Landscape Garden Design in the Valley

A just-released book takes readers on a tour of the Valley’s 19th-century landscape gardens



“Every unspoiled landscape has its unique personality, a distinctive character that is perceived through the senses. It is an ineffable quality, something vaguely mythic,” writes Elizabeth Barlow Rogers in the foreward to Landscape Gardens on the Hudson: A History (Black Dome Press, $24.95), which will arrive in bookstores this month. “In America no place has fulfilled this aspect of the Romantic ethos more completely than the Hudson River Valley.”

Rogers, a leading landscape preservationist and president of the Foundation for Landscape Studies, praises the book’s author, Robert M. Toole, for doing “what few if any authors have done before by describing the Hudson River Valley’s historic properties in terms of the layout of their grounds as well as the architectural character of their manors, mansions, and villas.”

Why is this important? “Landscape garden design was an important facet of cultural expression in 19th-century New York,” writes Toole. “In all ages, gardens and landscape design have reflected broad interests, involved numerous disciplines, and attested to widely held social values and ideals. In the historic garden, unlike other artistic endeavors, our ancestors interacted with their physical environment.”

Toole traces the history of landscape gardening back to its roots in mid-1700s England: “Where the ancient focus had been on the impressive exactitude and sculptural embellishment of a formal geometric garden, the interest now was on the emotional reaction to man-made but natural-appearing scenery modeled on nature and local distinctions.”

In the Valley, the earliest design work in the English landscape garden tradition came in the 1790s. “The house (at this date always a classical design) began to be located away from the farmstead in a naturalized park-like setting, isolated from outbuildings, kitchen gardens and stable areas that had earlier been closely attached to the house,” writes the author.

What typified a Hudson Valley landscape garden of this era? Most of them, writes Toole, were created from farmland or by clearing existing woodlands to create open spaces. “Carriage drives and their pedestrian cousins, footpaths, played the single most important role in determining how the designed landscape was experienced. Drives were especially critical in defining the arrival experience, i.e., how one was brought from the property’s gateway to the house. This was always a carefully contrived route, and the resulting visual sequence fixed the landscape’s personality and largely defined the visual experience and the property’s sense of place.”

porter's lodgeSole survivors: The Porter’s Lodge, designed by famed architect A.J. Downing, at Springside. The building — as well as the landscaped grounds — are the only examples of Downing’s work that still exist today

Next came the inclusion of water — whether it was a view of the Hudson or of streams that formed decorative pools. “Water was always a prime component of these designs,” writes Toole. “Water almost always incorporated planted edges and, because they were typically intended to appear natural, the plantings were mostly indigenous, melding with the woodsy surroundings... Trees formed the fabric of the landscape garden, and these were almost always indigenous varieties or long-established imports.” During the Romantic period, according to Toole, native red, white, and chestnut oaks — as well as American elms — were valued landscape trees, as were smaller native trees like the white birch, redbud, honey locust, and black locust. “Evergreens were represented by white pines and hemlocks, both common on the Hudson, as well as balsam fir and spruce. Shrubs were used sparingly, given the scale of the average landscape, but there were a few designed botanic collections that earned the title ‘shrubbery.’ Flowers, per se, were not an integral part of the landscape garden. Flowers were often included in the kitchen garden, isolated from what was otherwise expansive, park-like scenes.”

Finally, buildings played an important role in landscape gardens. “Essential outbuildings, such as farmers’ cottages, gatehouses, barns and stable buildings, were set up as major landscape features.... Purely decorative buildings varied widely, from sizable pavilions and summerhouses to small individual seats,” writes Toole. “One owner excavated and propped up an old tree stump and presented it on his front lawn for all to see. Pride in a sculptural tree stump was a design conceit peculiar to the Romantic period.”

Toole devotes a chapter to each of a dozen historic sites which are open to the public and which he calls “some of the most significant designed historic landscapes in America.” There are recognizable names — Hyde Park, Locust Grove, and Olana — which the author dubs “the aesthetic crescendo of American landscape gardening.”

One of the lesser-known ones, Springside, is located on Academy Street in the City of Poughkeepsie. Springside, writes Toole, is “one of the most historically significant gardens in North America because of its unique attribution and status as Andrew Jackson Downing’s only surviving landscape design.”

A.J. Downing (1815-1852), a native of Newburgh-on-Hudson, was a nurseryman and horticulturist by training who went on to become America’s most prominent landscape designer in the mid-19th century. “Downing was no fan of older colonial designs, such as the Hudson’s old-fashioned Anglo-Dutch gardens, which he chided as ‘the Ancient or Geometric Style’ for their ‘regularity, symmetry and the display of labored art,’ ” Toole notes.

“Downing became involved in the Springside development on the initiative of Matthew Vassar (1792-1868), a wealthy Poughkeepsie businessman and later the founder of Vassar College (1861). Vassar eventually lived at Springside, but in 1850 he was involved with the community’s search for expanded cemetery space, a public endeavor that led to the initial development of the property,” writes Toole.

Prior to the Civil War, the development of cemeteries was an important component of landscape gardening, explains Toole. “Rural cemeteries, as they were called, were innovative, reacting to the unhealthy, unattractive and overcrowded conditions of older churchyard burial plots inherited from the colonial period. The new cemeteries, beginning with Mount Auburn Cemetery outside Boston (1831) were designed as expansive landscape gardens, dedicated to the dead but appreciated by the living for their artistic landscape design qualities. It was the need for a public cemetery that prompted the Springside work.

“The use of landscape features at Springside was, by and large, formal in aspect and positioning,” Toole continues. “A striking Gothic-styled conservatory formed an elaborate embellishment in Center Circle, a carriage roundabout located near the center of the site. Likewise, an area called Jet Vale focused its aesthetic effect on a so-called ‘Swain Fountain’ and its geometric, circular basin...the architecture at Springside was a focus of the garden experience. The Springside buildings were inspired by the Gothic Revival style and, except for the conservatory (or glass house) in Center Circle, were wood structures... [they] constitute a remarkable collection, and the fact that they can be so closely associated with Downing is fortunate given the general scarcity of Downing documentation and his historical importance as an arbiter of architectural design in antebellum America.”

The site never became a cemetery — and A.J. Downing drowned when the steamboat Henry Clay sank on the Hudson in 1852, just as public accolades for Springside were beginning to pour in. But for us, “the garden’s loveliness is in some respects more evident today than during Downing’s lifetime,” declares Toole. “Design quality and the site’s basic preservation enhance Springside’s potential as an historic garden of national importance and international interest.”

What follows is an appendix entitled “Visiting Landscape Gardens on the Hudson,” which is taken from Toole’s book.

Blithewood

Bard College Campus, Annandale-on-Hudson. 845-758-6822 or www.bard.edu
The present large house (called Blithewood Manor) and associated formal gardens remodeled the property in the late 1890s and are not reflective of the Romantic-period Donaldson residence. The octagonal gatehouse (1841) and the approach drive lined with old white pines remain, but the modern campus setting has obliterated any sense of the historic conditions. The site is not interpreted.

Clermont

1 Clermont Ave., Germantown. New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Taconic Region: 518-537-4240 or www.nysparks.state.ny.us and www.friendsofclermont.org
The original house (as rebuilt after the Revolutionary War, with many alterations) remains, but the grounds are only vaguely reflective of the historic situation. Idele, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston’s separate residence, is a ruined foundation at the end of a large parking lot. Close by, open lawns, grills, and picnic tables serve state park visitors. Several interpretive panels present aspects of the site’s history. Occasional fee.

Hyde Park: Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site

4097 Albany Post Rd. (Rte. 9), Hyde Park. National Park Service: 845-229-9115 and 845-229-7770 (weekends)
The grounds are open without fee. The spectacle of the river views is deservedly famed, and the isolation of the house siting (the fourth classical-style edifice to occupy the same spot) is well preserved. The old stable is the visitors’ center, and the original walled gardens are now lovingly maintained in a semblance of their 1930s appearance. The site is adversely affected by vehicles and crisp asphalt roadways that, fortunately, follow historic routes. The historic landscape features and plantings are mostly gone.

Idlewild

Cornwall-on-Hudson (several private properties)
The house grounds are now a residential neighborhood, and the Calvert Vaux-designed house is unrecognizable. The steeply sloping ravines of Idlewild and Funnychild brooks remain still an “idle wild” revealed in the spring before the site’s rampant vegetation blankets all views.

Knoll (Lyndhurst)

635 S. Broadway, Tarrytown. National Trust for Historic Preservation: 914-631-4481 or www.lyndhurst.org
The grounds are open to the public without a fee, but it requires a lucid knowledge of the property’s complex history to make sense of the remnants that remain. Landscape guide material is available at the visitors’ center.

Locust Grove: Samuel Morse Historic Site

2683 South Rd. (Rte. 9), Poughkeepsie. 845-454-4500 or www.lgny.org
An idiosyncratic but well-operated museum property, the grounds are open without fee, including the extensive riverfront that is a hidden resource in the otherwise dreary sprawl along U.S. Rte. 9. The landscape is interpreted and maintained to all periods up to the most recent, non-historic owners, creating an odd mix. Garden beds from the most recent owners (not Samuel F. B. Morse) remain and are maintained. The riverfront is much overgrown and spatially unrecognizable from Morse’s intentions.

Montgomery Place

River Rd., Annandale-on-Hudson. Historic Hudson Valley: 914-631-8200 and 914-271-8981 (weekends) or www.hudsonvalley.org
Mothballed in recent years, Montgomery Place will likely remain the spectacular public-access property it has been since 1988, with whatever opening hours and levels of interpretation can be mustered. Check the current specifics, and go for the gracious house surroundings and the Hudson Valley views. The Sawkill, the quintessentially romantic setting, can be explored.

Olana

5720 Rte. 9G, Hudson. New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Taconic Region: 518-828-0135 or The Olana Partnership 518-828-1872
The grounds are open all year, and a fee is sometimes charged in summer. The extensive acreage is reached by over five miles of carriage drives, carefully designed by Frederic Church, that offer many opportunities for scenic pedestrian touring. Numerous interpretive panels provide background regarding the designed landscape.

The Point

Old Post Rd., Staatsburg. New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Taconic Region: 845-828-0135
Inquisitive visitors are left on their own when touring this abandoned site. It’s a jungle out there. The house is a near-ruin, and the prominent outbuildings postdate the Romantic period development. Bring your imagination and try to recreate the original site. With understanding, you may go home with more than a case of poison ivy.

Springside

Academy St., Poughkeepsie. Springside Landscape Restoration, Inc.: 845-454-2060 or www.springsidelandmark.org
Open to the public for self-guided tours, the site is preserved, but remains a shadow of its former splendor, overgrown and under-maintained. Several interpretive panels help visitors re-imagine the past. Currently, site features that postdate Downing’s involvement are included in the interpretation.

Sunnyside

Sunnyside Ln., Tarrytown, Historic Hudson Valley: 914-631-8200 or www.hudsonvalley.org
This well-restored and sophisticated museum property includes the grounds in the ticket price. Close to the cottage, the landscape nearly replicates its historic conditions, and this area evokes an authentic feel for Irving’s sensibilities. Other aspects of the site are imperfectly preserved (the old kitchen garden is a parking lot), but provide a good sense of the overall layout.

Wilderstein

Morton Rd., Rhinebeck. Wilderstein Preservation, Inc.: 845-876-4818 or www.wilderstein.org
A work in progress, Wilderstein’s historic drives and pathways, laid out by Calvert Vaux’s office, can be followed, but the spatial qualities of the landscape, its historic features and plantings, and many details are neither restored nor maintained.

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