This past December, I had the pleasure of visiting Middleton Place, northwest of Charleston, South Carolina with my family. It was my first visit there, despite the fact that it was first brought to my attention in the early 1990’s when I initially studied landscape history. I had always wanted to see the lawn terraces cascading down to the Ashley River. Starting in 1741, this has historically been noted as the first effort of landscape architecture, landscape gardening, and/or landscape manipulation within Colonial America by European hands.
The pre-visit imagery in my head were everlasting large lawn terraces. Much to my surprise it was so much more than that. We experienced a series of intimate and unexpected garden experiences. The hillsides were covered in azaleas, the gardens full of winter blooming camellias, vast grass terraces, a large central meadow for the free grazing farm animals and several working farmstead buildings.
There was also the former Plantation house that is now in ruins (it was burned during Sherman’s March in the Civil War and was never rebuilt). As we continued to explore, we came across former rice paddies, a picturesque freshwater pond, huge oak trees, with the views down and across the adjacent Ashley River were breathtaking.
The garden was set up on a triangular axis and was mimicking garden designs by French designers Andre LeNotre. According to the Middleton Place Foundation: “The principles of André Le Nôtre, the master of classical garden design who laid out the gardens at Vaux-le-Vicomte and the Palace of Versailles were followed. Rational order, geometry and balance; vistas, focal points and surprises were all part of the garden design.”
Seeing it all as one landscape is pretty impressive, yet even more impressive was taking in how everything was built. Man’s hands (mostly slave labor without machinery) transformed this landscape from a flat coastal plain wetland into a terracing, agriculturally-functioning, well-organized picturesque garden.
As we drove home, I was left with questions. In some ways, it reminded me of Central Park – beautiful, but quite a bit different landscape than it’s original ecologic surroundings of coastal plain wetlands. I was very appreciative that it had been restored and maintained so we could experience it, trying to keep in mind the era in which it was created. Yet, I wondered about accepting the beauty of a place and its history while possibly ignoring the ecologic approach? What is its current relevancy to our practice? What can we learn from it? How does the use of slaves change my opinion of the garden? In relation to my daily practice, what do I value more – the beauty of the place, the determination and dedication of the craftsmen that created the place, or the native landscape and their systems? Or all of the above?
Here is a weblink to explore more: