The Changing Landscape of Winnetka

The Changing Landscape of Winnetka

Gazette Article by: Bean Carroll
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring/Summer 2006

The Natural Style

My last article about the landscape of Winnetka (Autumn/Winter 2005 Gazette) discussed the early settlers in an agrarian society. Animals were kept out of kitchen gardens with fences. Fruit trees were planted around the house and seeds brought over with the latest wave of immigrants were planted in the kitchen garden. As the country moved further into the nineteenth century, what was known as the natural style of gardening became the favorite in England and then in America.

The nineteenth century brought significant changes in the way Americans lived and worked. The early immigrants planted their gardens for survival. Their mission had been to create order in the land by clearing it, establishing farms and building towns. Once this had been accomplished, the attention of Americans could focus on cultural tastes. As improvements in transportation and communications occurred, the difference between rural and urban blurred. Many people moved to the cities during this time period and they often missed the quiet of rural life. The desire to recreate some of the peace of the countryside and the growth of interurban transportation systems led to the development of suburbs and the adoption of the natural or romantic style of landscaping.

The house at 411 Linden, built circa 1860, would most likely have been landscaped in the natural style. This style originated in eighteenth-century England and was finally adopted in this country when landscape gardener and horticulturist Andrew Jackson Downing published the first American book entirely devoted to landscaping, Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening Adapted to North America (1841). Downing was the first American horticulturist to successfully present nineteenth-century theories on aesthetic beauty and taste in a language understood by the middle class. Downing stressed the difference between the soils and climates of North America and Europe, encouraging people to try to understand their local climate and adjust the planting accordingly. He also encouraged people to use plants that were indigenous to the region.

Downing advocated that the architecture of the house should blend with the plantings around it. Therefore peaks in roofs should be matched with specimen trees that would echo the rooflines. To ensure this close association of plants to the architecture, Downing also designed houses. He placed the house strategically on the lot and surrounded it with lawn. There were no foundation plantings around houses of this period; instead, circular flower beds were placed in the lawn where they could be seen and appreciated from inside as well as outside the house. Flower beds were also placed close to the windows so that their fragrance would waft through the house in the summer months. Urns were used as architectural features in the landscape, placed on pedestals rather than directly on the lawn. Sundials were also popular sculptural features. When possible, Downing also included a water element in the design.

Downing believed that the two principles of landscaping could be expressed as “the Beautiful” and “the Picturesque.” Beautiful landscapes were characterized by softness and simplicity while picturesque landscapes were more woodsy and rustic with varied and irregular features. Trees were accordingly divided into two groups: picturesque trees such as larch, spruce and hemlock, which repeated the lines of the house, and beautiful trees such as white oak and maple, which stood “beautifully” alone. Downing did not believe in planting trees in straight lines unless they were in orchards. He encouraged the planting of trees as single specimens or in masses.

Landscaping had become a way of life in America. Though few individuals could afford a landscape architect or hire a professional gardener, Downing provided dedicated amateurs with a standard reference on the topic of landscaping. While some gardens continued to be planted in a more traditional, conservative style, most of them followed Downing’s principles. Although we have no record of the plantings that 411 Linden had in the mid-1800’s, I am confident that the garden would have reflect the principles and concepts of Downing.

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