Manhattan’s Last Arcadia: Estate Plans from the Index of American Design (1936)

Scattered amongst the 18,257 watercolor, crayon, chalk, charcoal, and color pencil drawings of folk, decorative, and industrial art executed between 1936 and 1942 for the Index of American Design (IAD) are a handful of aerial views of handsome country estates, whose curvilinear drives meander through sweeping lawns, clumps of evergreen trees, and arabesque flowerbeds bordered by neatly cropped topiary and hedgerows. Some of the picturesque landscapes are punctuated with craggy bedrock knolls and steep escarpments. A few of the drawings include close-up views of fountains, gazebos, benches, and lawn ornaments. Mostly labeled “Blackwell’s Survey”, and occasionally bearing the date “1860”, these watercolors depict the semi-rural terrain of northern Manhattan just before it began to urbanize in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.

Assembled under the direction of muralist George Stonehill, the images of more than two-dozen country estates in upper Manhattan’s Audubon Park, Fort Washington, Carmansville, Tubby Hook, and Kings Bridge (now coalesced into the Washington Heights, Fort George, and Inwood neighborhoods) were exhibited in the summer of 1936 at the Arden Gallery on Park Avenue. The Index of American Design had been born but a few blocks away the previous summer when Ramona Javitz, artist and curator of the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection, and Ruth Reeves, a textile designer who frequently used the NYPL collection for design inspiration, conceived a project that would create a chronicle of American design to rival the Library’s massive Eurocentric archive.

Though historical American gardens had originally been one of the Index’s intended documentary subjects, this suite of drawings was one of the only projects in the vast IAD oeuvre to capture America’s most transient treasure, the landscape. The impetus came from art historian William Schack. As Head Research Worker of the IAD’s Historic Gardens Unit, he had stumbled upon a manuscript survey executed between 1860 and 1864 by engineer E. R. Blackwell, who had been tasked by New York City to lay out streets above 155th Street, the terminus of the city’s 1811 grid plan. Perhaps stunned to find such a well-preserved Arcadia so close to the heart of America’s premier metropolis, Blackwell had not only shown the estate buildings and grounds on the survey map, but drafted enlarged renderings on the back of the manuscript.

After reproducing the views in Blackwell’s renderings, seven IAD artists — influenced by the pioneering landscape architecture pattern books of Andrew Jackson Downing, Jacob Weidenmann, and their own prodigious imaginations — supplied color, shade, and texture far beyond the elements recorded by Blackwell. IAD artists were typically instructed to hew closely to documentary representation, and to resist the very creative interpretation that their renderings were meant to inspire in peers who might use the Index images for their own design endeavors. In these watercolors, however, the Victorian era estate landscape was given a distinctly modernist aesthetic; the artists’ renderings might have come straight from a contemporary issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine.

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Left: Detail from E. R. Blackwell’s survey of I. P. Martin’s and M. Ward’s gardens, ca. 1864. Right: Helen Miller and William Merklin’s watercolour rendering of the same, ca. 1936 — Source: left, right.

The 1860s — when the Blackwell survey concluded and the breaking up of the upper Manhattan estates started in earnest — is considered the beginning of American landscape architecture as a formal profession and practice. A revised history of both landscape architecture and conservation in New York might reach back farther to the older estates depicted in the images gathered here, which Wall Street brokers and bankers, publishers, department store magnates, and real estate speculators fashioned in concert with their wives, children, and hired hands. The Audubon Homestead was built in 1842 by artist-naturalist John James Audubon and his wife Lucy, whose family nickname “Minnie” was given to the fourteen-acre farm they called “Minnie’s Land”. Growing up on the estate of his merchant and stockbroker father George Blake Grinnell, naturalist and Forest & Stream editor George Bird Grinnell took his earliest tutelage in natural history from their neighbor Lucy Audubon. The legendary Eliza Jumel, ex-wife of Aaron Burr, began gardening on the Jumel Estate in 1815, when laborers — very possibly enslaved — planted the “Bonaparte Cypresses” brought back from the Tuileries Garden by her wine merchant husband Stephen.

Like most of his well-heeled Fort Washington neighbors, New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett resisted the city’s encroaching urbanization initiative, certain that this landscape had a different destiny:

There is nothing in the suburbs of London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna or any city in Europe to compare with it. If it is kept out of the hands of jobbers and speculators, and allowed to grow up, as it is doing, under the direction of the proprietors, it will become in ten or fifteen years one of the most beautiful faubourgs of any city in the world, and infinitely a superior location for the fine residences of merchants and others to Fifth Avenue or the Central Park.

Less than a year after Bennett’s death in 1918, the executors of his estate auctioned off five hundred building lots; his graciously curving cinder-covered drives, ornate parterre, and other plantings soon vanished beneath macadam and modern “garden” apartment buildings.

The gallery below includes all of the Index of American Design renderings based on the Blackwell Survey. They are arranged roughly in geographical order — progressing northward from 155th Street to the island’s end at Spuyten Duyvil Creek.

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