A Genius for Place
American Landscapes of the Country Place Era
The definitive work on a formative period in American landscape design
In this lavishly illustrated volume, Robin Karson traces the development of a distinctly American style of landscape design through an analysis of seven country places created by some of the nation's most talented landscape practitioners.
In the mid-nineteenth century Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York's Central Park, developed an approach to landscape design based on the principles of the English Picturesque which also emphasized a specifically American experience of nature and scenery. After Olmsted's retirement in 1897, these precepts continued to ground a new generation of American landscape architects through the next four decades, a period known as the “country place era,” a time of rapid economic, social, and cultural change.
In the early twentieth century, new fortunes made it possible for wealthy Americans to commission country estates as a means of aggrandizing social status. These private havens also offered their owners respite from crowded cities and a way to preserve and celebrate places of distinctive landscape beauty. The commissions provided burgeoning numbers of landscape architects with opportunities to experiment with stylistic influences derived from Beaux-Arts, Arts and Crafts, and even Asian principles.
The chapters in this book trace a progression in the period from the naturalistic wild gardens of Warren Manning to the mysterious “Prairie style” landscapes of Jens Jensen to the proto-modernist gardens of Fletcher Steele. Other practitioners cov ered are Charles Platt, Ellen Biddle Shipman, Beatrix Farrand, Marian Coffin, and Lockwood de Forest Jr. The projects profiled follow a broad geographic arc, from Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to Santa Barbara, California. All seven landscapes are now open to visitors.
Analyzing these designs in context with one another and against the backdrop of the professional and cultural currents that shaped larger projects—such as parks, campuses, and planned communities—Karson creates a rich and comprehensive picture of the artistic achievements of the period. Striking black-and-white images by landscape photographer Carol Betsch illuminate the transporting spirit of these country places today, while hundreds of drawings, plans, and historical photographs bring the past to life.
"Yet again Robin Karson has hit the ball out of the park. This is, after all, the American landscape historian who has received much critical acclaim for her previous books. Her latest opus is an edge-of-the-seat discourse on seven sublime American gardens, their extraordinary owners, and their exceptional designers. . . . The book is generously illustrated with historic photographs. These are complemented by the superb modern black and white pictures of Carol Betsch, which exquisitely capture the spirit of each site. Too often, Americans prefer to focus on gardens on the other side of the pond, from England to Japan. In this book, as in her previous works, Karson redirects us towards our homegrown antecedents. And we are that much richer for it."—The American Gardener
"At last, a thoroughly engaging study of the residential landscapes of America 's Country Place Era that sheds new light on four decades of lively, often passionately reformist philosophical and theoretical design discourse. This tour de force is accomplished by means of insightful analyses of the careers and masterworks of a well-chosen group of the period's most creative and influential landscape architects paired with their most ambitious and enabling clients. Karson is as fine a storyteller as she is a scholar. The book is richly illustrated with historic pictures and plans, as well as new photographs by Carol Betsch that extend the tradition of those early twentieth-century landscape and garden photographers whose documentary images proved to be exceptional works of art in their own right."—Catherine Howett, FASLA, author of A World of Her Own Making
"What a feast Karson has spread before us! . . . The amalgam of people and places and their connections to each other make the book vastly interesting and lead us into novel insights on American society, cultural, intellectual, and even economic history."—Charles C. McLaughlin, Founding Editor, Frederick Law Olmsted Papers
"Following her brilliant first book, Fletcher Steele, Landscape Architect, Robin Karson now presents A Genius for Place, an equally important and valuable work. Here she presents early twentieth-century peers in context, and she brings life to distinguished American garden designs of the era. She also offers insight into the philosophy and practice of distinctive but long-overlooked designers. Not only is this work an important resource for today's practitioners, but its clear, concise, and poetic writing will preserve these valuable designs for posterity."—James van Sweden, FASLA, author of Gardening with Nature
"They're all here: Charles Platt, Beatrix Farrand, Jens Jensen. The great American country estates of 1900–1930 continue to be paragons of the art of garden design. Robin Karson's splendid new book discusses the important landscape architects of this period, and analyzes their important achievements."—Witold Rybczynski, author of A Clearing in the Distance
"A major contribution to this long-neglected area of scholarship, Robin Karson's new book finally gives this extraordinary creative flowering its due.. . . This thoughtfully illustrated, authoritative text sets a high standard for other works to follow, and opens the door to a rich chapter in the history of American landscape architecture."—Mark Alan Hewitt, author of The Architect and the American Country House
"The eight biographical studies are excellent summations of the careers of the designers, while the sections concerning the seven estates on which they worked give a vivid sense of the design process involved. The presentation is graceful, clear, and thoughtful."—Charles E. Beveridge, author of Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape
"This is an outstanding book. . . . I regard it as the best work I have read on the Country Place Era. Its selection of case studies focuses on the best designs of the period by the most talented individuals. . . . The writing is lucid, engaging, and witty, and the book should appeal to professional designers, historians, and lay persons alike."—Reuben M. Rainey, author of Modern Public Gardens: Robert Royston and the Suburban Park
"Monographs have been written about some of the individuals who created America 's glorious estate landscapes during the opulent period known as the country place era, but the collective story of these place-makers and their creations has not been told until now. Here at last is a book that treats eight important designers of the early twentieth century and seven extraordinary landscapes associated with them in a fluid, integrated narrative offering engaging biographical detail and insightful analysis."—Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, author of Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History
"This book by Karson (Library of American Landscape History), handsomely illustrated with plans and historic photographs and with photographer Betsch's wonderful work, focuses on eight American landscape architects and seven places they designed in the roughly four decades following the death of Frederick Olmsted in 1903. . . . Summing up: Recommended."—CHOICE