Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Landscape Initiatives of the National Trust: Expanding the Definition of Interpretation 

12-09-2015 17:35

An irony of education is that the more we endeavor in the pursuit of knowledge, the more we realize that we have much yet to learn. Historic preservation is, if anything, about an educational process that seeks to discover and document the importance of America`s cultural heritage and to relay that knowledge to the American public in the hope that it may become an active steward of history and derive benefit daily from that understanding.

For more than forty years the National Trust has been in the business of caring for an expanding group of museum properties open to the public (now counted at seventeen but soon to be eighteen with the opening of the Pocantico Hills Historic Area in New York in 1994) that are vital to our efforts to interpret America`s cultural heritage for present and future generations. The Trust`s preservation approach has largely mirrored that of the national preservation movement, which has been rooted in the urgent need to preserve first and foremost the country`s built architectural heritage that was, and remains today, under constant attack from many different sources.

Our effort to conduct ongoing research and documentation on our properties and our commitment to prepare historic structure reports (HSR) for all of our primary buildings has had the time-proven effect of increasing our desire to know more. As we have strived through self-study programs funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, to assimilate the new information resulting from our research into the properties` interpretation programs for the public, we have become aware of the need to put similar efforts and financial resources toward our understanding of other aspects of our sites, including our landscapes. It is now clear to us that the rich and varied landscapes at our properties are resources from which the public can learn even more about how people lived their lives--if we research them thoroughly, manage them intelligently, and interpret them successfully.

Other Trust initiatives have also led us toward this conclusion. Our ongoing archaeology program, for example, continues to yield important information about how people`s lives are mirrored in their use and transformation of the landscape around them. Recent archaeological excavations at Montpelier in Orange, Virginia, and Drayton Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, have brought forth information that has transformed our perception of those sites` histories and development.

Likewise, our recent efforts to establish more professional and systematic approaches to treating and maintaining our landscapes, including the production of a landscape-maintenance manual, made us realize how little we know about our landscapes. This process pointed out the need for intensive research efforts before we could logically implement many of the inventory and maintenance measures called for in the maintenance manual.

In light of this new awareness of how knowledge of our landscapes can both direct our preservation work at our sites and add to our education programs for the public, the Trust is making a dedicated effort to research its landscapes--not just the beautiful and well-known ones, but also those that have not previously been the primary reason for the public`s visit to the site. Thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts Design Arts Program and the Henry Luce Foundation, we are able to undertake these new and important research initiatives in a meaningful way.

Our latest efforts in landscape research and documentation began with Shadowson-the-Teche in New Iberia, Louisiana. The landscape at the Shadows had been so altered under our own well-ntentioned stewardship that it no longer related to the house and its interpretive program. We became focused on this situation by our efforts to incorporate the information produced in the compilation of the property`s HSR into our interpretation. This led us to undertake a historic landscape report (HLR), which involved a team of landscape historians and landscape architects who conducted the research, documentation, and analysis of the landscape. The resultant treatment plan will return the landscape as closely as possible to its appearance in the 1920s through 1940s. At that time, Weeks Hall, its owner, transformed it from a denatured antebellum landscape into a series of shade-loving outdoor rooms that became influential nationally as models for the popular twentieth century image of the southern landscape as a mysterious and romantic garden.

This project was followed by a similar research and documentation project at Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, New York. This was prompted in part by our concerns over the intense use of the grounds for educational events and income producing rentals, and the adverse impact that this is having on Lyndhurst`s historically important designed landscape. We are also reacting to other pressures on the landscape that range from disease infestation of the site`s hemlocks to the need to deal with maturing vegetation, and the potential impact of a visitor and educational center currently under construction in and around the property`s carriage barns. The HLR will define what is important within the landscape at Lyndhurst and tell us how to incorporate those features into sound treatment and maintenance plans.

At Chesterwood in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the process of compiling an HSR for the sculptor`s studio building and the resultant self-study colloquium that followed led to an awareness of the important role that siting and viewshed played in Daniel Chester French`s decision to build his summer home and studio at this location. Under French`s hand the resultant landscape became a strong evocation of the sculptor`s desire for social standing and success in his field and demonstrates how he changed a rugged farm site into a comfortable rural retreat for his city-dwelling family while also creating a highly sophisticated environment for influencing and entertaining clients. The HLR will likely be undertaken when full financing is secured later this year.

The Trust is committed to preparing historic landscape reports, including the four-step process outlined on Page 4, for all of its museum properties for the triple purpose of guiding the preparation of treatment plans, augmenting our interpretation programs, and fine-tuning maintenance plans and procedures. As we successfully complete these research projects and integrate new information, we hope that the process we have followed for the National Trust`s properties will serve as an example for other historic sites in the United States to follow. We preserve our historic properties for their educational value to the public, which is transmitted through our interpretive programs. We feel that historic landscapes can, and must, be a significant part of the expanding story that we tell.

Publication Date: May/June 1993


Author(s):Frank Sanchis