The Eidetic Landscape

It’s quite possible that Planting Fields in Oyster Bay on Long Island was my first Olmsted landscape. My mother used to take us to the arboretum in the mid- to late 1960s when we lived in nearby Glen Cove. The North Shore of Long Island was called the “Gold Coast” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Famous evocations of this time and place include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and the movie Sabrina, which was filmed in Glen Cove. (The classic with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn is, of course, better than the Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond remake). Planting Fields is on the estate of the Coe family, who moved there in 1912. It was the Coes who had the Olmsted firm lay out the pastoral landscape.

The Long Island portion of my childhood (1962-1970) is filled with distinct memories of designed, vernacular and natural landscapes. Most people seem to think of Long Island has an endless maze of post-war subdivisions and strip malls sprawled across a flat landscape. In strict per-square-mile terms, this does describe a large part of Nassau and some of Suffolk counties, but the North Shore was settled in the 17th century by the Dutch, who were soon succeeded by the English, and the villages and towns have maritime and agricultural pasts.

The Planting Fields Web site (it has been a state historic park since 1971) includes a great deal of historical background about the site, noting that it received its name because the Matinecock tribe farmed the land extensively owing to its rich soil. Long Island is part of the terminal moraine left behind by the last (Wisconsinan) glaciation.

The ice sheet reached its greatest extent 21,000 years before present (BP). The portion of the ice sheet that covered the northeastern two-thirds of North American is called the Laurentide Ice Sheet. Its center was over northern Hudson Bay, where, as long as the snow that fell each winter failed to melt the following summer, the ice accumulated and pushed outward. When the Laurentide Ice Sheet reached its southernmost extent it stopped advancing because it was melting as quickly as snow was accumulating at its center.

The jumbled, hilly landscape of northern Long Island, which gives it its bucolic charm was created as boulders, rocks, sand and silt melted out of the enormous face of the ice sheet. The debris was picked up by the moving ice sheet from points north and extruded from its terminus. The Ronkonkoma moraine runs through the center of the island (paralleling the Long Island Expressway) and forms the southern fork that ends with Montauk Point. The North Shore topography is formed by the Harbor Hill moraine, which extends out to Orient Point, the end of the north fork of Long Island.

The Harbor Hill moraine extends westward into Queens, and another Olmsted design, Prospect Park is built on it in Brooklyn. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who had designed Central Park in Manhattan in the 1850s, completed Prospect Park in 1867. The terminal moraine extends further west across Staten Island to New Jersey. Olmsted had actually been a farmer on Staten Island in the late 1940s. In 1850 he went to England as a journalist, traveling on foot extensively and visiting many natural and designed landscapes. The landscape of England is, of course, largely shaped by the last glaciation as well.

The entire idea of the pastoral landscape, as conceived on the English model in the United States, is largely derived from adaptations to a glaciated terrain, which rolls more gently and includes more confused drainages than unglaciated terrains. The pastoral idylls of Greek, Italian and French landscapes portrayed in thousands of landscape paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries are much more dramatic, steep-sided and angular than those of England and the American northeastern states.

Olmsted Sr. passed on his aesthetic sense to his sons Frederick Jr. and John, who inherited his landscape architecture firm from him in 1895 and would have been the principals that accepted the commission from the Coe family in 1918. According to the Planting Fields Web site, James Frederick Dawson was the chief designer of the grounds around Coe Hall. Dawson became a full partner in the Olmsted Brothers firm in 1922.

My own memories of Planting Fields are not distinct and are likely largely based on family photographs. But I remember that even at the age of seven or eight, that I though it was a beautiful place, and I think it must have become my standard for designed landscapes.

The Olmsted transformation of the glacial terrain into a sculpted stage for a series of outdoor spaces bounded by copses, thickets and banks of flowering shrubs is a respectful alteration of the native state. An Olmsted landscape amounts to a four-dimensional palimpsest, where you can see the natural state beneath the designer’s carefully ordered vegetation-bounded “rooms” and vistas.

Now, whenever I set foot in an Olmsted (or Olmsted-inspired) landscape, I experience a rush of sentiment, a sense of rightness, a feeling of having detected the Golden Mean in the arrangement of slope, tree, meadow and a clearing in the distance. I feel home.


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