University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

News Article

Famous American Landscape Designers

By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Many of the world's most beautiful gardens and landscapes adhere to a sense of principles or were done in a certain style influenced by some famous landscape designers. Look at your own garden, or other local ones, and you may find evidence of some of these influences as well.

Let's meet some of the landscape designers of long ago who have impacted modern garden design.

First there is Fletcher Steele (1885-1971), who was one of the more recent influential landscape architects. Although from New York City, he dealt with design for suburban residential gardens in his first book Design for the Small Garden, as well as in several subsequent books. He was especially well known for his criticism of the ubiquitous front lawn in American home landscapes and was a proponent of creating privacy in the garden.

One of his most famous landscapes, Naumkeag in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, incorporated his use of various levels in the garden and ways to use the garden as an outdoor living space. With the decreasing need during this century for the functional elements of the garden (vegetable and fruit gardens and utility buildings, for instance) during a period of increasing consumerism, he described the garden as an extension of the house, a "machine for living in."

Another famous American landscape architect of this century also followed the concept of the garden as an outdoor room. Thomas Church (1902-1978) wrote about this in his book, Gardens are for People, in 1955. He believed gardens should have a more human scale, which was timely considering the demise of the grand estate gardens. He designed over 2,000 home gardens, with much of his work in his home state of California. He designed public gardens at the University of California at both Berkeley and Stanford, as well as at Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia.

In the 19th century in this country, a couple of landscape designers stand out. Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) considered himself an environmental planner, although most people consider him the founder of landscape architecture. He was influenced by many of the "natural" landscapes of England and incorporated natural elements into his often urban landscapes. He designed many city parks, including the parks of Boston and his most famous--Central Park in New York City.

Olmsted's contemporary, Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852), is considered the founder of landscape gardening in this country. While Olmstead dealt with the grander landscapes on a larger scale, Downing dealt more with the American middle-class homes. His emphasis was more on gardening and plants, as he was also a nurseryman. His landscapes, as those of Olmsted, were influenced by the English ones and were natural in appearance. He wrote of these in his influential book of 1849, The Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening.

No mention of American landscape designers would be complete without mention of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). In addition to the many hats he wore as architect, statesman, politician, and president, he was also an agriculturist, horticulturist, and landscape designer. After designing several estates for friends, he eventually designed his own.

In his designs, Jefferson fused the elements of neo-classicism, such as terraces and symmetrically curved paths, with elements he learned about from his tours of English landscapes--the natural vistas combined with informal shrub and flowers beds. A visit to his Monticello estate in Virginia reveals these elements of his style of landscaping.

Throughout, and to the end of his life, Jefferson was a devoted gardener and landscaper. He once wrote, "Though an old man, I am but a young gardener." In 1811 he wrote, "No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden."

Look around your landscaped yard and garden. Can you identify any of the styles and principles touted by these famous landscape designers?

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