House & garden tours are not a new phenomenon. Eighteenth-century Chesapeake gentry & artisans alike enjoyed viewing gardens on their journeys & in their local neighborhoods & believed that one could tell a lot about people by the gardens they kept. Serious gardeners & even dedicated gossips recorded their observations. Annapolis silversmith & clockmaker William Faris, strolling the streets of Annapolis, jotted notes in his journal about his neighbors’ gardens.
Jonathan Buddington, View of the Cannon House and Wharf in Lower Manhattan, NY with Passers-By (detail) 1792
John Adams was an inveterate garden watcher & often judged the status of his contemporaries by what he saw. He took note of Baltimore gardens in the winter of 1777, when the Continental Congress met there. At William Lux’s 1750s country seat, Chatsworth, he noted, “the large garden enclosed in lime and before the yard two fine rows of large cherry trees which lead out to the public road. There is a fine prospect about it. Mr. Lux lives like a prince.” The princely grounds, which included a 164-by-234-' terraced garden, were late sold to become a commercial garden & renamed Gray’s Garden.
Lux chose to protect his investment by building a stone wall directly connecting Chatsworth’s central-axis, symmetrical garden to the house, a feature it shared with several of the earliest Chesapeake gardens. Holly Hill, Maryland’s oldest surviving seventeenth-century brick house, had a geometrically balanced walled garden directly adjoining the L-shaped building. Bacon’s Castle, Virginia’s earliest seventeenth-century brick dwelling, was an exception. It’s rectangular garden was only partially walled & not connected to the main house. The Bacon’s Castle garden was set off to the side & was not a Palladian progression of the geometric lines of the dwelling.
Inside its brick wall, William Lux defined Chatsworth’s grounds by creating eight equal-sized rectangles, or “oblongs” as English garden authority Philip Miller called them. Miller, whose work The Gardeners Dictionary was widely read in the colonial Chesapeake, recommended central-axis gardens with matching squares on either side of a gravel walk leading out from a door at the center of the house. Most colonial gardeners adopted Miller’s advice & build their garden beds twice as long as broad. By mid-century, main-axis symmetry dominated most mid-Atlantic gardens.
William Lux planned Chatsworth’s walled garden before the Revolution, in the still wild Baltimore countryside, & he probably felt safer with the control a wall afforded him. His garden was reminiscent of medieval European walled gardens, which closed out interlopers & in which humans molded nature to their own uses. In late European walled gardens, the owners often toiled to perfect the Neoplatonic ideal of producing perfect examples of flowers & rare plants. There visitors could admire specimens of imported exotic as well as native plants either in pots or planted directly in the soil. And so it was in the colonies. Men & women alike became plant hunters in seventeenth- & 18th-century North America. They excitedly exchanged plants & sent new species back to England & Europe for study. William Byrd, in his diary entry for April 10, 1720, wrote of entertaining guests at Westover in Virginia: “After dinner we walked in the garden and I showed them several rarities.”
By mid-century, city-dwelling gentry, in the quickly growing towns up & down the Atlantic, often build brick-walled gardens as well. Charles Carroll of Carollton incorporated a wall into his grounds in Annapolis in 1774; his neighbor William Paca (1740-99) had enclosed his garden with a brick wall nearly a decade earlier. Brick walls were expensive & available to only a few in early America, but the served useful proposes. They kept vegetables & fruits safe from intrusion, & they announced that the owners were persons of means.
The Paca House garden, reconstructed in the 1970s, is unusual in that its main walk does not lead from a center door on the garden façade, so the garden does not sit on a central axis, relative to the house. The garden, for years buried under a paved parking lot, was restored as a typical geometric & symmetrical garden on the top terraces. The lowest terrace Paca designed with a lake & a summerhouse in a contrived naturalistic style. Charles Willson Peale included this lower terrace in a portrait of William Paca, & it is the only documented space in the garden. Paca had just retuned from England when he began building his garden in the 1760s, so he would have been familiar with the natural style in vogue in Britain at that moment.
Paca’s house, also built in the 1760s, was not at all large compared to the homes of English gentry, but for Annapolis it was quite grand. The brick structure comprises a 48-by-44-' two-story center section & two single-story wings-a kitchen wing of 32 by 16 ' and a corresponding office wing of the same size. Paca purchased two 198-by-198-' lots for his house & gardens. The gardens he planned consisted of three falls, narrowing as the dropped 16 ½ ' to the naturalized lowest level featuring the summerhouse & a Chinese-style bridge over a pond. Archaeologists found that the terrace closest to the house measured 80 ' in width, the next 55 ', & the last 40 '. This design allowed those viewing the two-acre garden from the house to see grounds that appeared larger than reality. Using optics to created an illusion of larger houses & grounds was particularly important in colonial Chesapeake towns, where space was limited, but the need to appear important was boundless.
Chesapeake gentry considered Oriental embellishments, such as the bridge in the Paca garden, high style in this period. In 1762 Philadelphia diarist Hannah Callender wrote of a local garden, “In the midst is a Chinese temple for a summer house.” Using Oriental designs signaled to those passing by & stopping in that the owner was a refined, genteel leader in society. Both summerhouses & temples served as social gathering sites in 18th-century America. Although in the Chesapeake they often sat on naturally elevated grounds, Paca placed his at the of his terraces.
Sloping falls gardens, such as Lux built in Baltimore & Paca built in Annapolis, could be found up & down the Atlantic coast throughout the 18th century. Because the topography of the area allowed it, many Chesapeake gentry whose homes sat on a rise of ground terraced their gardens. Many of these falls sloped down to a body of water, & the main approach to colonial houses was often by water.
Aesthetically, terraces provided a setting for he house, a pleasing view from upper stories, & a platform for surveying the surrounding countryside. A contemporary American garden authority acknowledged the garden as a stage when he wrote “regular terraces either on natural eminences or forced ground were often introduced…for the sake of prospect….one above another, on the side of some considerable rising ground in theatrical arrangement.” Such designs elevated the wealthy owner above the common audience passing by or strolling through. One look at nature so well ordered & the observed could have no doubt that here lived a person destined to be in charge.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, & his father were spending the decade of the 1770s worrying about the political direction of the colony & designing geometric gardens for their Annapolis home. Their gardens covered about 2 ¾ acres. Broadening terraces fell 24 ' from the house to Spa Creek. The garden terrace closest to the water was 50 ' wide, the next ascending terrace 40 ' wide, & the garden terrace, closest to the 45-'-long house, measured 30 ' in width. Their plan made the three-story house seem even more imposing when viewed by visitors approaching from the water, & made the water seem closed & broader when viewed from the house. The younger Carroll realized that a perception of superiority could work to his detriment in society. In a letter to a friend he wrote, “There is a mean low dirty envy which creeps thro’ the ranks and cannot suffer a superiority of fortune, of merit, or of understanding …my fortune will certainly make me an object of envy.” Nonetheless, it was an unsteady time in the colonies, and a visual representation of power & control probably would not hurt.
At the bottom of the terraces, where a walkway ran 400 ' along the water’s edge, the Carrolls places octagonal summerhouses, at each end of the walkway. “I like my pavilions,” wrote the younger Carroll, “they are rather small.” Between the pavilions, ladies often fished off of the walkway.
Many colonials referred to the level area of a terrace as “the flat.” They would plant these flats either in turf or in garden beds. The latter could include ornamental flowers as well as the useful vegetables & herbs that the Carrolls chose for their flats.
Terraced gardens usually had three to five terraces, the flats of which were planted with turf, or flowers, or fruits & vegetables & the sloping fronts & sides faced with turf. Garden visitors & workers moved between levels by walking up & down these grass ramps, called falls or slopes.
“I…oblige myself…to layout the next Garden or flatt from the Terras below.”
Falls appear very early in Virginia. Some speculate that falling gardens existed at Green Spring, build by Governor Alexander Spotswood installed terraced gardens at the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg between 1715 & 1719. Later the governor build his private estate, the Enchanted Castle, near Germanna, where William Byrd II came to call on September 28, 1732, & later reported, “the Garden…has…3 Terrace Walks that fall in Slopes one below another.” In the 1750s Speaker of the House Burgesses John Robinson installed “a large falling garden enclosed with a good brick wall” at his plantation, Pleasant Hill, overlooking the Mattaponi River.
It is certain that Virginian Lewis Burwell in the 1730s constructed a long rectangular garden, about 220 ' wide & extending almost 500 ' south from the house down to he James River, on his plantation, Kingsmill. Three turfed terraces led down to a large enclosed kitchen garden, which was divided into quadrants by two central walkways. Unlike the falls in Maryland gardens, Burwell’s were connected by stone steps rather than grass ramps. This same design was chosen by his cousin Carter Burwell in 1751 for the gardens at Carter’s Grove, near Williamsburg.
Also in the 1730s, Landon Carter, a son of wealthy planter Robert “King” Carter, built similar terraces at Sabine Hall on the north side of the Rappahannock River in Virginia. (He named his estate after Horace’s villa outside of Rome, Sabine Farm.) Landon Carter’s riverfront garden consisted of six deep terraces spanning the width of the house. His terraces were so steep that he “almost…disjointed” his hip by “walking in the garden” in 1764. Steeply terraced gardens could prove deadly in fact. Charles Carroll of Annapolis died, in 1783, as a result of a fall in his garden.
Terraced falls were popular among the Virginia gentry building in towns as well in the 18th century. In the city of Richmond, Colonel Richard Adams and his son Dr. John Adams built homes with gardens falling toward the James River near old St. John’s Church. Farther north, William Fitzhugh added terraced gardens to his home, Chatham, on the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg. Nearby, Colonel Frances Thornton & his father adorned The Falls & Fall Hill with terraces to the Rappahannock. In fact, terraced falls were so admired in Fredericksburg, that in 1777 eight lots were offered for sale with the notation that four were already “well improved with a good falling garden.” In 1780 another Fredericksburg newspaper advertisement touted “a good dwelling house with every conveniencey that a family can wish for…a falling garden.”
Greatly enamored of falls gardens, the gentry build them on any available natural rise, not just on riverbanks. In 1747 Colonel John Tayloe built five grassy terraces at Mount Airy, even though the Rappahannock was three miles away. Virginians kept building falls gardens well into the 19th century.
A few English country house gardens of the 18th century are depicted with classical terraces on their grounds, but apparently they were the exception rather than the rule, or they were not notable enough to record. The majority of early America’s terraced gardens were similar to the balanced, rectangular plan portrayed in Englishman William Lawson’s early-seventeenth-century work A New Orchard and Garden. Chesapeake garden design was almost untouched by the excesses & ostentations aspects of Italian Baroque & French grand manner garden styles of the time, & very little influenced by the 18th-century English natural grounds reaction to those formalities. Time, distance, an ideologies blunted their extremes of style.
As the population grew & colonists building in the countryside felt safer from intrusion by unwelcome people & animals, homeowners began to consider the aesthetic possibilities of opening up their gardens to the surrounding landscape. Unlike their English cousins, few in British America manipulated the structure & layout of the existing natural countryside outside of the grounds immediately surrounding their homes, & few owned all the land they surveyed about them.
Up & down the Atlantic seaboard, where the topography allowed, house sitting practices harked back to the defensive habit of building on the high ground. People continued to look for the highest situation, in part so they could remain on vistas & views available from the pinnacle of the property. The famous architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe wrote in 1798, “When you stand upon the summit of a hill, and see an extensive country of woods and fields without interruption spread before you, you look at it with pleasure…this pleasure is perhaps very much derived from a sort of consciousness of superiority of positions to all the monotony below you.”
Visitors often used the powerful verb command to describe the placement of a dwelling on a site surrounded with vistas. People noted that houses on high ground were situated on an “eminence.” Homage to power was due to the owner. Even when the houses themselves were unfinished or left to decay, impressive sites were still admired. In June 1760 Andrew Burnaby was traveling through Annapolis & noted, “the governor’s palace is not finished…it is situated very finely upon an eminence, and commands a beautiful view of the town and environs.” Five years later Lord Adam Gordon similarly described the still unfinished governor’s house: “the Situation is most Elegant…commanding the view of the Town, the River Severn, the Bay, and all the Creeks.”
In British America, gentlemen continued to construct mounts well into the 18th century. The gardens at George Mason’s Gunston Hall in Virginia are flanked by mounts overlooking the Potomac River. British Colonel Secretary William Eddis wrote of a house in Annapolis on October 1, 1769, “The garden is not extensive, but it is disposed to the utmost advantage; the center walk is terminated by a small green mount…commands an extensive view of the bay and the adjacent country.”
Bowling greens--smooth, level lawns used for playing bowls--capped many colonial falling gardens. Most bowling greens measured 100 by 200 ', & many were sunk slightly below the level of the ground surrounding them. Sometimes called “squares” in late-18th- & early-19th-century America, bowling greens offered beauty & ornament as well as recreation. As early as 1666 southern colonials “found…a plaine place before the great round house for their bowling recreation.” In the mid-Atlantic & South, playing at bowls often involved wagering. William Byrd wrote in his diary on May 5, 1721, “After dinner we walked to the bowling green where I lost five shilling.”
Flowers Planted to Impress
Before the Revolution, colonial gardeners sometimes created intricately designed beds of flowers. The most ambitious early gardeners attempted flower knots. In 1749, a house for sale advertisement touted “a garden, genteelly laid out in walks and alleys, with flower-knots, & laid round with bricks.” Flower knots were beds formed into curious, complicated, and fanciful shapes meant to please the eye, especially when seen from a higher elevation.
Flower knot designs sometimes imitated the intricate patterns of the embroidery and cut work executed by needleworkers of the time. The length of the flower knot bed was generally about one and a third times the width. Beds separated by narrow paths were usually mirror images of each other, their patterns repeated at the ends of the sections created within them.
Garden historian Rosemary Verey had written that 18th-century American gardens may have retained their formality because “in England the countryside had already been tamed by years of husbandry, while in America each new plantation was surrounded by wild, untamed land, to be kept at bay, not emulated.” Others, such as Elizabeth Pryor, have speculated that the alluring beauty of the natural landscape surrounding the Chesapeake Bay may help explain why gardeners were not seduced by the naturalistic style sweeping England. The Chesapeake woods, continuously cleared of underbrush by Indian fires, already resembled the “improved” landscape in the watercolors of English landscape architect Humphry Repton. In fact, another visitor to Howard’s home wrote: & “its grounds formed a beautiful slant toward the Chesapeake. From the taste with which they were laid out, It would seem that America is already possessed of a …Repton. The spot thus indebted to Nature and judiciously embellished was an enchanting within its own proper limits as in the fine view which extended far beyond them. The foreground possessed luxurious shrubberies and sloping lawns; the distance, the line of the Patapsco and he country bordering on the Chesapeake.” Another visitor to Belvedere claimed to “rejoice in the vistas and the sensations they inspire.”
Among the Howards’ oldest neighbors was an Irish physician. Dr. Henry Stevenson (1721-1814), who had one of the earliest terraced gardens in the Baltimore area. His grounds displayed a flat four-bed garden on the north side of his home, called Parnassus, which Stevenson started constructing in 1763 & completed in 1769. On the south side of the house, facing the harbor, he built a bowling green & five grass terraces. A roadway wide enough for a horse-drawn wagon bisected the grass terraces up to the bowling green, & Stevenson planted double rows of trees across the width of the house, creating alleys along the outer edge of the fences that lined the terraces up to the house.
Another Baltimore county seat adorned with statues was built by Charles Carroll the Barrister (1723-83) in the early 1760s. Mount Clare stood just a mile from the Patapsco River. Its entrance façade was surrounded by a semicircular white picket fence extending from the dependencies to a spot directly in from of the main doorway. Statues of lions sat on pedestals on either side of the walkway leading to the central door. The terraced garden façade of Mount Clare was popular with visitors.
In 1770, Virginian Mary Ambler visited Mount Clare and recorded that she “took a great deal of Pleasure in looking at the bowling Green & also at the …very large Falling Garden thee is a Green House with a good many Orange & Lemon Trees just ready to bare…the House…stands upon a very High Hill & had a fine view of Petapsico River You step out of the Door into the Bowlg Green from which the Garden Falls & when You stand on the Top of it thee is such a Uniformity of Each side as the whole Plantn seems to be laid out like a Garden there is also a Handsome Court Yard on the other side of the House.”
Garden watcher John Adams, in Baltimore for a session of the Continental Congress in February of 1777, spoke highly of Mount Clare. & “There is a most beautiful walk from the house down to the water; there is a descent not far from the house; you have a find garden then you descent a few steps and have another fine garden; you go down a few more and have another.”
The 18th-century pleasure gardens growing on the hillsides of the Chesapeake Bay were strikingly similar to the pleasure gardens that dotted the hills of Rome during an earlier republican era. Even town gardens of the middling classes harked back to classical precedents. The garden was the gentleman’s stage & a device with which to help define his position in the emerging republic. Order, control, & regularity dominated garden designs as landowners structured their external environments to project a positive image of themselves to passers-by. The 19th century would see gardens grow less & less formal, & in the 1840s Andrew Jackson Downing would vigorously promote an American natural grounds movement.