PaineWebber Art Gallery

New York, NY



A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era

September 21 - December 1, 2000


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, A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era examines seven rare estate landscapes - from Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to Santa Barbara - that are currently accessible to the public and retain significant portions of their original designs.

A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era is sponsored by PaineWebber Group Inc. 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 19h-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. (left: Val Verde, Santa Barbara, California. Design by Bertram Goodhue and Lockwood de Forest, Photo by Carol Betsch; right: Stan Hywet Hall, Akron, Ohio. Design by Warren Manning, T. Otsuka and Ellen Shipman, Photo by Carol Betsch)

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. A Genius for Place 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. Also on view are antique garden ornaments on loan from New York dealer Barbara Israel that bring a three-dimensional character to the subject. (left: Stan Hywet Hall, Akron, Ohio. Design by Warren Manning, T. Otsuka and Ellen Shipman, Photo by Carol Betsch)

The seven gardens in the exhibition include:


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.

These landscape architects 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 curving 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. (left: Naumkeag, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Design by Nathan Barrett and Fletcher Steele, Photo by Carol Betsch)

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 (c. 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


About the Library of American Landscape History

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. Library publications are also intended for specialists in other fields, as part of a larger cross-disciplinary dialogue in the arts and sciences.

The Library of American Landscape History is located at 205 East Pleasant Street in Amherst, Massachusetts. A link to the page for this touring exhibit on the Library website is here.

Read more about the PaineWebber Art Gallery in Resource Library Magazine

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 1/15/12

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/23/11

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