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The Genius of Place


October 27, 2020

From The Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens

Many gardens included in The Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens hold a proud distinction: they embody design principles developed by the renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903). In addition to establishing a firm that had a hand in the design of more than 6,000 landscapes and gardens for over a century, Olmsted published influential theories about landscape design that transformed how people composed and maintained the outdoor space around them. Olmsted scholars have distilled Olmsted’s ideas down to a list of six design principles.

Here is Principle One:  

Eighteenth century landscape gardener Humphry Repton wrote that “all rational improvement of grounds is necessarily founded on a due attention to the character and situation of the place to be improved.” Olmsted adopted Repton’s idea by recognizing the inherent genius of the spaces he designed. Olmsted recommended intensely studying a site before embarking on a design and utilizing the unique features of the space, even its apparent disadvantages. At the end of his career, Olmsted told his ex-business partner Calvert Vaux, “The great merit of all the works you and I have done is that in them the larger opportunities of the topography have not been wasted.”

Olmsted implemented “genius of the place” in his design of Wildacre, a garden atop a salt water cove in Newport, Rhode Island. He embraced Wildacre’s unique, rocky outcroppings by keeping them bare and blended them into his Japanese-themed design, which also featured a koi pond and tea shelter.     

Other landscape architects embrace Olmsted’s principle today, although in several different ways. At Jefcoat Garden in Laurel, Mississippi, designer Edward Blake, Jr. highlighted the site’s steep slope by placing plant containers (made of recycled farm troughs) along the natural topographical contours. In Scottsdale, Arizona, Heidi Riggs celebrated the unique desert climate by turning her driveway into a xeriscape garden with plants that required little irrigation. Thanks in no small part to Olmsted, contemporary designers incorporate the ingenious qualities of the land on which they build their gardens. 




Beveridge, Charles. “Olmsted—His Essential Theory,”, National Association of Olmsted Parks, undated. 

“Design Principles,”, National Association of Olmsted Parks, undated.

Images from The Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens.

By Alanna Natanson, GCA Garden History & Design Intern at AAG. June 2020.


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