UMass Exhibition Examines Changes in Historical American Landscapes

A Genius for Place: American Landscape of the Country Place Era
A Panel Exhibition from the Library of American Landscape History

The UMass Amherst Libraries are hosting a traveling exhibition called “A Genius For Place,” on view now through May 10th, 2014.  Organized by the Library of American Landscape History (LALH), the exhibition illustrates and analyzes the chronological development of North American landscape design throughout the “Country Place Era,” or the period of time (1890 to 1930) between the Gilded Age through the end of the Great Depression.  During that time, many wealthy American families, convinced that their hectic, crowded, and unclean city lives required periodic retreats to the fresh air and far-ranging vistas of the countryside for renewal and recovery, erected country “cottages” (some of which were more extravagant than the average mansion today).  Of course, these homes were not complete without elegantly sculpted garden paths, man-made reflecting pools, outdoor courtyards, and a spectacular view to top off the experience of nature-filled country life.  Landscape architects creating the perfect outdoor environments for their clients employed a wide range of techniques, structures, and both modern and historical iconography in their designs.  It was a transitional moment, both for the country as a whole and for the practice of landscape design.

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Robin Karson, founding director of LALH, sees the Country Place Era as a significant time in the history of American landscape architecture: balancing on the cusp of the twentieth century, still weighted with the ideas and traditions of bygone years.  One such was the notion of the genius loci, or the “spirit of the place.”  While in some cultures this spirit takes the form of a protective, guardian-like presence, Western cultures more commonly use the phrase “spirit of the place” to refer to a site’s distinctive energy or aura.  In her book A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era, Karson suggests that landscape architects during this time were guided by the genius loci to preserve the natural beauty and quirks of the original landscape while injecting more modern, experimental architectural elements into their designs…

The work that Karson did for her book eventually led to the development of this exhibition.  Collaborating with photographer Carol Betsch, she spent five years researching hundreds of estates and landscapes, which Betsch then photographed.  Karson and Betsch narrowed down their research to a set of seven estates and landscapes based on “their significance, state of preservation, and chronological and geographical distribution,” and chose specific photographs that “would reveal and illuminate the designers’ intentions and express the spirit of each place.”

Many of the selected estates are open to the public, including Berkshire-based Naumkeag, the 44-room former “summer cottage” of leading 19th-century attorney Joseph Choate (now maintained by the Trustees of the Reservations), which is located in Stockbridge, MA.  Families looking for opportunities to learn more about American history and/or nature studies (or just looking for a new place to spend the day with the kids!) will appreciate that one of Karson and Betsch’s featured landscapes is located so close to us here in western Massachusetts – particularly considering that the other six estates are scattered as far as Michigan, Ohio, and California.

When viewing photographs in the exhibition, visiting one of the historic landscapes depicted in the exhibition, or even just spending time in your backyard, try to identify the spirit of place there.  Does it have a smell or a texture or something that particularly catches your eye?  Are there any aspects of the landscape that are clearly natural or clearly man-made?  Discuss with your children whether the man-made additions amplify the beauty of the natural elements, or what you might have done differently.  If you are familiar with art history, try to identify the influences of certain landscape and structural elements that might be present!  And lastly, consider: if the spirit of the place was a guardian presence, what might it look like?  Where might it live?  How might it have influenced the people who designed the landscape you’re looking at?

Learn more about the history of these estates and the selection process with which Robin Karson and Carol Betsch chose them at the exhibition’s opening reception on Wednesday, March 5, 2014, at 4:30pm.  Karson and Betsch will speak, and will also sign copies of A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era, paperback copies of which will be available for purchase.  The reception is free and open to the public. UMass Amherst.  W.E.B. Du Bois Library, Lower Level.  154 Hicks Way.  Amherst, MA.  413-545-0284.

[Photo credits: West Gazebo before Storm, Gwinn, Cleveland, Ohio. Photo by Carol Betsch, 1995; Birch Allée, Stan Hywet, Akron, Ohio. Photo by Carol Betsch, 1997; East Terrace, Winterthur, Delaware. Photo by Carol Betsch, 1999; North Vista, View toward House, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol Betsch, 1999; Crabapple at Edge of Meadow, Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan. Photo by Carol Betsch, 1996; Formal Reflecting Pool, Santa Barbara, California. Photo by Carol Betsch, 1998; View from Linden Allée, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Photo by Carol Betsch, 1998.]

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