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Thomas Jefferson, landscape architect. Part IV: Washington

East Capitol Street, Washington.

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By now we know that the 45th president of the US is not somebody who is going to spend a whole lot of attention to the relation between state and landscape. Still, there remains much to learn from the landscape architect/president. The development of the nation’s capital shows how the versatility of landscape—unlike the firmness of architecture—allows for a unification of conflicting political ideals.

For 26 years of his life, Jefferson’s energies were devoted to promoting and perfecting the new capital. Repugnant as the evils of city life were to him, he must have made a great concession in his anti-urban philosophy to devote so much time to creating the national capital. During the summer of 1790—while George Washington was the first president—two issues paralysed Congress: the future location of the nation’s capital and the question of how America’s finances and debts should be handled, “two of the most irritating questions,” as Jefferson remarked. With great effort, spending years of careful politics, he managed to broker a deal combining the two, by exchanging the south’s acceptance to pay for a larger part of the debts, for a favourable location of the new capital: on the Potomac River along the Maryland and Virginia border, far away from the commercial and urban centres, and thus expressing the vision of the United States as an agrarian republic.

At that time, professional city planning had not yet emerged from the art of architecture and science of military engineering which had for centuries been responsible for the design of European cities. The city of Washington was the first attempt to plan a national capital for a democratic form of government on a site deliberately picked for that purpose. The design of the city was to express the government and its (lack of) power. Thus, Jefferson, as a Republican, wanted it to be unobtrusive, while the Federalist President Washington envisioned a grand an imposing city.

The sketch Thomas Jefferson made for Washington.

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Jefferson’s first memorandum about the future capital stated that it should be laid out on a rectangular grid that would grow organically over time, spreading out from its centre. The city should be a city of gardens, interspersed with squares for public walks. He laid out the programme, specified as “a territory not exceeding 10. miles square to be located by metes and bounds. […] I should propose [the streets] to be at right angles & that no street be narrower than 100. feet, with foot-ways of 15. feet where a street is long & level.” Obviously, his conception of the future city was based on the conventional gridiron plan with which he was familiar. He wrote down precise rules and regulations, foreseeing almost every problem that would be encountered.

The L’Enfant plan of Washington DC, 1791.

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By contrast, the magnificent city that Washington and his chosen designer Charles L’Enfant dreamed up, would proclaim a mighty, dominant central government. The scheme that L’Enfant submitted, a radial plan superimposing the grid that Jefferson had proposed, was no other than André Le Nôtre’s design for the gardens of Versailles. However, a year later L’Enfant was fired, because of his stubborn refusal to submit to the authority of the commissioners, and Jefferson was left with the responsibility to complete the already accepted plan. With L’Enfant’s plan being so enormous that the city grew in small clusters around the important buildings instead of around a single centre, Jefferson’s improvement was to work on roads to link these separate areas.

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Even before the first houses had been built, Jefferson had suggested lining the avenues and streets with trees—after all, a house could always be erected quicker than a tree would grow to maturity. Regarding tree-felling as “a crime little short of murder,” he also told the commissioners that people were not allowed to cut existing trees that he thought to keep for ornamental purposes for the city. But with no means to enforce this, by the time he became president, most trees were lost.

While Jefferson failed to stop Washington’s and L’Enfant’s grand plans, he managed to infuse them with his own ideals. Because of the capital’s remote location and the continuous lack of funds, for many years it wasn’t a bustling metropolis but remained a rural town, reflecting both the federalist ideals in its grand plan, and the republican ones in its atmosphere of a “very agreeable country residence … free from the noise, the heat, the stench & the bustle of a close built town.”

Pennsylvania Avenue, the grandest street in town…

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sources

Nichols, F.D. and Griswold, R.E. (1978) “The City of Washington” in: Thomas Jefferson, Landscape Architect. pp. 38-75.

Wulf, A. (2011) “City of Magnificent Intentions,” in: Founding Gardeners. The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. pp. 124-153.

 

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In the present publicity excess on the American presidential elections, Trump versus Hillary, I can’t help fantasizing about the ideal president. What about a landscape architect for president? Well, it has been done before, and very successfully… Actually all first presidents were gardeners/farmers, using their own garden to experiment with and express their ideas on what the future America should be. Each in their own way made what Adams called “the garden of a patriot”, where the mundane activities of sowing and planting became imbued with the idea of nation building.

The very first president George Washington was a professional surveyor, discovering firsthand an ability to identify and select the best plots of land for purchase, an especially important consideration in colonial America, where land equaled power. Also, he studied and implemented improved farming methods throughout his life, an initial interest driven by his own needs to earn a living and improve his family estate Mount Vernon. He had a strong interest in landscape design and architecture throughout his life, and after returning home from his service in the Revolutionary War, he redesigned the landscape at Mount Vernon, adopting the less formal, more naturalistic style of the 18th century English landscape garden. Based on a plan gifted to him by Samuel Vaughan, he reshaped walks, roads, and lawns; cut vistas through the forest, and planted hundreds of native trees and shrubs. Eighteenth-century visitors to Mount Vernon were delighted by bountiful offerings of fresh vegetables and fruits, and reveled in after-dinner walks amongst all manner of flowering plants. From the beginning, trees had been emblematic of the new nation, and when in 1783, with liberty at last achieved, Washington could return to Mount Vernon, his first act was to embark upon large-scale plantings of native American trees. He wrote to friends and relations all over the 13 states to request specimens of indigenous species – balsam firs from the north, eastern hemlocks and white pines from the north-east, live oaks and magnolias from the south – which, added to the cockspur thorns, redbuds and other trees that grew wild on his Virginia estate, would form an image of the new nation in microcosm. Where earlier colonists had spurned native species, Mount Vernon was to become what Andrea Wulf calls “the first truly American garden”.[1]

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Mount Vernon

 

After Washington, John Adams was elected president, the first president to live in the White House, which was then, like most of Washington, surrounded by mud flats. However, apart from adding a vegetable plot he did not spend enough time there to alter the grounds. But at his retirement he returned to his family farm in Massachusetts, where he spent his time farming. “I begin now to think all time lost that is not employed in farming; innocent, healthy, gay, elegant amusement! Enchanting employment! How my imagination roves over my rocky mountains, and through my brushy meadows.”[2] Much of his land was farmland, with ornamental plants near the house. Adams was no landscape gardener on the scale or with the intensity of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson; the only large intervention he made was the creation of a ha-ha, creating the effect of a long, uninterrupted view. He proposed naming his farm Peacefield, for the sense of peace he enjoyed there, but also in commemoration for the peace he had helped to win for his country.

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Adams Farm

Where Adams saw the urban entrepreneurial elite of merchants and traders as the key to the nation’s prosperity, the third president Thomas Jefferson thought the greatest service a man could render his country was to introduce a useful plant to its culture. Since his travels to Europe, Jefferson had been an avid collector of books and architecture and gardening, which he used to shape the Palladian splendour of his estate Monticello.

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Monticello

Jefferson was followed up by James Madison, who, after his term as president, retired to his Virginia estate Montpelier, where he managed a large plantation and devoted himself to the preservation of the environment by conserving timber resources and once-fertile land that had been depleted from overuse. In 1818 he made a prescient speech on the subject, filled with advice for living off the land without destroying it. Humankind, he said, could not expect nature to be “made subservient to the use of man”: man, he believed, must find a place within “the symmetry of nature” without destroying it.[3] His garden, like those of others laid out by the founding fathers, remains today as proof of his dedication to the natural world.

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Montpelier

My personal favourite is Jefferson. Although the title landscape architect had not been created before his death in 1826, he was certainly qualified for that appellation. Not only did he design his estate Monticello and his summer house Poplar Forest, but with his design for the University of Virginia he created the prototype for the American University, he played a large role in the design and realisation of the city of Washington and established the grid by which means the American wilderness was colonised.

A feuilleton.

[1] Andrea Wulf (2011) Founding Gardeners. The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation.

[2] Letters of John Adams Addressed to His Wife, ed. Adams, 2:139.

[3] “Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, Virginia” (1818).