Public vs. Private Spaces

The Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway
The Fountain Terrace
The Fountain Terrace at Dumbarton Oaks
"We are definitely in an era of building; the best kind of building-- the building of great public projects for the benefit of the public and with the definite objective of building human happiness."

--Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated in reference to New Deal projects.

Many political, economic, and social shifts were taking place between the Gilded Age and the 1930s. Dumbarton Oaks stands as an iconic model of the many trends in American culture in the tumultuous 1920s and 1930s. One important shift in landscape architecture took place during the Great Depression. This was the ending of estate building and a trend towards public works such as parks and parkways.

In Phoebe Cutler's book, The Public Landscape of the New Deal, she talks about the "linkage" to the landscape:
In the 1930s Americans still viewed the landscape, along with church and family, as a force in character formation. Recreation enjoyed the moral hegemony that conservation still retains. This idealism imbued the landscape.

The shift in landscape architecture projects from the private to the public sphere was rather smooth. In Cutler's The Public Landscape of the New Deal, this transition is partially explicated:

The progression from country estate to city park was a natural one. For years landscape architects had been battening their practices with the embellishment of the country estate, and in the process they compiled a stock of design constructs easily transferable to the public landscape.

From designing country estates, landscape architects had the opportunity to experiment with a wide range of design constructs. The expertise of landscape architects was needed as much if not more in the public works of the 1930s as during the Country Place Era between 1890 and 1920. The actual profession of landscape architecture thrived in the shift between the private and public works.

Spanning from Jefferson's time to the transcendentalists and even to the present day, the natural American landscape has always played an important part in America's understanding of itself. Our landscape connects to our nation's self-understanding. Nature in America is a kind of proof of our special relationship with God, and also helped America separate itself from Europe.

In Mac Griswold's book,The Golden Age of American Gardens,the connection is made between the Hudson River School and the thoughts about and perceptions of the natural American landscape:

All through the 19th century, forces both cultural and horticultural conspired to raise an interest in nature and gardening. The paintings of the Hudson River School captured the sweeping majesty of the American wild-- now that the wilderness frontier was safely far away. A new romanticized domesticity, complete with a garden, became the Victorian ideal.

The reason that the Hudson River School was significant was because it involved the rendering of the American landscape. This first native school of American Art dated from the 1820s. It began as a loosely organized group of painters who took as their subject the unique naturalness of the American continent, starting with the Hudson River region in New York, but eventually extending in time and space all the way to California and the 1870s. The time period in which the school's artists were active was a time of momentous social, political and economic change in American history, and the work of the Hudson River School artists represents part of the process of national self-conceptualization taking place in those years.

In the course of its fifty year history, the paintings of the Hudson River School spoke in symbolic language to both a great hopefulness and a wistful reminiscence of the American "experiment", a celebration of the primeval American landscape. These landscape paintings lay claim to an important place in American art history and in the American cultural consciousness. They represent the undeniable place that nature has and continues to occupy in the American imagination.

Visit a virtual gallery of Hudson River School landscape paintings.

Some of the social change that was happening leading up to and beyond the Gilded Age involved culture. It was constantly being redefined by and for Americans. Henry James lamented that there was no culture in America and that there was no escape "into the future, or even into the present; there was an escape but into the past."

In Levine's book High brow/Lowbrow, he discusses Henry James' view on culture in America:

James was not quite accurate. For him and for many others there was also an escape into Culture, which became one of the mechanisms that made it possible to identify, distinguish, and order this new universe of strangers. As long as these strangers had stayed within their own precincts and retained their own peculiar ways, they remained containable and could be dealt with: Afro-Americans dancing their strange ritual dances to exotic rhythms within their own churches; Irish women "keening" (wailing) weird melodies over their dead at their own wakes; Germans entertaining family and friends in their own beer gardens. But these worlds of strangers did not remain contained; they spilled over into the public spaces that characterized nineteenth century America and that included the theaters, music halls, opera houses, museums, parks fairs and the rich public cultural life that took place daily on the streets of American cities.

This is precisely where the threat lay and the response of the elites was a tripartite one: to retreat into their own private spaces when possible, to transform public spaces by rules, systems of taste, and canons of behavior of their own choosing; and, finally, to convert the strangers so that their modes of behavior and cultural predilections emulated those of the elites-an urge that I will try to show always remained shrouded in ambivalence.

The Significance of Dumbarton Oaks
As An Expression of American Culture


Dumbarton Oaks represented the "end" of something." The building of large private estates began roughly in the middle of the nineteenth century. Dumbarton Oaks was a very unusual commission in that it continued being "built" up through the Great Depression. At this point almost all of the large private commissions had stopped, and people were bankrupted by the Great Depression.

The new public works created in the 1930s involved many different kinds of public spaces including state parks, city parks, ski areas, parkways, and a whole list of others.

One comparison between private and public spaces might involve Dumbarton Oaks and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Though they are entirely different, they were being constructed at the same time in American History. It is interesting to compare and contrast these two works because one is a "belated gesture" from the Gilded Age and the other is a public space created through the New Deal. Leisure is one of the connecting links between these two spaces. Dumbarton Oaks was an exception in relation to the Country Place Era in the United States. The 1930s brought with it the Great Depression and the extravagant private estates were no longer being built. However, the Great Depression did not affect the Bliss' money source during the 30s. Farrand continued to work on the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks.

What differed between these sites was their patronage. Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss were the private patrons who commissioned Farrand to design their gardens at Dumbarton Oaks between 1921-1947. However, the United States government "bank-rolled" and commissioned workers to construct the Blue Ridge Parkway and other similar public spaces.

Not only was there a change in patronage, but there were also changes in aesthetics. This shift is in some part due to the architects that were coming over from Europe with modernist ideas and more abstract type ideas.

Although the idea of leisure time connects Dumbarton Oaks to the Blue Ridge Parkway, the actual spaces and who was allowed in them differed greatly. The Blue Ridge Parkway was a "democratized" space that any American could explore. As automobiles became more available to the common consumer, the advent of motoring vacations was begun.

The parkway in America was a new kind of public space. Its purpose was three-fold. First, the parkway was supposed to relieve urban stress. Stress was caused by the industrialization and commercialization of America. Secondly, the parkway was a place where Americans could redefine themselves as Americans. Beautiful views were created making them available to motorists. Another similarity between Dumbarton Oaks and the Blue Ridge Parkway involves the "retreat" into nature. In the case of Dumbarton Oaks, this retreat was a very private one; a way of "walling out" the rest of the world.

The design of the Parkway employed the principles of picturesque naturalism, which sought to elevate the mode of feeling of the traveling motorist. Part of this "elevation" was the understanding that these landscapes made up part of their national identity. Specific views of the natural riches that constituted America could be seen on this "processional" known as the Blue Ridge Parkway. Lastly, the parkway was a place to go to "better" oneself morally. Travelling on this processional was not a private affair, but it was a journey into nature. The "constructed" views of the parkway enveloped the viewer in a kind of artifice of nature.

During the Depression, road construction of all sorts was happening. The increased dependence of recreation upon the newly invented automobile changed the ways in which families and individuals sought leisure. The parkway provided ample landscaping and clearance for views. Road construction provided many jobs for the unemployed and the unskilled. The government as patron involved many different New Deal agencies in the building of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Cutler further explains,
Depression artifacts are all around us. Countless roads, picnic grounds, playgrounds, and fifty-foot high trees lining the streets are evidence that for almost a decade following the stock market crash of 1929 this country devoted its energies to the development of the American public landscape.

Prior to the Depression, public parks were meant to be "pleasure grounds", but these settings did not fulfill the changing recreational needs of the twentieth century society.

Cutler explained that the WPA attempted to "eliminate the leisure gap by building not bandstands and belvederes, but grandstands and athletic fields."

The government provided many jobs to the unemployed to help build the needed facilities. The government performed its own community service by assuming "patronage" for these public spaces.

The American landscape's positive effects on its citizens changed slightly in the 1930s. Instead of just bettering oneself by being in a landscape setting, people participated in leisure activities within these spaces. The activities performed on the backdrop of the landscape produced a kind of self-bettering.