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Familiarity with historic architectural and garden styles presents landscape professionals with many opportunities to serve both clients and our collective design heritage, says landscape architect and scholar Greg Pierceall. A cluster of homes in Attica, Ind., offers a case in point – a situation in which knowledge of the ins and outs of the Greek Revival style was the key to reviving an entire neighborhood.
Familiarity with historic architectural and garden styles presents landscape professionals with many opportunities to serve both clients and our collective design heritage, says landscape architect and scholar Greg Pierceall.  A cluster of homes in Attica, Ind., offers a case in point – a situation in which knowledge of the ins and outs of the Greek Revival style was the key to reviving an entire neighborhood.
By Greg Pierceall

As landscape professionals, most of us seek not only to innovate and drive the industry to new levels, but also endeavor as necessary to learn about basic design principles and styles that have inspired and ignited design movements in past centuries.

By studying the range of architectural and landscape styles that have gone before us, we learn to use historical cues to guide us in our current tasks.  At the same time, our knowledge of what was done in the past positions us to develop variations on themes and do things differently or better.  This is the way we make our mark, and it’s also how the whole business of design keeps advancing.

There are situations, however, in which staying true to the goals of established design styles can be the best way to go.  In some cases, it’s about preserving existing sites; in others, it’s about restoring existing (but much altered) sites to original condition.  And there’s a third possibility of creating new compositions in which established architectural and garden styles are developed in new settings.  

I find a bit of all three in the town of Attica, Ind., where a neighborhood filled with homes of a certain style have been the subject of a preservation/restoration project.  It’s made me think that new homes and perhaps whole new neighborhoods might even be designed to harmonize with the old district’s Greek Revival style.  

CONTEXTUAL KEYS

With any project, of course, developing a site design challenges the designer to examine a range of factors including lot shape and topography as well as everything from the home’s footprint and outline all the way through to the locations of doors and windows.  These architectural and site features define a framework that serves the overall design concept.

Parallel to these physical details, of course, the designer also should consider the clients’ needs and desires, the site context and environmental influences – as well, I hope, as historic issues that affect site uses.  In other words, he or she must weigh all elements that constitute full and complete site design with respect to the landscape.

In Attica, a small community of about 5,000 residents situated some 30 miles southwest of Lafayette, a collection of 20 to 30 homes and a church built in the Greek Revival style have recently been renovated with landscapes that reflect classic site design precisely matched to their architecture and immediate visual contexts.   

Developmentally speaking, the Greek Revival style represents a reinterpretation of ancient Greek motifs that exerted tremendous influence on American architecture early in the 19th Century.

After the War of 1812, influential Americans pursued their interest in severing cultural bonds with Great Britain, seeking a fresh style that reflected their democratic values, sense of independence and aspirations for influence of their own.  This specific stylistic interest was fueled by archeological discoveries in Greece early in the century and right through the 1820s – not to mention the kindred feeling built up by the Greek struggle for national identity and independence through many of those years.

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The home is unusually close to the street by today’s standards, but a certain sense of privacy is gained through use of a simple fence as demarcation between public and private worlds.  The gravel path invites visitors into the space, where to right and left they see a pair of compact perennial gardens defined by clear, simple lines in all directions.

The Greek Revival is just one of several “Romantic” styles that grew to great popularity in this era of separation from British traditions.  It’s bold and vigorous to a degree well beyond the dominant Federal style it helped to supplant and is characterized by clapboard exteriors, simple lines, axial symmetry and detail elements borrowed from 2,500-year-old Greek temples.

The style initially caught on in Philadelphia, where architects trained in Europe began applying this new set of ideas mainly to public buildings.  Even in those days, nearly 200 years ago, the trend spread swiftly within the design trades via publication in various books and other guides, and it wasn’t long before Greek Revival buildings were showing up in diverse parts of the country – especially the South, where new plantations suddenly started appearing with colonnaded façades and porticos.  

Greek Revival architecture indeed became vastly popular, but as is typically the case, architects and designers eventually tired of revisiting the same design elements and configurations over and over, and so the style faded.  As other modes took hold, however, small vestiges of the style evolved, recombined and managed to persist.

DEFINING OPPORTUNITY

Straight through the period in which the Greek Revival movement rose and then became passé, the United States was still primarily an agricultural nation, and landscapes were seen as areas to be conquered rather than decorated.  

Indeed, it was far more important in those days for the land around homes to serve functional rather than aesthetic purposes.  Markets and communal food production were not anywhere near as widespread as they are today and, as a result, kitchen gardens were a major feature in these settings.

Where in modern designs, kitchen gardens tend to be hidden on the side of a home or placed off in an isolated corner, landscapes in the Greek Revival style placed these gardens in prominent spots on one side of the property.  Much of a family’s food was produced in these gardens, making their cultivation and convenience integral to the flow of the property.  Features this important were not hidden as might be the case today.

I’ve been at it long enough to recall a time when clients who actually wanted kitchen gardens even in the late 20th Century saw them as eyesores that should be pushed beyond the bounds of the common visual plane no matter the style of the home.  Today, however, I’m seeing a resurgence of enthusiasm for visually appealing kitchen gardens and find more and more that my clients are seeing these spaces as both beautiful and practical.

The fact that these gardens have gained visual acceptance could not be better news to the modern advocates of the Greek Revival style such as John Cottrell, a native of Attica who came home to restore these gardens.  A prominent designer in his own right, Cottrell was motivated to restore and landscape some of the Greek Revival structures in his hometown in an effort to revitalize this classic American style.

The Greek Revival structures in Attica were originally built in the mid- to late 1800s.  What he was working with was not only a distinct and well-documented architectural style, but was also one accompanied by a specific philosophy for exterior layouts with a straightforward functionality.  

For years, homeowners had closed off these yards.  What Cottrell reintroduced was basic zoning for each site and structure.  Out front, he planned new road edges, fence boundaries and front-yard planting areas.  In back, he developed functional (and attractive) vegetable gardens.

GARDEN DETAILS

Cottrell took a soft approach to renovating the landscapes, not putting in what I refer to as “Velcro plants” – that is, the shrubs directly adjacent to the structure that pass on too many sites as good foundation plantings – together with a single tree species and landscape features people predictably envision in a neighborhood landscape design.

Instead, he mixed things up.  With one house seen in the accompanying photographs, for example, he placed a low, simple wall and topped it with a fence along the sidewalk to define a clear boundary between public and private spaces.  To enter the private space, visitors walk up two steps of chiseled natural stone framed on either side by the low wall and fence.

The stone wall defines the level of the house while the sidewalk beyond the barrier slopes to the left side of the property.  While serving as a barrier, it also frames and defines the narrow front yard without blocking any view of the architecture or drawing attention away from it.

The landing in front of the front door is separated from the entry steps off the public sidewalk by a simple pea-gravel path.  As visitors step onto that path, they become aware of two garden pockets at the edges of their peripheral vision in the form of small, rectangular perennial beds that are both striking and in keeping with what would have been appropriate for the time in which the home was originally built.  The plants may not all be period-specific, but the use of perennials and kitchen-oriented plants is certainly true to the period.

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From the front gate of the house (seen above), the view to the left leads the eye down the line of the fence and up to the steeple of the church on the next lot.  The look at the church’s entrance is all about symmetry, but the forms and lines are all so simple and straightforward in the Greek Revival style that the spaces they define always seem warm and welcoming.

The pea gravel of the entry walk further defines a transition between a public and a more private portion of the entry, where turf, simple annuals and perennials frame the front door and give the home a small-scale sort of cottage-garden feel.  This design concept helps frame and define the entry in a way that sets up a transition from public to private that can be appreciated both in approaching the home and in looking out from indoors.  

This holds true of many homes in the neighborhood, where entry to the space across the public-to-private threshold gives visitors access to defined yard spaces on either side of the path to the front door.  The simplicity of the lines and masses created within rectilinear beds are in keeping with Greek Revival architecture’s simple lines and further incorporates these landscape features as part of the architectural style and the site context.

A SENSE OF CONNECTION

In the case of the home on the sloping lot discussed just above, the simple walls and fences not only define property lines, but also serve to carry visitors’ eyes along the sidewalk to the west, where the view flows to the front lawn of the adjacent church.

The church’s entry is defined by a simple brick walk in a basket-weave pattern flanked by pots for seasonal color.  Two simple Hawthorn trees accent and balance the open lawn on either side of the walkway, again echoing the simplicity and symmetry of the architectural style.

Around the corner from these two sites is a small cottage with a vegetable garden.  Here, a simple rail fence defines the street and entry, and there’s also a minimal planting of lilacs and perennials along the fence.  The primary landscape feature on this property is a vegetable garden along the side of the cottage – a feature that can be seen from the roadway and is outlined by a simple rail fence and gate.

This kitchen garden has a central pathway that is flanked by two outbuildings that echo the symmetry and balance of the basic architecture. The outbuildings also lend a sense of depth to the design while being functional for storage.  The garden itself is a collection of production plants and perennials – effectively a mixing of the functional with the aesthetic.  The garden and the overall landscape also provide a transition to a side barn that is now used as a guest house and retreat.

The same principles applied in these three cases have been implemented to differing extents with many of the other Greek Revival homes throughout the neighborhood in ways that celebrate their individuality instead of locking them all into a rigid program that makes them seem too similar.  In other words, while there is a distinct stylistic resemblance, the solutions reached on different lots are individualized to the site, the clients, the lay of the land and myriad other factors that have been considered in developing the designs.

Of course, it hasn’t hurt this project that homeowners generally have been receptive to design concepts that rationalize the use of spaces and embrace such details as kitchen gardens.  It also helps that Cottrell’s approach has improved the looks of the properties he’s touched by making the surroundings supportive of and consistent with the architectural style of the homes.  In strictly commercial terms, the renovations have increased curb appeal in ways that have also increased property values.

But I see more here – a message that emerges from the preservation/restoration basis of his approach – that should be heard in the broader design community about the nature of historic styles (including the Greek Revival and many more as well) and the ways they can be applied in our work.

REACHING OUT

That message to the landscape trades operates on several levels.

For me as a professor teaching architects and landscape architects, for example, it starts on a grand scale where I see the value in Cottrell’s preservation/restoration projects and encourage work in these types of communities as a module or prototype to guide development of new communities.  At a time when much multi-dwelling design is based on loose (and in many cases excessively loose) application of old prototypes, might we not be well served by sticking with classic principles and pressing for a return to the clarity of the Greek and other key revivalist styles?

I’m not suggesting that we design based solely on rigid adherence to classic style principles.  Rather, what I hope to encourage at all levels – among those who design whole communities as well as those who work one yard at a time – is application of Cottrell’s methods in developing projects and laying out sites and creating design contexts that make sense.

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Around the corner from the church is a starkly modest cottage.  When visitors approach from the street, their eyes are drawn across the unadorned entrance and over to a large garden off a few paces to the right – large, fully visible, quite beautiful, obviously functional and just the sort of resource that serves its household as well today as it would have in the 1850s.

If we start from a functional, fundamental angle on site and then consider the goals of the overall landscape in context of the accompanying architecture, we can use what might be seen as pure stylistic principles as a point of departure, incorporating greater aesthetic appeal with a stronger design foundation than could ever be found by simply throwing in plants that “look good.”

Architecturally, the Attica properties are Greek Revival through and through and completely reflect their times, with garage access at the back and an array of other details that played a role in establishing landscapes that worked in these spaces for the original clients.  All of these properties have shallow front yards with entry walks that provide limited social distance between the front porch and the sidewalk, but other sites in other locales will offer distinct opportunities we can use to great effect if we are familiar with the design vocabularies they express.   

I can’t help thinking that it’s our responsibility as landscape professionals, no matter the scope of the project, to think about style, place and time in setting our approaches to design tasks.  This thoughtful practice, coupled with the current vogue among homeowners to appreciate historic design styles (as well as their willingness to integrate kitchen gardens and organic growing into their plans) tells me that a new generation is thinking in different and useful ways about where and how they live.  

By internalizing classic styles, approaches and sensibilities – and understanding the history and motivations behind their emergence – we can work with the vocabulary of the Greek Revival and other great styles and find all-new ways to make our marks on the general landscape without sacrificing integrity.

If the Attica case is any indication, compromise is not necessary, and the benefits to clients and properties alike can be spectacular.  

  
 
Gregory M. Pierceall was a professor of landscape architecture at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., for 28 years until his retirement in 2006 and a subsequent move to the University of Illinois.  He taught landscape architecture, landscape horticulture and design/build for 31 years and has written numerous books, including Residential Landscapes, Interiorscapes, Sitescapes, and An Illustrated Guide to Landscape Design, Construction and Management.  Pierceall received the International Award of Distinction from the Association of Professional Landscape Designers in 2004 and frequently lectures for green-industry associations and organizations and the Chicago Botanic Garden.  He also writes a monthly column for Illinois’ magazine for landscape contractors as well as for various design/build industry publications.

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