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Thomas Jefferson to Frederick Law Olmsted





Thomas Jefferson

1743 – 1826

Thomas Jefferson favored the English garden style in his own work. In 1786, he toured the English gardens. During a five year (1784 – 1789) presence in Paris, he also was familiar with the gardens of Paris.

His taste was reflected in designs for his residence, Monticello and in the University of Virginia campus.

As a contrast to the irregular forms of the English style, Jefferson was also responsible for the geometry of the western United States- The land ordinance grid.

Jefferson was also involved in the planning of the nations capitol.

He made proposals for new towns, referred to as “chequerboard” towns. In chequerboard towns some squares would be left open for turf and trees in an effort that would allow each house to front onto an open square, meant to be like the atmosphere of living in the country. His proposal for New Orleans was justified on the basis that it would reduce or prevent the spread of yellow fever – it was never built. He was successful in Jeffersonville, Indiana and Jackson, Mississippi ( no longer evident in these places).


Land Ordinance


The land ordinance was the creation of a national grid intended for the organization and distribution of the western lands (beyond the Appalachians).

The national grid was/is composed of many hundreds of townships.

Townships are 6 miles square in size and broken into 36 pieces, called sections.

Sections are one mile square and are 640 acres in size, sections are further subdivided into quarter-sections and so on.

The sections/townships are based on surveyors practices and equipment. The grid was only interrupted by some permanent object or feature.


Monticello, Virginia


After returning from Europe (Paris), Thomas Jefferson designed Monticello as a reflection of the English style where the “attributes of the “garden” were composed equally with “articles of husbandry” – livestock and crops. His vision at Monticello represents the unification of garden beauty with the lifestyle (utility and profit) of agriculture.

Jefferson gained ownership of the property as a young man. Later he built a small classical mansion on the top of a hill, as his residence. The top of the hill was leveled and roughly oval in shape, and had broad vistas to the surrounding landscape, including a view to the University of Virginia. Terraces down the hillside were used for fruits and vegetables, flowers, and the family burial ground.


Washington DC


George Washington designated a federal district of 100 square miles in Maryland and Virginia for the capitol of the United States. Washington obtained the services of two men to design the new capitol, Andrew Ellicott and Pierre Charles L’Enfant.

Andrew Ellicott was to survey and map an area 10 miles square along the Potomac River for the use of congress.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant was to make the design for the new capitol. L’Enfant was French, and was trained as an artist.

L’Enfant first came to this country in 1777 and served with the Corps of Engineers.

He probably first met George Washington when he painted the presidents portrait at Valley Forge.

He returned to France for a short time before coming back to the United States to practice architecture. In 1788 L’Enfant made plans to remodel New York’s City Hall to be the nations capitol.

In 1791, during the period of design for the new capitol, and until 1800, the site of the nations capitol was Philadelphia.

During 1791 L’Enfant made his first site analysis for the new site of the capitol and suggested provisions for a “grand city” much more extensive than George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (secretary of state at this time) had previously imagined. The plan would be for government buildings and a pattern of private property.

Thomas Jefferson had made a sketch plan of his early thoughts about the capitol city. Jefferson’s plan was for a gridwork of square blocks 600′ by 600′ surrounding the large parcels for the Capitol and the Presidents House.

L’Enfant’s approach for the urban area of the capitol considered European cities as inspiration – not to be used for imitation. Maps of Karls Ruhe, Amsterdam, and Paris among others were reviewed.

L’Enfant’s plan for the capitol combined a grid of blocks and streets with great diagonal avenues. His plan for the city was possibly the most ambitious in the world to date. The capitol building was to be located on the highest elevation in the vicinity of the rivers. The presidents house was also located on high ground some distance from the capitol. In the design of the city L’Enfant set aside important squares primarily at intersecting roads and avenues, 15 of which were for the existing 15 states and were to be embellished with columns, obelisks, statues, and other features.

Major avenues were planned to be 160′ wide and planted with double rows of trees on each side of the 80′ roadway. Secondary streets to public buildings and markets were 130′ wide, and others were to be 110′ wide. The street that is now Pennsylvania Avenue, connecting the Capitol to the president’s house (now the White House), was “the most magnificent and most convenient” of the streets. L’Enfant also brought elements of the natural landscape into the central part of the city. The large section of land was described as a “well improved field.” He also included the presidents park, and congress gardens near the capitol building. In 1792 L’Enfant was removed from his position as designer for the nations capitol.


University of Virginia in Charlottesville


Thomas Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia presented what he described as an “academical village” – buildings and open spaces conceived as one, unified by colonnades, arcades and walls. The great lawn is presented as a large outdoor room.


Andrew Jackson Downing

1815 – 1852

A.J. Downing was very familiar with the English picturesque through his extensive reading of Burke, Gilpin, Price, Repton, and Loudon. Downings influence was primarily through his writing – the first important books by an American – A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841) and Cottage Residences (1842).

In his treatise he wrote of two major categories – the “beautiful” and the “picturesque”. The beautiful was characterized by smooth flowing lines, curves and soft surfaces and a house of classical style. The picturesque was characterized by irregular lines with a wild and broken pattern and a house of rustic Old English or Swiss cottage style.

Downing was the first supporter of the establishment of public parks in America. In support of his ideas he spoke of the popularity of the rural cemeteries as recreational resources not only as public cemeteries. He recognized that the natural beauty of the cemeteries was a large part of the attraction, not simply the fact that they were burial places.

“in the natural beauty of the sites, and in the tasteful and harmonious embellishment of these sites by art.”

In 1850, in England, Downing met Calvert Vaux (‘Voks’) and collaborated with him for a proposal at the Capitol, the White House, and the Smithsonian Institution. Downing died in a steamboat accident in 1852.


Mount Auburn Cemetery



Designed by Jacob Bigelow an American botanist as a “rural cemetery” with concern for public health. A large piece of land on an attractive country site near Boston was transformed into a combined cemetery and experimental garden. It was soon copied in many places and preceded the public parks of America.

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