A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era

The UMass Amherst Libraries host A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era, a panel exhibition from the Library of American Landscape History, through Saturday, May 10, 2014, on the Lower Level of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, UMass Amherst. An opening reception on Wednesday, March 5, at 4:30 p.m., includes remarks by Robin Karson, author and curator, and Carol Betsch, photographer. The event is free and open to the public. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, new fortunes in the United States made it possible for many city dwellers to commission country estates. Rising cultural aspirations, a widespread belief in the salutary benefits of country life, the availability of beautiful land, and growing numbers of landscape practitioners set the stage for thousands of such places. From the 1890s to the waning years of the Great Depression, legions of American estates were constructed on the outskirts of cities, in resorts, and in scenic locales throughout the nation. Taken together, they comprise an important movement in the history of North American landscape design. Seven examples are the subject of this photographic exhibition: Gwinn, Cleveland, Ohio; Stan Hywet, Akron, Ohio; Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.; Winterthur, Winterthur, Del.; Ford House, Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich.; Val Verde, Santa Barbara, Calif.; and Naumkeag, Stockbridge, Mass. About the Exhibition A Genius for Place was a collaboration between Robin Karson, a landscape historian, and Carol Betsch, a landscape photographer. Karson studied hundreds of historical landscapes and selected seven to represent the chronological development of an important movement in American landscape design. Over the course of five years, she and Betsch selected views that would reveal and illuminate the designers’ intentions and express the spirit of each place. Betsch created the photographs with a 4 x 5 wood field camera. Both the book and exhibition trace the development of American landscape design by analyzing a group of landscapes that were chosen for their significance, state of preservation, and chronological and geographical distribution. Most are open to the public today. Karson argues that the spirit of the place--the genius loci--continued to guide these twentieth-century practitioners, even as they began experimenting with other influences, from the Beaux Arts to modernism. The award-winning book has drawn wide praise. The London Telegraph identified it as the “most important book on American gardens for at least a decade.” An exhibition of original photographs specially commissioned for the book toured nationally from 2000 to 2012. A Genius for Place In conjunction with the touring show, the Library of American Landscape History (LALH) and the University of Massachusetts Press have published a paperback edition of A Genius for Place. Robin Karson’s published works include Fletcher Steele, Landscape Architect; The Muses of Gwinn, Pioneers of American Landscape Design (co-editor), A Genius for Place, and more than one hundred articles about American landscape design. She is the founding director of LALH, based in Amherst, Mass. Carol Betsch (b. 1948) has been a landscape photographer for more than thirty-five years. Her photographs appear in The Winterthur Garden; The Muses of Gwinn; The Gardens of Ellen Biddle Shipman; A Modern Arcadia, and many other books and articles about American landscape design. She is the managing editor of the University of Massachusetts Press. Founded in 1992, LALH is a non-profit organization. Its mission is to foster understanding of the fine art of landscape architecture and appreciation for North America’s richly varied landscape heritage through LALH books, exhibitions, and online resources. Photo: Winterthur by Carol Betsch