Gardens of the World: A Great American Tradition


Taylor Clem
 |  Guest columnist

Over the past couple of months, we explored the Gardens of the World. Our explorations together took us through time starting with the Egyptian gardens along the Nile River to Greece, Rome, Persia, Asia, and Europe’s Medieval and Renaissance Gardens. The previous article discussed William Kent and Capability Brown’s ability to break the gardening mold and begin new, yet highly influential gardening styles. For our final article, let us explore some of the important gardening and landscape design influences in America.

Admittedly, there are too many influential gardens and people to discuss — more than can easily fit into a single article — so we’ll focus on the beginning.

Gardening and landscape design existed in the Americas for a very long time. European influences arrived with the earliest settlers. As we explore gardens explicitly throughout U.S. history, we can see influences from all over the world. One designer Thomas Jefferson, yes, THE Thomas Jefferson, was a landscape designing hobbyist. His landscape designs included Monticello, Poplar Forest and the University of Virginia. These three designs reflect strong influences seen throughout Roman and Greek designs throughout the architecture and landscape design.

A key contributor to landscape design in the United States is Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing is one of the earliest, most notable designers of American landscapes and gardens. He believed gardens should be accessible to everyone, regardless of class, and should cleanse the souls of the visitors. He viewed gardens and landscapes as integral components of public health. His landscape firm hired another designer, Calvert Vaux. Together they designed Washington’s National Mall and began creating the foundations for the country’s most prominent park, Central Park.

Downing and Vaux argued for the importance of public parks and gardens. They ultimately convinced New York City to obtain 778 acres in 1853 for the creation of Central Park. Unfortunately, shortly before New York City acquired property, Downing died in a steamboat accident. Vaux then in 1857 teamed up with Fredrick Law Olmsted, who at the time was the superintendent of the property to help begin preparations for construction. Vaux and Olmsted designed Central Park together.

Olmsted, recognized as a hard worker, had no formal training in landscape design or architecture. After completing their design together, Olmsted served the Union during the Civil War and explored westward. Vaux urged Olmsted to return, and they started Olmsted, Vaux, and Co., a landscape design firm. The formal union led to the creation of other American garden and landscape masterpieces, such as Prospect Park, the park systems in Brooklyn and Buffalo, and America’s first planned community, Chicago’s Riverside.

After Olmsted and Vaus dissolved their partnership, Olmsted continued designing. Many of his projects included the Biltmore Estate ground, Cherokee Park in Louisville, Kentucky, and Franklin Park in Boston, Massachusetts. He also designed many universities, including Yale, Cornell, American University, and Stanford. Nonetheless, his reputation grew, and Olmsted is now considered the founder of American Landscape Architecture.

Many of Olmsted’s designs reflected the balance of nature and the urban environment. His influences derived from Downing and other European gardens, but his designs created a template for many landscape designs…

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