” he insisted, was “the surface of a large thick wood,” observed either from an elevated point, such as a hill, or from the foot of a hill looking upward. Whately referred to the latter as a “hanging wood,” where the feature appeared to loom above the viewer. All forms of wood should, he explained, follow aesthetic principles. Specifically, he argued against monotony in color and height in favor of variety achieved by a “judicious mixture of greens” and “grouping and contrasting trees very different in shape from each other.”

Downing echoed Whately’s concern for the placement of woods. In his chapter entitled, “Wood and Plantations,” he explained how the feature could be used to conceal topographical defects in walks and roads or around unsightly edifices. With respect to the latter, however, he warned against planting trees so near the building that air circulation would be impeded. If the structure was “the mansion or dwelling-house,” the wood should function more as a backdrop to the house. The house, for Downing, was to be treated as the primary focus of the composition, and the woods—with their connotations of grandeur—should underscore the magnificence of the dwelling. This precise effect was depicted in a drawing by A. J. Davis of Montgomery Place, where the deep shadows of the wood were set in contrast to the lawn and the tall lines of the hemlock, lime, ash, and fir trees, thereby enhancing the stateliness of the mansion [Fig. 4]. Downing further argued that the internal organization of woods should be defined by planting trees in loose groupings as opposed to rectilinear formations, in keeping with the modern or natural style (see Modern style), repudiating the geometrical, ornamental forms advocated by seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century treatise authors.

Downing’s recommendation to frame the house with woods also promoted a vision of the North American landscape very different from that described by Frenchman FrançoisAlexandre-Frédéric, duc de La Rochefoucauld Liancourt, who observed a half century earlier that Americans rarely surrounded their houses with trees. He offered the explanation that early settlers were so often forced to clear land in order to build that the appearance of open space around the house was a sign of improvement. Although Americans reveled in the abundance of trees and forests in the landscape, by 1799 at least, native forests were dwindling. Isaac Weld conveyed this concern with the statement that woods were “now beginning to be thought valuable.”

By the mid-nineteenth century, as demonstrated by Downing’s treatise as well as by accounts of such estates as T. Lee’s country residence in Brookline, Mass., the cultivation of woods around the home had risen to the level of art. Lee had added a wood to the grounds and carefully maintained it by cutting and thinning out trees, establishing walks and seats, and planting flowering shrubs such as rhododendrons. From this wood, some of the best views of the nearby countryside and the house could be seen. While the 1840 account of Lee’s wood suggests that he planted the entire woods, new plants often were incorporated into a preexisting wood. This was done at Montgomery Place, where, according to Downing (1847), natural wood and planted trees were blended together to create a rich, dense foliage.

-- Anne L. Helmreich






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