Perspectives on Parks

Adorned with blossoms of all kinds, Washington, D.C.’s beauty is especially noticeable inside and around its many parks at this time of year.  Fortunately, it’s possible to find reminders of the pioneers who had the foresight to make such beautiful parks possible.  One of them is a monument to Andrew Jackson Downing. Who?  It turns out he was pretty much a celebrity in the emergent landscaping and horticultural profession in the U.S. in the first half of the 19th century.  He was attuned to developing an American style that borrowed from, but was not simply a copy of, European tastes at the time.

Downing Memorial Wide View

Illustration: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

While still a young man, Andrew Jackson Downing–a landscape architect and botanist–had a huge influence (though his design proposals for Washington were not adopted in the end–one learns upon reading more about about him) on the parks of Washington, D.C. as well as on the plans for Central Park in New York, his home state.  A memorial urn in his name can be found in the gardens behind the red-brick Smithsonian Castle across the street from the U.S. Department of Energy.  It was moved to this location from New York State in 1856, a few years after his accidental death before the age of 40.   An inscription (from Downing’s Rural Essays) on the urn reads:

“The taste of an individual, as well as that of a nation, will be in direct proportion to the profound sensibility with which he perceives the beautiful in natural scenery. Open wide, therefore, the doors of your libraries and picture galleries all ye true republicans! Build halls where knowledge shall be freely diffused among men, and not shut up within the narrow walls of narrower institutions. Plant spacious parks in your cities, and unclose their gates as wide as the gates of morning to the whole people.”

Just as relevant today as it was in the mid-19th century!


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