Carol Betsch
American, 1948–
Overlook Above Glade Garden, Winterthur, Delaware
gelatin silver print


Carol Betsch
American, 1948–
View from Rose Garden, Spring, Dumbarton Oaks, 2000
Iris print on paper


Carol Betsch
American, 1948–
View East to Lake St. Clair, Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan
gelatin silver print

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Organized by the Library of American Landscape History, Amherst, Massachusetts, the exhibition is a collaboration between Carol Betsch, photographer and editor, and Robin Karson, executive director of LALH and curator of the exhibition. The photographs in this exhibition explore seven estate landscapes from across the United States that were designed for noteworthy, wealthy private clients between 1895 and 1940. These landscapes demonstrate characteristic motifs of the American Country Place Era, an important landscape design movement that occurred in the first half of the twentieth century.

The American Country Place Era evolved during a period of significant upheaval in American history. At the close of the nineteenth century, deteriorating city conditions prompted many Americans newly wealthy from the industrial revolution to spend their fortunes on luxurious country estates. Landscape architecture was a new profession at the time, and practitioners and their clients were eager to develop an American aesthetic. An emerging generation of landscape architects were deeply influenced by the distinctive landscape of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893—a collaboration between architect Daniel Hudson Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted—with its bridges, fountains, and crystalline buildings that evoked a perfect, classical world.

Landscape architects including Charles Platt, Warren Manning, Jens Jensen, Beatrix Farrand, Marian Coffin, Lockwood de Forest, Jr., and Fletcher Steele created new country estates on properties ranging from a few acres to several hundred. Early in the period designers borrowed heavily from Italian and English gardens; later, influences included the Midwestern prairie, memories from trips abroad, and trends in modern art. The most successful and expressive estate landscapes from this period tended to embrace three concerns, according to Karson: Olmsted’s respect for the genius loci, the animating spirit of a place; inspired use of historical motifs and Beaux Arts spatial principles; and the clients’ personal dreams and preferences.

Out of hundreds of potential sites, Karson chose seven that serve as exemplars of the work of Jens Jensen, Beatrix Farrand, Fletcher Steele, Lockwood de Forest, Jr., Warren Manning, Charles Platt, and Ellen Shipman. The featured estates are Naumkeag, the estate of Mabel Choate in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (only about an hour’s drive from Smith College); Gwinn in Cleveland, Ohio, built for industrialist William Gwinn Mather; Stan Hywet in Akron, Ohio, the estate of Goodyear Tire founder Frank Seiberling; H. P. DuPont’s Winterthur in Winterthur, Delaware; Dumberton Oaks in Georgetown, District of Columbia, designed for Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss; Edsel and Eleanor Ford’s Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan; and Val Verde in Santa Barbara, California, owned by Wright S. Ludington.

“The Country Place landscape architects constitute more of a movement than a style,” Karson says, “Their work shares an approach that transcends region or type of landscape and is marked by a particular sense of experimentation and process.” According to Karson, instead of a common set of visual motifs and conventions, these landscape artists shared the impulse to use native plants, to define constructed views that counterpoint garden elements typically placed in the foreground with the larger setting they inhabit, and—perhaps most importantly—a shared objective to reveal and amplify the genius loci that gives the show its name. “This romantic conception of nature, its grandeur and sense of infinite possibility, is distinctly American,” Karson says, “and it reflects the experimental sense of the architects in creative collaboration with the modern and sophisticated tastes of their clients.”

Karson says that her work is motivated not only by an interest in define the history of a movement, but in fostering a public sense of support and preservation for the spaces featured in the show. Unlike a painting or a sculpture, which a Museum may attempt to conserve in a stable state, landscape works are continually in flux. As such, they depend on sensitive care and ongoing interpretation over time to maintain their designers’ vision. “These are seven very important American places,” she says, “and one of the things I’m trying to accomplish here is to develop a sense of connoisseurship, to understand them as the significant American works of art that they are.”

The exhibition also coincides with the inaugural faculty hire in Smith College’s Department of Landscape Studies, the first such program at an undergraduate liberal arts college in this country. Nina Antonetti, currently a Lecturer, will assume the position Assistant Professor in July 2006. During the spring semester Antonetti will teach a seminar on the history of landscape theory in conjunction with the exhibition. LSS 300: “Rethinking Landscape” will be enriched by access to the exhibition Genius for Place and a trip to Naumkeag. Curator Robin Karson will be joining a class discussion early in the semester and lead a tour of Naumkeag at the end of the semester. In the first instance, students will be expected to extrapolate theory from the depicted site in the exhibition, and in the second instance, students will construct their own theory of the real site.

“I hope this new component to the course will provide a practical model for the application of theory,” says Antonetti. “This exhibition is yet another testament to this pioneering program and Smith College's leading curriculum in the study of the built environment.”

For more information, visit an exhibition site created by the Library of American Landscape History.

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