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Putting landscape preservation on solid ground

HOW do you go about preserving historic and cultural landscapes, views, and vistas? First, says landscape architect Patricia O'Donnell, you have to identify them. This is a big job in a country that for years has devoted attention to historic preservation of buildings, but not necessarily to what surrounds them.

``Most Americans do not consider the landscape to be something `preservable,' '' Mrs. O'Donnell explains. ``They think it is just there and is not influenced by people nor of historic value.''

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Landscapes in the United States, she says, can be classified into three broad groups:

Designed landscapes that are specifically created by a professional or an avid amateur.

Cultural landscapes that are related to a specific function, such as agriculture, and are thus changed over time by human intervention.

Natural landscapes, which are relatively unchanged by human influence.

Designed and cultural landscapes may have historic value. But so far this landscape legacy has received limited attention in the regional, state, and national historical resource inventories initiated in 1966 by the Historic Preservation Act.

When O'Donnell became chairwoman of the American Society of Landscape Architects' Committee on Historic Preservation in 1982, insufficient examples of landscape preservation had been accumulated, and no widely shared conceptual framework for doing the job existed, she says. Through the work of her committee, a proposed terminology for landscape preservation is being widely circulated.

The introduction of the Olmsted Historic Landscapes act in Congress in 1983, and again in 1984, marked the first national attempt to recognize the value of designed historic landscapes. The bill was passed in the House, but is still in committee in the Senate. This act provides for recognition of the works of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., his sons, associates, and professional descendants. More than 2,000 Olmsted Legacy Landscapes were constructed in 37 states from 1858 to 1949.

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Olmsted's landscape design is reflected in more than 80 public parks in the US, including New York's Central Park, and he designed the general scheme for preserving the natural beauty at Niagara Falls.

In May 1984 the ASLA Committee on Historic Preservation launched the National Historic Landscapes Survey to identify historically valuable landscapes. The volunteer effort will take a decade or more to complete, O'Donnell says. The committee, she explains, is working through local chapters in collaboration with interested individuals and local, state, and national groups, such as garden clubs, historical societies, state historic preservation offices, and the National Park Service.

Some areas of the country had already made considerable progress in designating and preserving landscape areas before the ASLA began its 1984 landscape survey. For example, in New York City a nonprofit organization of concerned citizens called the Central Park Conservancy works in cooperation with the city park commissioner in raising funds for park renovation. Over the last five years it has raised more than $12 million.

In Massachusetts, the Department of Environmental Management has been cataloging cultural and designed landscapes for over five years and recently began a ``City and Town Commons'' preservation program. This office has also set aside $15 million for the restoration of 10 Olmsted landscapes.

An awareness of landscape sites has also surfaced in New Mexico. Since the early 1980s the state Historic Preservation Division of the Office of Cultural Affairs has recorded more than 200 historic landscapes, ranging from early Spanish village plazas, missions, and courtyard gardens to large public parks built with government money in the 1930s during the New Deal.

Santa Fe's central plaza, which was designated as a national historic landmark in 1966, serves as a prototype of the current landscapes being considered for recognition in New Mexico. Santa Fe's plaza lies next to the historic Palace of the Governors, which served as the center of Spanish government from 1610 to 1846 -- except for a dozen years in the late 1600s when it was occupied by Pueblo Indians during their revolt. The plazas of Western regions with their governmental buildings are akin to the com mons and town halls of Eastern regions.

As the ASLA national survey progresses, results will be added to a National Data File of designed and cultural historic landscapes recently developed by the National Park Service.

``Once we have gathered the history and existing-condition information,'' says O'Donnell, ``we can begin to determine the value of these landscapes and how best to preserve and protect them. The next step will be the development of local preservation strategies at the grass-roots level.'' It is local groups and individuals, she says, that must promote initial interest in these landscapes, seek funds to preserve them, and work with city and state governments.

Landscape preservation, she adds, should not consist just of rescuing the grounds around such famous buildings as Mount Vernon and Monticello and the buildings of Colonial Williamsburg. It should also mean protecting gardens, parks, parkways, streetscapes, farms, battlefields, forts, and monument grounds.

It should include neighborhood areas, too, she says, such as small parks and friendly open spaces -- those elements of an environment that convey a particular sense of place and are SOLIDSOLID important to the people who live there.

``These can become elusive unless someone pays attention and thinks they are important and worth keeping,'' O'Donnell says. ``We don't usually think of them as being something historic. But when they are gone, we suffer pangs of nostalgia for the way things used to look.''

For information about the ASLA Committee on Historic Preservation or the National Survey of Historic Landscapes, contact Rod Mercer, Staff Landscape Architect, ASLA National Headquarters, 1733 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20009.

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