Credit: Paul Irish

Landscape Overview

The origins of the landscape architecture found on our 19th and 20th century Hudson River Valley estates has its roots in the great traditions of English garden and landscape design and philosophy. This paper is meant to give readers and visitors a primer on the history of 18th and 19th century landscape architecture, some of the field's prominent figures in the Valley, and their creative influence on it's landscape. We hope this information will help you to enjoy and appreciate the history behind these great treasures in our back yard.

Modern English landscape design began after the Civil War of 1642-49. After the war, the landscapes, gardens, and grounds of great estates and castles were considered not just places of beauty to entertain but were places where people could retreat from the political strife of the day. This is where the concept of a multi-use landscape originated from, a landscape which was not just for beauty, but combined functionality, property for profit - such as farmland- and places for peaceful reflection. These elements were combined in one cohesive design interacting with one another. The major influences in this period can be traced back to Greek and Roman philosophy and Christian theology.

The next influence on English gardens was during the Renaissance when English authors such as Alberti, Palladio, and Colonna began to write on gardens and drew on the works of their Roman predecessors such as Virgil and Plimy’s philosophy of the value of nature, and from Columella where they learned techniques of farming, trimming and pruning trees and bushes as well as a host of other garden techniques. This exploration and evolution of garden design continued into the late 1600’s with men such as William Temple, Stephen Switzer, and the Earl of Shaftesbury, leading to the creation of a natural landscape theory which blended landscape, nature and structures to create a cohesive whole.

By the 18th century, English landscape design was striving to show the importance of God and spirituality and how it related to nature and meditation. The owners of the great estates in England were not only influenced by a sense of God and spirituality but also by a combination of influences from other countries such as Italy, Holland, France, China, and Greece. These influences brought landscape design a higher sense of gardening and farming which mixed politics, philosophy and culture.

We can see a clear evolution of English landscape design through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. In the 17th century the emphasis in gardens was on geometric shapes especially the circle and square because they were considered the most valuable forms. Gardens reflecting this school of thought appeared more formal. By the 18th century, with the introduction of natural philosophies and the benefits of nature, there was a move to use more serpentine and irregular lines in the garden. In the 19th century there was an evolution in which all three methodologies combined to form a cohesive design theory with geometrical shapes in the foreground, serpentine in the middle, and irregular in the background.

This evolution of landscape design traveled to America with prominent landscape architects and thinkers such as Andre Parmentier, Samuel F. B. Morse, and A. J. Downing. From these core principles of the English natural landscape theory, each in their own way helped to develop the American picturesque landscape theory, which can be seen in the great estates of the Hudson Valley. For instance, in Locust Grove, Samuel F. B. Morse’s home, the formal landscape and defined architecture of the house form the geometric portion with the farmlands and other quasi-natural elements forming the middle ground of the landscape design and the river and valley view forming the irregular background to complete the design.

Andre Parmentier

The first true landscape designer not only in the Hudson Valley but also in America was Andre Parmentier, a French immigrant. He worked in Brooklyn as a nurseryman and wrote an article on landscape design in the “natural” school but his actual gardens seemed to be a quasi-mix of the English natural design with American influences. Little is known about Parmentier, partly because of his early date in American history and the only written evidence is his article “Landscape and Picturesque Gardens”. What is known is that he worked on designing great estates both in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island. One of his best-known works was the Hosack Estate in Hyde Park, which was redesigned in the 19th century for Frederick Vanderbilt. Most of the mansion’s landscape design dates back to the Hosack period, therefore giving a good example of Parmentier’s early design work.

He strove to enhance nature and did not overpower it. When it was necessary for him to put infrastructure in, he made sure it blended in with the natural surroundings. Although certain parts were of a more formal nature, it blended with the natural surroundings. Large parts of the grounds were left in their natural state to enhance this overall effect.

Samuel F. B. Morse

The next big innovator in landscape design in the Hudson Valley was Samuel F. B. Morse, better known for his telegraph and painting than his theories on landscape design.

In 1826, Morse came out with a lecture series on what he would call the five “perfect fine arts – painting, sculpture, poetry, music and landscaping”. His lecture on landscaping is one of his earliest surviving lectures and one of the most lasting because it became the cornerstone of 19th century American landscape theory and design. Even though landscape design and gardening was considered a fine art in England for generations, Morse was one of the first people to recognize landscape design as a fine art in America.

These lectures symbolized one of the first important steps in a new school of landscape design that would be developed in America as an extension of the English landscape gardens. Instead of the formal gardens of England, the new school would be called "picturesque”. Morse was one of the first people to write about this new form. He borrowed the theories of Thomas Whately, a prominent eighteenth century English landscape designer, but would expand and rethink Whately’s views to fit this new theory of landscape design where it mimicked nature and the belief that there was a connection between nature and God.

Morse also felt that the natural, or the picturesque, should take precedence over any artificial landscape feature. In these lectures, Morse discussed how there were four elements to the picturesque design – “ground, wood (trees and shrubs), water, rocks and the (the exterior appearance of) buildings.” His lectures presented a detailed discussion of how the landscape designer or gardener could use these four principles to create a natural looking landscape while still presenting a clean and tidy appearance while still taking advantage of the great natural beauty that surrounded the landscape.

The reason that this would become so popular in America in the first half of the 19th century was due to the unspoiled beauty that America had to offer. Morse used these theories in his redesign of his home Locust Grove taking advantage of the natural beauty of the Hudson River Valley to bring his views on picturesque landscape design into reality for himself.

Andrew Jackson Downing

Andrew Jackson Downing was born in Newburgh, New York in 1815. He was the son of a nurseryman and was the first true American landscape and architectural theorist. He completed the transfer of English landscape theory to the American northeast and more specifically, the Hudson Valley. Downing was also one of the most notable early American thinkers to come out of the Hudson Valley. He was keenly interested in the landscape philosophy of the English landscape designers and used John Loudon’s thinking as a framework to form his own theories and concepts. While he was influenced by English landscape thought, his belief that nature serves man to his benefit was just as essential. He might have gained this belief in his years growing up in the Hudson Valley. He enjoyed long hikes on the banks of river taking in the natural beauty, which gave him a firsthand background of natural scenery and design to incorporate into his theories.

His ideas formed the basis of modern landscape thought in America. One of the first ideas that he put forth was the idea of the porch and how it related the interior space to the exterior space. He used the porch as a metaphor or a transitional space between the outdoors and indoors. The importance of the porch was that he felt that not only the rich should have the luxury of enjoying nature but also the common man. In fact, he thought that having a small, pretty cottage situated in a natural setting would help people become more virtuous and educated.

He wrote on this idea as well as his thoughts on picturesque architecture and his four “grand principles” of design: unity, variety, recognition, and imitation, and how it related to nature in his books “Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening” and “Cottage Residences” in 1841. These books were a wealth of knowledge, not only on his philosophy but more importantly gave detailed plans and instructions on how to design a cottage from every interior detail to how to lay out the landscapes. The books, over 150 years after their original publication, are still in print and are used by architects and homeowners alike to get a specific “cottage charm” in their residences.

He believed that the common man’s intellect and well being could be improved by being exposed to nature. He worried that lower class people in the biggest cities would not be able to experience nature because there was little opportunity there and a lack of finances and time to travel into the country. Downing advocated bringing the country to the urban residents through the creation of public parks in major urban areas. He was the main force behind the creation of Central Park in New York City. With the idea of public space in mind, Downing planned the gardens for the Capitol, the mall, the White House, and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D. C. Even though they were not built until after his death, they were planted according to his design.

Unfortunately Downing died early in his life before his true influence in actual landscapes could be seen. Since he had advocated the concept of Central Park, he would have been the logical choice as a designer but died before its creation. In the Hudson Valley, almost every great estate embraces at least some of his theories in the carrying out of their landscape design and exterior house architecture. He consulted with F. B. Morse in the early 19th century on what shape the remodeled landscape and house at Locust Grove should take. He was also influential in the design of the landscape for Montgomery Place.

However, the only true Downing design which he followed from creation to completion that still remains today is located in the Hudson Valley on Academy Street in the city of Poughkeepsie. It is Springside, Matthew Vassar’s summer home. It was a dramatic departure from even the designs of the day, which were formal and geometric, characterized by their lush lawns and highly designed flowerbeds. Instead, Springside embraced the natural forests and environment. Downing used his theory of natural beauty to enhance, not change the feel of Springside. He added water features, paths, and carriage roads all in a way that would blend in with the natural beauty. Even the buildings such as the gardener’s cottage, which became Vassar’s home, seemed to grow out of the natural surroundings. Springside is the culminating example of how Downing desired to marry not only landscaping to nature, but also people to nature and how man could live civilized in a natural environment.

After Downing’s death, the art of landscape design in America and more specifically the Hudson Valley passed to two men, Calvin Vaux and Frederick Olmsted.

Frederick Law Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted was born in Hartford, CT on April 26, 1822. Olmsted acquired his love of gardens and landscapes from when he was schooled with Reverend Zolva Whitmore as a young boy. During this time period, he read “Essay on the Picturesque” by Sir Uvedale Price, a British landscape architect that deeply affected him and created a life long interest in not only landscape design but also landscape architecture in the picturesque style.

As a young man, Olmsted went from job to job without finding what he really wanted to do with the only thing constant being his love of nature and the outdoors. In 1844, he became a farmer on a farm his father had purchased. This was a great turning point in his life; he had finally found some measure of stability after trying everything from surveying to sailing. He also rediscovered religion during this time, and this would play an integral part in his landscape designs.

After a few years of farming, Olmsted’s his father bought him his own farm on Staten Island called Tosomock Farm. He created his first landscape at Tosomock Farm in the picturesque landscape style in an attempt to tidy up the farm while still keeping the natural look. Neighbors such as William Vanderbilt asked him for landscaping recommendations and provided the beginning of his slow evolution into a landscape designer drawing upon his experiences as a surveyor and what he had read about the picturesque landscape style.

In 1850, he sailed with his brother to England and saw the great landscapes he had read about as a youngster which had deepened his love and interest in grand landscape design. On his return to America, he wrote “Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England”. Olmsted in these years was the true epitome of a Renaissance man whose interests varied from nature and landscape design to writing, and political and social causes.

This is perhaps why, in 1857, he decided to apply for the position of Superintendent to the newly created Central Park in New York City. Not only did he get the job, but he also won support from the park commissioners when he devised a plan to drain the swampy land that made up a large percentage of the park using his previous surveying experience.

Olmsted’s great work as Superintendent led him to also become one of the park’s principal designers. When A. J. Downing died in 1857, Downing had not yet finished his design for Central Park. With the absence of Downing, the park project was in limbo. The chief engineer Viele proposed a design, however this design was criticized by many people, most notably Calvert Vaux, one of Downing’s young proteges.

Calvert Vaux

Calvert Vaux was born in London in 1824 where he was educated and spent the first part of his career apprenticed to a famous architect, Lewis Cottingham. Here he was exposed to the Gothic style, which was influenced by motifs from the Chinese, Moors, and Egyptians. This influence can be seen in many of his works in America.
When Downing visited England to search for an architect who shared his beliefs, he found Vaux and convinced to immigrate to America to become his protégé and eventual partner.

Even though Vaux and Downing’s relationship would be short lived due to Downing’s untimely death, the relationship would forever change Vaux’s life. Not only was he in a new country, but he also quickly became the heir apparent to carry on Downing’s landscape principles. What might have made him stand out from all the other assistants that Downing had was Vaux’s understanding and appreciation for all of Downing’s principles and his ability to draw landscapes in great detail so even laymen could easily understand the finer points of the landscape design and what it hoped to accomplish in a larger sense

Vaux’s career is not only closely associated with Downing, but also with Frederick Olmsted with whom he partnered with for some of the best known landscapes in the country. Therefore, when the commissioners for Central Park proposed a design competition to pick the best landscape. Vaux, of course, wanted to carry out and expand on Downing’s ideas and teachings. He and Olmsted had been casual friends for a while when Vaux asked Olmsted to partner with him to come up with a design entry for the park. Vaux may also have been inclined to ask Olmsted because he knew he was a favorite of the commissioners who would be choosing the final design.

Olmsted and Vaux’s design was one of the last ones to be submitted before the deadline. The competition was great, and included everybody from the park engineer to noted landscape and architectural designers. The park design had to conform to a few requirements such as three playing fields, a major fountain, a winter skating pond and an exhibition building. They proposed a plan that capitalized on the unique features of the land and the requirements of the growing city around it. The plan was designed based on the teachings of Downing and the other picturesque designers that had come before him while at the same time adding their own special style to the design. In their plan, the proposed mall, terrace, lake, bluff, and tower became the central point of the southern half of the park taking advantage of the geological features which already had shrubs and trees such as azaleas, rhododendrons, and oaks.

The design, called Greensward, was a perfect match of picturesque and beautiful design theories. It had elements of the refined formal mall that was planted with rows of elms, however it was off to one side and ran diagonally to the street, which made it a beautiful and refined element in a picturesque natural setting of scenery. This was further enhanced by the fact that it married the large fields and playgrounds into the natural landscape. One must remember that the park was not to be set on a great estate in the Hudson Valley or a new sprawling park in a semi-rural town but was to be the one place of refuge for the quickly growing city of Manhattan. Therefore, the park had to be integrated with the city and the entire public infrastructure that went along with it even back 150 years ago. This is why perhaps the most brilliant part of the park design was how it dealt with certain givens that might have destroyed its natural beauty. The first given was the need for a reservoir somewhere in the park; the one that was there originally was unsuited for landscape beauty so a new one was built with meandering bridal paths around it. The second was the requirement for at least four public roads in the park that would have destroyed the natural feeling. Their solution was to put the roads in eight-foot deep trenches that would allow traffic to flow unimpeded while keeping the park safe and peaceful. It also allowed the park to be closed at night.

Once Olmsted and Vaux won the design, Olmsted convinced Vaux that it was
essential that they both work together on building the park because he argued that the competition was so hard fought, that people such the head engineer would build the park in their own style and not their design. To realize their dream, they had to be intimately involved in every aspect of the park design and construction. This led to a long-term partnership that well outlasted the finishing of Central Park. They would go on to design such parks in New York City as Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and other well-known city landmarks. In the Hudson River Valley, they would team up to design Downing Park in honor and tribute to the late A. J. Downing in his hometown of Newburgh. At the end of their partnership, each would go on to become well-known landscape architects in their own right. Vaux would work on such well-known estates as Frederick Church’s Olana and Wilderstein. While Olmsted would never again work in the Hudson Valley, he would go on to design parks in Boston, Buffalo, and great estates all over the country.


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By: Mike Russo'03