Published: August 22, 2000
PaineWebber Explores Landscape Architecture
NEW YORK CITY – A new photography exhibition at the PaineWebber Art Gallery explores a previously unexamined period of American landscape architecture and traces important movements in the history of design between 1900 and 1940. Organized by the Library of American Landscape History, “: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era” examines seven rare estate landscapes – from Stockbridge, Mass., to Santa Barbara, Calif. – that are currently accessible to the public and retain significant portions of their original designs.
The country place era was a time when wealthy American industrialists, such as Edsel Ford and Henry F. du Pont, pursued rural life in settings of great beauty. While most Nineteenth Century residential landscape design was guided by a naturalistic approach, championed by such landscape architects as Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York City’s Central Park, America’s capitalists were eager to enlist a new, formal design vocabulary for the new century.
Prestigious landscape designers, including Charles Platt and Beatrix Jones Farrand, collaborated with their wealthy patrons to create estate gardens that embrace the Olmstedian concept of genius loci (the spirit or genius of the natural surroundings) while incorporating a new and inspired use of historical form and Beaux Arts spatial principles.
“” examines seven important landscape achievements from the era and explores design concerns of the time, including the tension between formality and naturalism; the role of travel; the contributions of women to the emerging profession; and the impact of painting, sculpture, music and cinema on landscape design.
The exhibition presents these landscapes through seventy 20 by 24 inch toned, black and white photographs and seven oversize color Iris prints on watercolor paper. All were produced by distinguished landscape photographer Carol Betsch, whose evocative images were featured in the award-winning exhibition “The Gardens of Ellen Biddle Shipman,” sponsored by PaineWebber in 1997.
Curated by historian Robin Karson, director of the Library of American Landscape History, the exhibition’s accompanying text explores the collaborations between the landscape designers and their patrons, as well as the successful incorporation of new ideas and principles into landscape design.
The seven gardens in the exhibition include: Gwinn (estate of William Gwinn Mather), Cleveland, Ohio, designed by Charles Platt, Warren Manning and Ellen Shipman; Dumbarton Oaks (estate of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss), Washington Dc., designed by Beatrix Farrand; Naumkeag (estate of Mabel Choate), Stockbridge, Mass., designed by Fletcher Steele; Ford House (estate of Eleanor and Edsel Ford), Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., designed by Jens Jensen; Val Verde (estate of Wright S. Ludington), Santa Barbara, Calif., designed by Lockwood de Forest; Stan Hywet Hall (estate of Gertrude and Frank Seiberling), Akron, Ohio, designed by Warren Manning and Ellen Shipman; and Winterthur (estate of Henry F. du Pont), Winterthur, Del., designed by Henry F. du Pont and Marian Cruger Coffiin.
Gwinn, Cleveland, Ohio (1906-1912)
In 1905, Cleveland iron-ore magnate William Gwinn Mather hired two landscape architects to help him plan his new country estate. Warren H. Manning (1860-1938), a former employee of Frederick Law Olmsted and proponent of the emerging “American style” of irregular groupings of mostly indigenous plants, and Charles A. Platt (1861-1933), a young artist-turned-architect and a champion of formality.
They counseled Mather to purchase a five-acre parcel east of the city directly on Lake Erie to benefit from the ever changing lake panorama. The pair, with their divergent stylistic allegiances, together created an influential early work that clearly articulates naturalism and formality with remarkable vibrancy. Gwinn’s original design includes a 505 foot curing sea wall to embrace the lake, an axial arrangement of walled and hedged outdoor rooms, luxuriant masses of trees, shrubs, and groundcovers that soften the architecture throughout, and a 20 acre wild garden across the boulevard.
Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. (1922-1941)
Beatrix Jones Farrand (1872-1959) was one of the most prominent landscape architects of her time, and, as the niece of Edith Wharton, author of Italian Villas and Their Gardens, was familiar with Italian design principles. Farrand was asked by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss to design a garden for their 54 acre Georgetown property, and thus began a close collaboration between designer and patron.
For almost 20 years, Farrand and her clients shared sketches and ideas, developing a singularly sequential garden, conceived and designed much like a piece of music. From the tautly elegant rose terrace to the richly planted woodland that lies north of the home grounds (now a National Park Service property), each garden at Dumbarton Oaks strikes a different narrative chord. Soaring views throughout unify these differences, lifting attention beyond the charm of bower and bloom toward the larger transcendent force of the genius loci.
Naumkeag, Stockbridge, Massachusetts (1920s-1940s)
In 1925, Mabel Choate decided to modernize her family’s Berkshire summer estate, designed by Stanford White. The estate’s Victorian flower garden provided no comfortable or private place for Choate to sit, so she enlisted the help of Fletcher Steele (1885-1971) to create one.
Steele, a former student of Warren Manning, had become one of the most experimental landscape architects of the period, regarding plants unsentimentally as abstract color and form. Steele invented new gardens for Naumkeag over three decades, responding to Choate’s wishes and needs while at the same time using the landscape as a laboratory for his iconoclastic investigations into form, line, and color.
Among Steele’s last designs for Naumkeag were the Blue Steps, (circa 1937), now one of the best known images in American garden history. Steele used industrial materials – cast concrete and metal pipe – and the Italian Renaissance form of the water staircase, planted with lithe white birches that uncannily mimic the stair railings. The Blue Steps form an almost Mannerist conclusion to the stylistic explorations of the American country place era.
The Library of American Landscape History was founded in the belief that clear, informative books about North American landscape design would broaden support for enlightened landscape preservation. To achieve this goal, library texts meet high academic standards while using language accessible to the interested public. It is located at 205 East Pleasant Street in Amherst, Mass. Telephone, 413/549-4860.
The PaineWebber Art Gallery, in PaineWebber’s Corporate Headquarters, 1285 Avenue of the Americas (between 51st and 52nd Streets), is open Monday through Friday from 8 am until 6 pm. Admission is free.
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