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The Historian and the Landscape: Focusing New Emphasis on Documentation and Synthesis 

12-09-2015 17:35

Until relatively recently, historians have played a minor role in projects involving historic landscapes. Only within the last decade have most landscape architects, park administrators, and the general public abandoned the assumption that prevailed for much of the post-World War II period: that historic parks--even those designed by such recognized masters as Olmsted--need updating and substantial redesign to meet current needs.

Additionally, the owners of historic house museums, whether public agencies or private institutions, often did not realize that the grounds surrounding a historic house might be of as much historical importance as the structure itself. Even when a residential landscape was recognized as significant, it was not generally the subject of the same rigorous research and documentation as the house. Intervention in the grounds or gardens of historic houses most commonly was done on the basis of a period approach: The garden, it was assumed, was a subsidiary feature and needed only to be restored to a style typical of its era. Only rarely was a serious attempt made to discover what the grounds or garden of this particular house had been like.

Less well-recognized landscape categories--designed suburbs and subdivisions, grounds of institutional buildings, and campuses, for example--fared even less well because there was little awareness that they might be historic and worthy of preservation.

In the early 1980s projects were gradually undertaken for historic landscapes incorporating research, documentation, and analysis of original landscape features at the same level of thoroughness that had become accepted practice for historic structures reports. Frequently, more research and documentation was necessary for landscapes than for structures: Buildings that are subjects of historic structures reports are typically monuments with sizable literature in architectural history books and periodicals. Few landscapes, on the other hand, have received this kind of scholarly scrutiny. Prospect Park in Brooklyn was probably the first historic landscape for which detailed historic landscape reports (HLRS) were prepared. In 1980 landscape architects were hired to prepare historic landscape reports for three of Prospect Park`s five sectors; professional historians were engaged as consultants. A fourth sector was added in 1982 and a fifth in 1984. The first Prospect Park Historic Landscape Report--on the ravine--was published in 1986.1

The remainder of this article will describe several historic/cultural landscape reports--both for municipal parks and National Historic Sites--for which this writer has served as historian. Although the type and level of information available have varied considerably from project to project, the fundamental methodology used in all cases has been the same: to document the landscape as thoroughly as possible, using primary source materials--both written and graphic--and then to synthesize the information in an effort to reconstruct the physical history of the site. Studies by professional archaeologists have been important elements in one project and could potentially play a role in the others. Several of the projects are still in progress.


In 1983, then Governor Michael Dukakis requested, and the legislature approved, $15 million for the Massachusetts Olmsted Historic Landscape Preservation Program (MOHLPP). Administered by the Department of Environmental Management, the program provided for archaeological-reconnaissance surveys, HLRS, and rehabilitation master plans for twelve parks designed by the Olmsted firm within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Early-action programs, phased implementation of the rehabilitation master plans, and public-awareness activities were also part of the program. The twelve parks included Kennedy (South) Park in Fall River, Forest Park in Springfield High Rock Reservation and the Lynn Woods in Lynn, D.W. Field Park in Brockton, Buttonwood Park in New Bedford, Elm Park in Worcester, and Franklin Park in Boston. Four abutting parks in Boston and Brookline-the Back Bay Fens, the Riverway, Olmsted Park, and Jamaica Pond-were grouped as the Emerald Necklace.2 The Massachusetts Olmsted Historic Landscape Preservation Program (MOHLPP) was the first statewide program in the United States to fund a four-step comprehensive preservation-planning process for parks designed by Olmsted firm (see Charles Birnbaum`s introduction on Page 4).

The process of research and documentation for the parks under the MOHLPP will be examined more closely with particular reference to Franklin Park. Before the HLRS were begun, all of the documentary material for each park was compiled. Because most Olmsted parks are extremely well documented, this compendium of sources became a separate volume; the bibliography for Franklin Park, for example, is 179 pages in length. Although described as bibliographies, these volumes encompass much more than is usually embraced by the term. In addition to itemizing published and unpublished written sources, these volumes include such things as extracts from the unpublished minutes of the Boston Park Commission, annotated listings of individual letters from the Olmsted Papers in the Library of Congress, and detailed descriptions of all known photographs and plans for the park.3 The scope of research also included a modified historic structures and furnishings report for each park--"modified" because they did not include the detailed architectural and structural analyses and recommendations for rehabilitation found in complete historic structures reports. For parks that contained only a few structures, this became a section of the HLR. All of the Boston parks, however, included numerous structures, and this component also became a separate volume.4

In discussing the Olmsted era, the Olmsted era, the HLRs for the Boston parks drew on this writer`s previous research and writing.5 Sections of equal length were added, however, that detailed the changes to the parks during the twentieth century, including discussion of the impact of the automobile, changing patterns of recreation, the effect of various fiscal crises from World War I through the 1970s, and the real and perceived increase in crime in the parks. Surprisingly, the twentieth century proved harder to document than the nineteenth century, but there were several reasons for this. First, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., retired from active practice in September 1895, and the Olmsted firm had no continuing responsibility for the Boston parks after 1897. Additionally, Boston Park Department reports became less detailed and photographic coverage of the parks declined after about 1920. The HLRs also emphasized the evolution of spaces, vistas, and circulation patterns. Each historic landscape report included a detailed chronology. Although the complete bibliography was a separate piece, the HLRS were fully documented with bibliographic references.6 The historians and master planners remained in close contact throughout the process. As research progressed, it was shared with the master planners and informed their work, even before the final historic reports were completed. For instance, early draft chronologies were used as the basis for period landscape plans. In their final form, the master plans and the HLRS are intended to be companion volumes.7


In 1990 the Division of Cultural Resource Management in the North Atlantic Regional Office of the National Park Service (NPS) initiated a program through which landscape architects and historians were contracted to prepare cultural landscape reports (CLRS) for National Historic Sites in the region. The CLRS were to include substantial sections on site history and existing conditions, analysis, and a treatment plan-- each to be prepared at the highest level of detail and precision. First to be selected for this program were two sites with landscapes of extraordinary visual richness and historic significance: the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site (VMNHS) in Hyde Park, New York, and the Augustus Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site (SGNHS) in Cornish, New Hampshire. For these projects, the landscape architects and the historian worked together closely and produced joint reports.

The VMNHS is a residential landscape with a very long history. First laid out in 1799 by Dr. Samuel Bard, it achieved its greatest landscape significance during the ownership of Dr. David Hosack. In 1828 and 1829 the grounds were redesigned for Hosack by the Belgian-born landscape gardener and nursery owner Andre Parmentier. This landscape is one of only five landscapes by Parmentier to be documented thus far and the only one of these five to survive. Parmentier, whose designs were highly praised by A.J. Downing, was especially important as a transmitter of the European picturesque landscape style to the United States. The owners of the estate following Hosack and prior to the NPS were Walter Langdon, Sr., and Walter Langdon, Jr., (1840-1894) and Frederick W. Vanderbilt (1895-1938), who added gardens and new structures, but without destroying Parmentier`s basic parti. Research on this site was somewhat complicated by the fact that the first two ownerships occurred before the invention of photography. However, the Hosack estate was famous in its own time and attracted such visitors as the English writer Harriet Martineau, who published vivid accounts, and a young English-born artist, Thomas Kelah Wharton, who stayed with Hosack for a month in 1832 and left a journal containing detailed descriptions of the landscape and sketches.8

A long description published by Charles Eliot in Garden and Forest proved helpful, as did paintings and drawings. Although the Langdon ownerships were thinly documented in photographs, there was good photographic coverage for the Vanderbilt era, and a movie made by a realty company in the late 1930s. Newspaper accounts, which had been compiled by NPS historian Charles Snell in the 1950s, were very useful in determining appearances during both the Vanderbilt and the Langdon ownerships. (Unfortunately, a Vanderbilt heir had destroyed all papers of this branch of the family, and Langdon papers were never located.) A particularly interesting aspect of the history of the Vanderbilt site was the role played by President Roosevelt in acquiring the property for the NPS and in making early management decisions, including those regarding a tree-replacement policy.9

For the second section of Volume I of the CLR for the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site, the following chapters were prepared: a detailed analysis of landscape features; a thorough exploration of the significance of the landscape during all periods of ownership; and an evaluation of its integrity for each period. The report also includes a bibliography, a description of the repositories consulted and what they yielded (or did not yield), and suggestions for future research.10 The NPS`s Draft Guidelines for the Treatment of Historic Landscapes-- which was published just before this aspect of the project began--were used with some modifications.11 The section evaluating the significance of the landscape and establishing its context, which was prepared by the historian, includes a study of the residential landscapes described by A.J. Downing in his Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841 and later editions), with a discussion of the present status of each.


The Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site (SGNHS) was first the summer home and then the year-round studio and residence of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. In 1885 he rented a former inn in Cornish, New Hampshire, which he purchased six years later. Gradually, Saint-Gaudens transformed the property, which he renamed Aspet, into a home, a pair of studios, landscaped grounds, and recreational facilities that included a toboggan slide and golf course--in short, a complete environment for a sculptor, his family, assistants, and friends. Saint-Gaudens was at the center of what became known as the Cornish Colony, a summer settlement of artists and writers who worked, played, and mingled socially under the shadow of Mount Ascutney in a pristine New Hampshire village. Most of the colonists pursued gardening as an avocation. In terms of the overall plan Saint-Gaudens was his own landscape designer, although his wife, Augusta, was the hands-on gardener and probably selected many of the plants. Saint-Gaudens was also an inveterate tinkerer, no sooner establishing a landscape scheme than making subtle adjustments to it. In 1903, however, he made numerous major changes. After building a new private studio, the Little Studio, he reoriented his flower garden and laid it out in a series of terraces with a new pattern of planting beds. Although Saint-Gaudens wrote almost nothing about this redesign he had the photographer DeWitt Clinton Ward record the process in a series of views, one of which shows the sculptor laying out the new planting beds of the middle terrace with laths. Saint-Gaudens also made a mock-up of an arbor, an idea that was later abandoned.12

Following Saint-Gaudens` death in 1907, his widow summered at Aspet until her death in 1926. Augusta made few changes to the landscape scheme established by her husband. Ownership then passed to the trustees of the Augustus Saint-Gaudens Memorial, which maintained the house, studios, and grounds to honor the sculptor`s life and work and to educate the public. More substantial changes were made to the landscape during this period: a studio burned and was replaced; monumental sculptures were placed on the grounds; and the garden layout was simplified with the advice of landscape architect Ellen Shipman.13 The NPS acquired the site in 1965.

The same methodology was used for this CLR as for the Vanderbilt Mansion CLR, but the research problems were somewhat different. Because the site was the home of a famous artist, considerable information was available about his life and activities. The papers of Saint-Gaudens, of his family, and of many of the Cornish colonists are located in the Special Collections of the Dartmouth College Library. However, these papers contain infrequent and rather elliptical references to the Saint-Gaudens landscape and its development, as well as some financial records. Several plans also exist, but many of these are unsigned and undated. The photographic record for the Saint-Gaudens site is abundant but, again, many of the photographs are undated. Therefore, the research element for this CLR required a complicated process of arranging and rearranging pieces of documentation, both written and graphic, in order to reconstruct a plausible sequence of events. In addition to the components described for the Vanderbilt Mansion CLR, the Saint-Gaudens CLR includes a detailed chronology synthesizing plans, photographs, correspondence, etc.14 For both the Vanderbilt Mansion and the Saint-Gaudens CLRS, the historian and landscape architects collaborated closely to arrive at dates and documentation for the period landscape plans.

The analysis segment of the Saint-Gaudens cultural landscape report, including the evaluation of significance and integrity, is currently in progress. It is expected that the treatment plans for both sites will be initiated this year, the historian again working in tandem with the landscape architects.


In 1991 the NPS initiated a program to produce a CLR for the Olmsted National Historic Site, Frederick Law Olmsted`s home and the office of Olmsted and his successor firm in Brookline, Massachusetts. This program is being carried out under a cooperative agreement with the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Since a Historic Grounds Report and Management Plan had been prepared for the Olmsted site (better known as Fairsted) ten years earlier, the mission of the historian in preparing the new CLR was to provide a level of documentation sufficiently detailed to serve as the basis for a treatment plan.15

There have been several challenges for the historian in this project. First, although the Fairsted landscape is exceptionally well documented in plans and photographs produced by the Olmsted firm and located in the site`s archives, relatively few additional photographs were located elsewhere, with the exception of the John Charles Olmsted Papers at the Loeb Library, of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. However, the total number of photographs of the site is more than adequate for most periods. Identification of plant materials in the historic photographs is being done by the Arnold Arboretum. Second, the Olmsted Papers and Olmsted Associates Papers at the Library of Congress, so helpful for most of the firm`s regular commissions, proved to contain some valuable documents relating to the design and construction of the Fairsted grounds, but far fewer than for most projects. Because the firm was its own client, it did not need to correspond with itself.

The third issue has to do with the determination of the period of management and treatment of the site. It is not generally understood that the period of greatest significance and the period of management for a historic property can be, and often are, different. Unquestionably, the period of greatest significance for the Olmsted site is the ownership of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., from 1883 to 1895, because he was the founder of the firm and the founder of the profession of landscape architecture in this country. However, the period for the treatment plan will probably be circa 1930, because the Olmsted brothers were significant in themselves and because they added new plantings and important details to the landscape. (With the exception of a small parking lot, they did not add new landscape features.) There is also often a difference between the periods of significance for the landscape and the structures of a site. "Bringing back" the Olmsted landscape to 1895 would, logically, require the demolition of much of the firm`s extensive office wing. Similarly, although the period of greatest landscape significance for the Vanderbilt property is the Hosack/Parmentier era of 1828 to 1835, it could not be "brought back" to that period without destroying every structure now on the site, including the mansion and several other buildings designed by McKim, Mead and White in the late 1890s.


This project, which includes both an HSR and a CLR, was initiated by the Denver Service Center (DSC) of the NPS. The Dorchester Heights site commemorates the evacuation of the British from Boston on March 17,1776, Washington`s first victory in the Revolutionary War. Besides a monument designed by the eminent Boston architecture firm of Robert Swain Peabody and John Goddard Stearns, Jr., it includes a small park dating from the early 1850s, constructed on the site of the 1776 and War of 1812 fortifications. Treatment is planned for both the park and the monument. Although the Dorchester Heights project is still in progress, both reports are nearing completion.16

Research for the CLR has involved investigating a fascinating sequence of historical periods and events, each of which has left its distinctive mark on Dorchester Heights, an area only slightly more than five acres in extent. First built were the fortifications of the Revolutionary War, from which the site derives its primary significance, then the War of 1812 fortifications. Recent remote sensing by the DSC Eastern Team`s Applied Archaeology Center has shown that significant remnants of one or both groups of fortifications still remain beneath the surface. In 1849 a reservoir was built at one end of the site as part of Boston`s new water system. South Boston residents had agitated both for the construction of a reservoir and for a new park, eventually called Thomas Park after the Revolutionary War General John Thomas, which was constructed in 1852-1853. Even before the park was completed, the site, with some of the fortifications still visible, was used for strolling and enjoying the magnificent views of Boston Harbor.17

The designer of Thomas Park, if any, is not known, and no early landscape plan has been located. Its design and construction appear to have been supervised by a committee of the Boston Board of Aldermen. As far as can be determined from late nineteenth-century maps of South Boston, the basic layout and path system of the park have remained unchanged since its original construction. Ultimately, Thomas Park came under the jurisdiction of the city`s Department of Common and Public Grounds until this department was dissolved and merged with the Park Department in 1912. City records for this park, both under the earlier and the later jurisdictions, proved to be scanty. However, South Boston had a weekly newspaper in the late 1840s and early 1850s that proved the source of much useful information about both the reservoir and the park. Between 1899 and 1902 two major structures were built on Dorchester Heights, the first monument designed by Peabody and Stearns, who won the commission in a competition held by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and supervised by the Boston Art Commission. At about the same time the no longer-functioning reservoir was drained and a new high school was built in its place. Dorchester Heights (excluding the high school) was acquired by the NPS in 1979.18

All of these studies have presented different types of intellectual challenges and rewards to the historian. Not only are the projects individually interesting, but it is always exciting to participate in an evolving methodology. The five projects discussed are not, of course, the only rigorously researched CLRs produced or in progress since 1985. Others that might be mentioned are the reports for the parks outside Boston covered under the MOHLPP. Many historic designed landscapes across the country could benefit from such studies.


  1. Walmsley & Company, Inc., with Albert O. Fein, Ph.D. Historical Consultant, for the City of New York Parks and Recreation, The First Historic Landscape Report for the Ravine, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York (New York: City of New York Parks and Recreation, November 1986). The other four reports, including one by George Patton on the Long Meadow, have not been published. A Master Plan for Prospect Park as a whole is now being prepared by the Prospect Park Administrator`s Office, City of New York Parks and Recreation.
  2. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Office of Environmental Affairs, Olmsted Historic Landscape Preservation Program: Guidelines and Criteria for Implementation (Boston: Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Department of Environmental Management, April 1985); Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management, Olmsted Historic Landscape Preservation Program- First Interim Report, 1984-1989: Part 1: Reviving the Olmsted Vision (Boston: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management, Office of Historic Resources, April 1990).
  3. Cynthia Zaitzevsky, landscape historian, with the assistance of Richard Heath, special consultant, and with contributions by Elizabeth Hope Cushing, research associate, Franklin Park Bibliography (Boston: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management, May 1989).
  4. Gary Hilderbrand, research associate, with Cynthia Zaitzevsky, landscape and architectural historian Back Bay Fens: Modified Historic Structures and Furnishings Report (Boston: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management, 1987)
  5. Cynthia Zaitzevsky, Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982; reissued in paperback, 1992).
  6. Cynthia Zaitzevsky, landscape historian, and Molly Gerard, M.L.A., with the assistance of Elizabeth Hope Cushing, research associate, Franklin Park: Historic Landscape Report (Boston: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management, in press).
  7. The Halvorson Company, Landscape Architects and Site Planning Consultants, for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management, Franklin Park: Master Plan 1990 (Boston: City of Boston, Parks and Recreation Department, 1990).
  8. Patricia M. O`Donnell and Charles A. Bimbaum, historic landscape architects, Landscapes, Landscape Architecture, Planning, Historic Preservation, Westport, Connecticut, and Cynthia Zaitzevsky, Ph.D., historian, Cynthia Zaitzevsky Associates, Brookline, Massachusetts, A Cultural Landscape Report for the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site. Volume 1: Site History, Existing Conditions, and Analysis, 1991-1992, prepared for the Division of Cultural Resource Management, North Atlantic Regional Office, National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior, Cultural Landscape Publications Series No. I (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1993).
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Technical Preservation Services Branch, Preservation Assistance Division, National Park Service, Draft Guidelines for the Treatment of Historic Landscapes (Washington, DC: National Park Service, May 1992).
  12. Marion Pressley, Pressley Associates, Inc., Landscape Architects, and Cynthia Zaitzevsky, Ph.D., historian, Cynthia Zaitzevsky Associates, Cultural Landscape Report, Saint Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire: Final Report, May 12,1992. Prepared for the National Park Service, North Atlantic Regional Office.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Lucinda Adele Whitehill, Historic Grounds Report and Management Plan: Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, Massachusetts (Boston: U. S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, North Atlantic Region, 1982). The treatment plan is being prepared by in-house NPS landscape architects.
  16. Child Associates, Inc., Landscape Architect Project Management, Cynthia Zaitzevsky Associates, historian; Bryant Associates, Civil and Survey; Dorchester Heights Monument and Thomas Park, Boston National Historical Park, South Boston, Massachusetts: Cultural Landscape Report, eighty percent narrative (Denver: United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Denver Service Center, October 2,1992); Child Associates, Inc., Landscape Architect/Project Management; Cynthia Zaitzevsky Associates, Historian; Bryant Associates, Inc., Civil and Survey; Ann Beha Associates, Inc.; Boston Building Consultants, Structural; R. G. Vanderweil Engineers, Mechanical/Electrical; Dorchester Heights Monument, Boston National Historical Park, South Boston, Massachusetts: Historic Structures Report, ninety-five percent narrative (Denver: United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Denver Service Center. January 15, 1993).
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.

Publication Date: May/June 1993

#ForumJournal #Landscapes

Author(s):Cynthia Zaitzevsky, Ph.D