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History of Early American Landscape Design


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In American landscape vocabulary the term yard connoted an enclosed space, generally contiguous to a building and associated with specific activities related to that building. Hence, the term was often paired with another describing its adjacent structure or use, as in the case of barnyard, stable yard, churchyard, farmyard, poultry yard, kitchen yard, prison yard, cow yard, shipyard, and chunkyard (see also Fence, Hedge, and Wall).

A yard’s layout was dependent upon its particular function and upon such factors as lot boundaries. Generally, however, yards were geometrically regular. J. B. Bordley noted in 1801 that on paper an octagonal farmyard was pleasing to the eye, but that a rectangular shape small enough to attend easily to the animals was, in reality, more practical. While images suggest that yard topography was often relatively level, yards for livestock were sometimes designed with a grade for drainage or runoff, as Samuel Deane (1790) suggested. The surface treatment of yards varied, as indicated by descriptions of southern paved yards and by William Bartram’s account (1791) of Native American swept yards in Cuscowilla, Ga. As early as 1683, dwelling-house yards were described to be turfed or seeded with grass. These lawns, such as the “grass plot” in the yard of Pennsbury Manor, near Philadelphia, continued to be the subject of both horticultural advice and visitors’ admiration through the mid-nineteenth century.

Despite its simple form, the American yard was a complex social space in terms of its function as an activity area and its relation to landscape design. Couplings of the word, such as family yard, door yard, exotic yard, foreyard, and backyard, imply the variety of ways in which these enclosed spaces were used while their ubiquity suggests their significance in the American landscape. In warm climates or warm seasons, the yard adjacent to a dwelling served as an extension of the house for activities as wide ranging as food preparation and socializing. Images of farms and rural residences, such as the naïve view of a Pennsylvania farm with many fences [Fig. 1], depict how the space adjacent to a house (described variously as front yard, family yard, and courtyard) was demarcated from other working areas and from the landscape. Other images represent the yard as a buffer in more densely settled towns and cities, providing separation from neighboring houses and streets. This idea is illustrated in Rufus Hathaway’s painting of Joshua Winsor’s residence [Fig. 2] and Charles Bulfinch’s view of the Elias Hasket Derby House [Fig. 3], both in Massachusetts.

Yards were seen as an extension of a house’s architectural façade, and together they often registered in descriptions as an outward and public presentation of the dwelling’s occupants. References in eighteenth-century travel accounts and nineteenth-century periodicals include comments about the appearance of a “well-kept” yard as a sign of its owner’s prosperity and responsible management. In 1827, for example, the New England Farmer noted that a “slovenly door yard is a pretty infallible indication of a slovenly farmer.”

Yards were vital elements of institutional landscapes, including the State House in Philadelphia; Harvard College [Fig. 4]; Princeton College [Fig. 5]; and the College of William and Mary. The term “courtyard” was used for an area enclosed on two sides by buildings and on another by vegetation, as at the Georgia Orphan House Academy [Fig. 6] and a nestling of the space within a building at the Governor’s House in New Bern, N.C. [Fig. 7]. These spaces created a visual frame for the buildings and also provided places for public gatherings, as suggested by the 1705 notice for burning grievances in the yard of the Capitol of Williamsburg. In addition, they served as areas of social interaction, as seen in numerous projects depicting promenaders in the State House Yard in Philadelphia, or, as in a 1743 engraving, showing students sporting on the grounds at Harvard College [Fig. 8]. Descriptions and representations of prisons, hospitals, and asylums reveal that the enclosed yard provided a secure area for patients or inmates to take fresh air and exercise. This function is illustrated in Robert Waln, Jr.’s 1825 description of the Friends Asylum for the Insane, in Charles Bulfinch’s 1818 plan of two wings added to Pleasant Hill to create McLean Asylum [Fig. 9], and in John Hawks’s 1773 design for a prison in Edenton, N.C. [Fig. 10].

The relationship of the terms “yard” and “garden” is an ambiguous one in the vocabulary of the American landscape. Treatise authors were inconsistent in their explanations of the distinction between these two terms. William Forsyth, for example, in 1802 distinguished a garden as being situated near the house as opposed to a farmyard, which was located at a further distance from the house, although still close enough for direct supervision of laborers.1 Bordley, on the other hand, writing at almost the same time, noted that a garden within the area near a house was a “Family-yard.” In popular American usage, these terms also appear to have been used inconsistently. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, numerous writers referred to a site’s “garden and yard,” whereas advertisements and deeds often listed the garden and yard separately.This distinction between more intensively cultivated garden space (located generally near the house) and the more utilitarian yard area is exemplified in the 1810 description that accompanied a sketch of Belfield. This drawing clearly separated the fenced “yard” surrounding Peale’s house from his paled and elaborately planted “garden,” located to the rear. Several images of domestic settings further suggest a distinction between the two types of spaces. Views, such as Ralph Earl’s 1792 portrait of the Chief Justice and Mrs. Ellsworth [Fig. 11], depict white painted fences immediately adjacent to the house, while red paint decorated the more distant fences (see Fence). Unfortunately no text references exist in which the term “yard” is associated with such images. This explicit visual demarcation of the two spaces may have been representative of a distinction between utilitarian yards (of the sort described in other sources as barn yard, hog yard, etc.) and ornamental yard spaces. Alternatively, the different treatment of the fences may represent properties whose owners would not have claimed to have a “garden” at all; in this case, the images might reflect a distinction between yard and the surrounding agricultural landscapes of pastures, meadows, and field.

A gradual shift in the distinction between yard and garden took place in the first half of the nineteenth century. Martha Ogle Forman’s 1824 account of Newark, N.J., and articles, such as that in the New England Farmer (1837) about “Front Yards,” mark an increasingly common pattern for private residential landscaping in which flower borders, shrubbery, and gardens are included within the space that was designated as a yard. Such designers as A. J. Downing (1849) and William H. Ranlett (1849) advocated that the yard should complement a residence, and each produced plans that became models for early suburbias. Their writings, particularly those disseminated through periodicals, were critical in the replication of such designs throughout America.

-- Elizabeth Kryder-Reid






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History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Yard," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Yard&oldid=18446 (accessed January 30, 2023).

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