Up until about a hundred years ago, the average person didn’t have a lawn to worry about. They were too busy going to work, putting food on the table, and trying to educate their children. It was only when people started leaving the farming life for the life of the cities and suburbs that single-family houses sprang up in droves, and people had the money to spend on such luxuries as landscaping.
Which is not to say that landscaping is a brand new profession. As early as the 1800s, the wealthy of practically any country were able to employ professional artisans to build gardens and landscape their homes. Of course, they weren’t average people, but nevertheless it’s fun to learn about the forerunners of today’s landscape designer.
The most famous is the British landscape designer, “Capability” Brown. His real name was Lancelot Brown, but it was his habit to look at a piece of real estate and say, “It has capabilities,” and t hat is how he got his nickname. Brown has been called England’s “most famous gardener.” He was born in 1716 and died in 1783, and yet over a hundred years later his legacy lives on. Over 44 of his gardens are still in existence today (he designed over 170). Of course that’s because he designed these gardens for the “landed families”, or nobility, who were not about to sell their mansion every ten years and move up to a bigger one.
Prior to Capability Brown, the landed families had huge “formal gardens.” Brown changed all that, encouraging his clients to make use of a more naturalistic design, with compositions of grass, clumps of trees, and pools and lakes.
England has Capability Brown, the United States has Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted was born in 1822 and died in 1903. He went to Yale and studied agricultural science and engineering.
In 1853, the New York legislature decided that they’d have to create a park in the middle of the city, for their many inhabitants. They held a contest to decide who would design it, and Frederick Olmsted and his partner, English architect Calvert Vaux, were awarded the contract, to create a “greensward,” as Olmsted termed it. ” The park was not created on barren land, however – many poor people and free blacks were evicted from their homes under eminent domain so that the park could be placed there. (Not that that was Olmsted’s fault – that’s where the legislature wanted the park, and that’s where they were going to put it regardless.)
Olmsted went on to make a career out of creating city parks – indeed he conceived the system of parks and interconnecting parkways. Two of the best examples are the park system he designed for Buffalo, New York, and the system for Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Olmsted and his partners also designed over 355 school and college campuses.
So as you walk through your city and see all the greenspaces and landscaping, spare a thought for the landscape architects who brought all this beauty to you. Studying the history of landscape architecture is fun and informative.