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photo with rows of colorful flowers in the foreground and a green cottage and trees in the background

Photo Credit: Jessica Jaeb

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Dutchess County Landscape Architecture:
Nature as a Canvas

Jessica Jaeb, Marist '23

Introduction (click here for a PDF of the full paper)

Dutchess County is located on the east bank of the Hudson River, halfway between New York City and Albany. It is a unique place in the history and development of landscape architecture, where the evolution of that field can be traced throughout the county’s preserved and publicly accessible estates and parks. The gorgeous Hudson River, Shawangunk and Catskill Mountains, and fertile soil have captivated explorers, settlers, farmers, estate owners, artists, and many others over the centuries. Each generation has made its mark on the land, as it developed from wilderness to farmland, and as towns, estates and industry grew. This constantly evolving landscape is a palimpsest; oftentimes, one can see the influence of multiple time periods, with some more prevalent than others, when looking at a location in the present. Jonathan Raban describes this idea in Driving Home: An American Journey:

“Trying to understand the habitat in which we live requires an ability to read it - and not just in a loose metaphorical sense. Every inhabited landscape is a palimpsest… its original parchment nearly blackened with the cross-hatching of successive generations of authors, claiming this place as their own and imposing their designs on it, as if their temporary interpretations would stand forever. Later overwriting has obscured all but a few, incompletely erased fragments of the earliest entries on the land, but one can still pick out a phrase here, a word there, and see how the most recently dried layer is already being partially effased with fresh ink.”1 

Settled in the early seventeenth century, Dutchess County has over 400 years of this writing and revision to be explored and interpreted with a steady narrative of landscape architecture throughout that time.

Many different eras and influences contributed to a building sense of palimpsest. To start, thousands of native peoples inhabited the area up and down the river as early as 11,300 years ago.2  The river valley offered many benefits, including a “long growing season for raising the three sisters - corn, beans, and squash,” as well as gardens and hundreds of acres of corn.3  These semi-nomadic natives also had a deep connection with the landscape, as “all of nature was seen as having a soul.”4

In 1609, on behalf of the Dutch East India Company, Henry Hudson first sailed on the river that would be named for him. This led to Dutch settlers arriving in the area, although they came in a slow trickle; there were less than 20,000 in the area by 1700.5  During the colonial period, settlers influenced the landscape by deforesting much of the land to build homesteads, using the cleared land for farming. The layout of the landscape and buildings in this time was focused on utility and creating efficient agricultural practices. Simple embellishments that might be seen during this period include deliberately placed trees along a simple and straight drive or the development of a kitchen garden.6 

In the decades after the American Revolution, as the United States was developing a unique system of government and negotiating what life would look like in the nascent nation, a wealthier class was beginning to influence what the physical landscape would look like, especially along the banks of the Hudson River. Many properties turned into estates with gentleman’s farms, where owners farmed for pleasure instead of profit, and also focused on creating pleasure grounds with park-like features that included formal gardens, manicured lawns, trails, and more. One frequent modification was the trajectory of the driveway, which often became winding instead of straight as it was in earlier periods; the emphasis was no longer on utility but style. As these transformations were made, some aspects from the land’s former use remained, while others drastically changed.

These changes were not just influenced by the ideas of property owners, but by horticulturists and landscape architects as well. Figures like Andrew Jackson Downing, often considered the father of American landscape architecture, were influenced by both European traditions and the unique Hudson River Valley terrain. In Europe, up until the Enlightenment, landscape design for wealthy royalty and aristocrats followed very geometric designs where not a branch or flower could be out of place. With the Enlightenment, landscapes moved away from this rigid design mode and began to focus on enhancing the natural landscape in an artistic and emotional way.7  This led to the rise of the Picturesque and Beautiful design modes. Simply put, the Picturesque is “controlled irregularity;” 8 the landscape one might imagine surrounding a fairytale cottage in the woods. As Robert Toole describes A.J. Downing’s interpretation of the Picturesque, “while the Picturesque design was not wilderness, man’s presence was benign.”9  The Beautiful, on the other hand, is slightly more carefully manicured, with neatly cut grass; it is clearly influenced by man. These two design themes are not mutually exclusive, as more than one theme can be identified across a landscape, and the design can fluctuate with new uses and owners.

- - - - - - -  Photos of Beautiful vs. Picturesque according to Downing - - - - - - -

While many landscapes were negotiated to please the living, another movement influenced landscapes for those who passed on. From the early days of European settlement, churchyards were often used as a final resting place for the dead; however, by the mid-1800s, these plots became overcrowded. This issue prompted the creation of rural cemeteries, which were intentionally landscaped and influenced by design themes such as the Beautiful and Picturesque. As visitors to these rural cemeteries enjoyed family outings and recreation in these peacefully designed locations, this movement can be seen as a predecessor to public parks that are prevalent today.

The next period to influence the palimpsest of the land along the Hudson in Dutchess County was the Gilded Age. This was a time of great economic growth between the Civil War and the turn of the century, which resulted in great prosperity for those involved in banking, shipping, and industry. Some of the already established families in the area undertook remodeling of their homes or landscapes to reflect their wealth and those with “new money,” meaning recently acquired fortunes, purchased land along the river and redesigned existing features. These estates, similar to the earlier estates, were often seasonal escapes from the hustle and bustle of New York City.
With the American Revolution well behind them, estate owners felt more comfortable looking across the pond to Europe for inspiration, incorporating their design themes into the American landscape. For some, this meant turning back to more geometric designs in their formal gardens, as had been popular in Europe before the Enlightenment, to demonstrate their wealth and place in society. Sometimes called the Country Place Era, these more rigid designs influenced some Gilded Age homes as well as later examples in the decades after the turn of the century, and added yet another layer to the history of the landscape.

More changes occurred in the landscape of the Hudson River Valley after the Gilded Age. Some properties placed a bit more emphasis on recreation, adding tennis courts, pools, and other structures to the landscape. There was a diversification of design themes as well; while some focused on recreation or everyday use, others took a nostalgic approach to focus on forgotten pastimes, and still others looked past Europe to Asia for inspiration, representing Americans' constant search for the exotic. Another aspect of this era is the growing emphasis on trails to experience the landscape. Trails were present at some locations throughout the different eras; however, their importance grew and can be seen as a precursor to the advent of hiking and other trails in more recent decades.

Many of these manicured and historic landscapes would not have stood the test of time if it were not for the people and organizations that worked to preserve them. Preservation of the locations in this discussion is varied in time and type. The earliest example of preservation in Dutchess County appears in 1841, and the latest is yet to be seen as preservation efforts for some locations are ongoing. Some properties were given to the National Park Service or the State of New York by members of the families who lived there. In other cases, family members or relatives created organizations to continue the legacy of the landscape and the family that lived there. Concerned citizens who wanted to ensure the public remember the historic significance of different places also came together for preservation efforts. Organizations such as Scenic Hudson have formed to preserve historic and culturally important aspects of the Hudson River Valley, and other organizations have formed to keep up with the needs of specific locations. In addition to preservation, land protection, restoration efforts, and interpretation are important as they allow the home and landscapes to continue to be enjoyed by the public. While Dutchess County retains many great examples of landscape architecture, other historic locations were lost to development or decay, and some are not open to the public.

(click here for a PDF of the full paper)

1 As quoted in Kelly Research & Outreach Lab, “Landscape as palimpsest,” Accessed November 30, 2021, kellylab.berkeley.edu/blog/2012/1/17/landscape-as-palimpsest.html 

2 Frances F. Dunwell, The Hudson: America's River (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 2.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 3.

5 Robert M. Toole, Landscape Gardens on the Hudson, A History: The Romantic Age, the Great Estates & The Birth of American Landscape Architecture (Hensonville: Black Dome Press Corp., 2010), 24.

6 Ibid., 21.

7 Ibid., 4.

8 Myra B. Armstead, Freedom’s Gardener: James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 43.

9 Toole, Landscape Gardens on the Hudson, 19.