Protecting Cultural Landscapes

By The Old House Web
Charles A. Birnbaum, ASLA

Table of Contents

Cultural landscapes can range from thousands of acres of ruraltractsof land to a small homestead with a front yard of lessthan one acre. Likehistoric buildings and districts, these specialplaces reveal aspects ofour country's origins and developmentthrough their form and features andthe ways they were used. Culturallandscapes also reveal much about ourevolving relationship withthe natural world.

A cultural landscape is defined as "a geographic area,includingboth cultural and natural resources and the wildlifeor domestic animalstherein, associated with a historic event,activity, or person or exhibitingother cultural or aestheticvalues." There are four general types ofcultural landscapes,not mutually exclusive: historic sites, historicdesigned landscapes,historicvernacular landscapes, and ethnographic landscapes.Theseare defined on the Table on page 2.1

Historic landscapes include residential gardensand communityparks, scenic highways, rural communities, institutionalgrounds, cemeteries,battlefields and zoological gardens. Theyare composed of a number of characterdefining features whichindividually or collectively contribute to the landscape'sphysicalappearance as they have evolved over time. In addition to vegetationandtopography, cultural landscapes may include water featuressuch as ponds,streams, and fountains; circulation features suchas roads, paths, steps,and walls; buildings; and furnishings,including fences, benches, lightsand sculptural objects.

Most historic properties have a cultural landscape component thatisintegral to the significance of the resource. Imagine a residentialdistrictwithout sidewalks, lawns and trees or a plantation withbuildings but noadjacent lands. A historic property consistsof all its cultural resources- landscapes, buildings, archeologicalsites and collections. In some culturallandscapes, there maybe a total absence of buildings.

This Preservation Brief provides preservation professionals, culturalresourcemanagers, and historic property owners a step-by-stepprocess for preservinghistoric designed and vernacular landscapes,two types of cultural landscapes.While this process is ideallyapplied to an entire landscape, it can addressa single featuresuch as a perennial garden, family burial plot, or a sentineloakin an open meadow. This Brief provides a framework and guidancefor 9 undertakingprojects to ensure a successful balance betweenhistoric preservation andchange.


Historic Designed Landscape - a landscape that wasconsciouslydesigned or laid out by a landscape architect, mastergardener, architect,or horticulturist according to design principles,or an amateur gardenerworking in a recognized style or tradition.The landscape may be associatedwith a significant person(s),trend, or event in landscape architecture;or illustrate an importantdevelopment in the theory and practice of landscapearchitecture.Aesthetic values play a significant role in designed landscapes.Examplesinclude parks, campuses, and estates.

Historic Vernacular Landscape - a landscape thatevolvedthrough use by the people whose activities or occupancyshaped that landscape.Through social or cultural attitudes ofan individual, family or a community,the landscape reflects thephysical, biological, and cultural characterof those everydaylives. Function plays a significant role in vernacularlandscapes.They can be a single property such as a farm or a collectionofproperties such as a district of historic farms along a rivervalley.Examples include rural villages, industrial complexes,and agriculturallandscapes.

Historic Site - a landscape significant for itsassociationwith a historic event, activity, or person. Examplesinclude battlefieldsand president's house properties.

Ethnographic Landscape - a landscape containinga varietyof natural and cultural resources that associated peopledefine as heritageresources. Examples are contemporary settlements,religious sacred sitesand massive geological structures. Smallplant communities, animals, subsistenceand ceremonial groundsare often components.

Developinga Strategy and Seeking Assistance

Nearly all designed and vernacular landscapes evolve from, orare oftendependent on, natural resources. It is these interconnectedsystems of land,air and water, vegetation and wildlife whichhave dynamic qualities thatdifferentiate cultural landscapesfrom other cultural resources, such ashistoric structures. Thus, their documentation,treatment, and ongoing managementrequire a comprehensive, multi-disciplinaryapproach.

Today, those involved in preservation planning and managementfor culturallandscapes represent a broad array of academic backgrounds,training, andrelated project experience. Professionals may haveexpertise in landscapearchitecture, history, landscape archeology,forestry, agriculture, horticulture,pomology, pollen analysis,planning, architecture, engineering (civil, structural,mechanical,traffic), cultural geography, wildlife, ecology, ethnography,interpretation,material and object conservation, landscape maintenanceand management.Historians and historic preservation professionalscan bring expertise inthe history of the landscape, architecture,art, industry, agriculture,society and other subjects. Landscapepreservation teams, including on-sitemanagement teams and independentconsultants, are often directed by a landscapearchitect withspecific expertise in landscape preservation. It is highlyrecommendedthat disciplines relevant to the landscapes' inherent featuresberepresented as well.

Additional guidance may be obtained from State Historic PreservationOffices,local preservation commissions, the National Park Service,local and statepark agencies, national and state chapters ofthe American Society of LandscapeArchitects, the Alliance forHistoric Landscape Preservation, the NationalAssociation of OlmstedParks, and the Catalog of Landscape Records in theUnited Statesat Wave Hill among others.2

A range of issues may need to be addressed when considering howa particularcultural landscape should be treated. This may includethe in-kind replacementof declining vegetation, reproductionof furnishings, rehabilitation ofstructures, accessibility provisionsfor people with disabilities, or thetreatment of industrial propertiesthat are rehabilitated for new uses.

PreservationPlanning for Cultural Landscapes

Careful planning prior to undertaking work can help prevent irrevocabledamageto a cultural landscape. Professional techniques for identifying,documenting,evaluating and preserving cultural landscapes haveadvanced during the past25 years and are continually being refined.Preservation planning generallyinvolves the following steps:historical research; inventory and documentationof existing conditions;site analysis and evaluation of integrity and significance;developmentof a cultural landscape preservation approach and treatmentplan;development of a cultural landscape management plan and managementphilosophy;the development of a strategy for ongoing maintenance;and preparation ofa record of treatment and future research recommendations.

The steps in this process are not independent of each other, norarethey always sequential. In fact, information gathered in onestep may leadto a re-examination or refinement of previous steps.For example, fieldinventory and historical research are likelyto occur simultaneously, andmay reveal unnoticed cultural resourcesthat should be protected.

The treatment and management of cultural landscape should alsobe consideredin concert with the management of an entire historicproperty. As a result,many other studies may be relevant. Theyinclude management plans, interpretiveplans, exhibit design,historic structures reports, and other.

These steps can result in several products including a CulturalLandscapeReport (also known as a Historic Landscape Report),statements for management,interpretive guide, maintenance guideand maintenance records.

Cultural Landscape Reports

A Cultural Landscape Report (CLR) is the primary report that documentsthehistory, significance and treatment of a cultural landscape.A CLR evaluatesthe history and integrity of the landscape includingany changes to itsgeographical context, features, materials,and use.

CLWs are often prepared when a change (e.g. a new visitor's centerorparking area to a landscape) is proposed. In such instances,a CLR can bea useful tool to protect the landscape's character-definingfeatures fromundue wear, alteration or loss. A CLR can providemanagers, curators andothers with information needed to makemanagement decisions.

A CLR will often yield new information about a landscape's historicsignificanceand integrity, even for those already listed on theNational Register. Whereappropriate, National Register filesshould be amended to reflect the newfindings.

Historical Research

Research is essential before undertaking any treatment. Findingswillhelp identify a landscape's historic period(s) of ownership,occupancy anddevelopment, and bring greater understanding ofthe associations and characteristicsthat make the landscape orhistory significant. Research findings providea foundation tomake educated decisions for work, and can also facilitateongoingmaintenance and management operations, interpretation and eventualcompliancerequirements.

A variety of primary and secondary sources may be consulted. Primaryarchivalsources can include historic plans, surveys, plats, taxmaps, atlases, U.S. Geological Survey maps, soil profiles, aerialphotographs, photographs,stereoscopic views, glass lantern slides,postcards, engravings, paintings,newspapers, journals, constructiondrawings, specifications, plant lists,nursery catalogs, householdrecords, account books and personal correspondence.Secondarysources include monographs, published histories, theses, NationalRegisterforms, survey data, local preservation plans, state contextsand scholarlyarticles.

Contemporary documentary resources should also be consulted. Thismayinclude recent studies, plans, surveys, aerial and infraredphotographs,Soil Conservation Service soil maps, inventories,investigations and interviews.Oral histories of residents, managers,and maintenance personnel with along tenure or historical associationcan be valuable sources of informationabout changes to a landscapeover many years. Forproperties listed inthe National Register, nomination forms should be consulted.

Preparing Period Plans

In the case of designed landscapes, even though a historic designplanexists, it does not necessarily mean that it was realizedfully, or evenin part. Based on a review of the archival resourcesoutlined above, andthe extant landscape today, an as-builtperiod plan may be delineated.For all successive tenures of ownership, occupancyand landscape change,period pl us should be generated. Periodplans can document to the greatestextent possible the historic appearanceduring a particular periodof ownership, occupancy, or development. Periodplans should bebased on primary archival sources and should avoid conjecture.Featuresthat are based on secondary or less accurate sourcesshould be graphicallydifferentiated. Ideally, all referencedarchival sources should be annotatedand footnoted directly onperiod plans.

Where historical data is missing, period plans should reflectany gapsin the CLR narrative text and these limitations consideredin future treatmentdecisions (See Treatments for Cultural Landscapeson page 13.)

Inventorying and Documenting Existing Conditions

Both physical evidence in the landscape and historic documentationguidethe historic preservation plan and treatments. To documentexisting conditions,intensive field investigation and reconnaissanceshould be conducted atthe same time that documentary researchis being gathered. Information shouldbe exchanged among preservationprofessionals, historians, technicians,local residents, managersand visitors.

To assist in the survey process, National Register Bulletins havebeenpublished by the National Park Service to aid in identifying,nominatingand evaluating designed and rural historic landscapes.Additionally, Bulletinsare available for specific landscape typessuch as battlefields, miningsites, and cemeteries.6

Although there are several ways to inventory and document a landscape,thegoal is to create a baseline from a detailed record of thelandscape andits features as they exist at the present (consideringseasonal variations).7Each landscape inventory should addressissues of boundary delineation,documentation methodologies and techniques, the limitationsof the inventory,and the scope of inventory efforts. These aremost often influenced by thetimetable, budget, project scope,and the purpose of the inventory and,depending on the physicalqualities of the property, its scale, detail,and the interrelationshipbetween natural and cultural resources. For example,inventoryobjectives to develop a treatment plan may differ considerablycomparedto those needed to develop an ongoing maintenance plan.Once the criteriafor a landscape inventory are developed andtested, the methodology shouldbe explained.

Preparing Existing Condition Plans

Inventory and documentation may be recorded in plans, sections,photographs,aerial photographs, axonometric perspectives, narratives,video-or any combinationof techniques. Existing conditions shouldgenerally be documented to scale,drawn by hand or generated bycomputer. The scale of the drawings is oftendetermined by thesize and complexity of the landscape. Some landscapesmay requiredocumentation at more than one scale. For example, a large estatemaybe documented at a small scale to depict its spatialand visual relationships,while the discrete area around an estate mansionmay require a larger scaleto illustrate individual plant materials,pavement patterns and other details.The same may apply to anentire rural historic district and a fencedvegetable garden containedwithin.

When landscapes are documented in photographs, registrationpointscan be set to indicate the precise location and orientationof features.Registration points should correspond to significantforms, features and spatial relationships within the landscapeandits surrounds. The points mayalso correspondto historic views to illustrate the change in the landscapetodate. These locations may also be used as a management tool todocumentthe landscape's evolution, and to ensure that its character-definingfeaturesare preserved over time through informed maintenanceoperations and latertreatment and management decisions.

All features that contribute to the landscape's historic charactershouldbe recorded. These include the physical features describedon page 1 (e.g.topography, circulation), and the visual and spatialrelationships thatare character defining. The identificationof existing plants, should bespecific, including genus, species,common name, age (if known) and size.The woody, and if appropriate,herbaceous plant material should be accuratelylocated on theexisting conditions map. To ensure full representation ofsuccessionalherbaceous plants, care should be taken to document the landscapeindifferent seasons, if possible.

Treating living plant materials as a curatorial collection hasalso beenundertaken at some cultural landscapes. This process,either done manuallyor by computer, can track the condition andmaintenance operations on individualplants. Some sites, suchas the Frederick Law Olmsted National HistoricSite, in Brookline,Massachusetts have developed a field investigation numberingsystemto track all woody plants. (See Table, page 9) Due to concernforthe preservation of genetic diversity and the need to replacesignificantplant materials, a number of properties are beginningto propagate historicallyimportant rare plants that are no longercommercially available, unique,or possess significant historicassociations. Such herbarium collectionsbecome a part of a site'snatural history collection.

Once the research and the documentation of existing conditionshave beencompleted, a foundation is in place to analyze the landscape'scontinuityand change, determine its significance, assess itsintegrity, and placeit within the historic context of similarlandscapes.

Reading the Landscape

A noted geographer stated, "The attempt to derive meaningfrom landscapespossesses overwhelming virtue. It keeps us constantlyalert to the worldaround us, demanding that we pay attentionnot just to some of the thingsaround us but to all of them-thewhole visible world in all of its rich,glorious, messy, confusing,ugly, and beautiful complexity."4

Landscapes can be read on many levels-landscape as nature, habitat,artifact,system, problem, wealth, ideology, history, place andaesthetic.5 When developinga strategy to document a culturallandscape, it is important to attemptto read the landscape inits context of place and time.

Reading the landscape, like engaging in archival research, requiresaknowledge of the resource and subject area as well as a willingnessto beskeptical. As with archival research, it may involve serendipitousdiscoveries.Evidence gained from reading the landscape may confirmor contradict otherfindings and may encourage the observer andthe historian to revisit bothprimary and secondary sources with a fresh outlook.Landscape investigationmay also stimulate other forms of researchand survey, such as oral historiesor archeological investigations,to supplement what appeared on-site.

There are many ways to read a landscape-whatever approach is takenshouldprovide a broad overview. This may be achieved by combiningon-the-groundobservations with a bird's-eye perspective. To beginthis process, aerialphotographs should be reviewed to gain anorientation to the landscape andits setting. Aerial photographscome in different sizes and scales, andcan thus portray differentlevels of detail in the landscape. Aerial photographstaken ata high altitude, for example, may help to reveal remnant fieldpatternsor traces of an abandoned circulation system; or, portionsof axial relationshipsthat were part of the original design,since obscured by encroaching woodlandareas. Low altitude aerialphotographs can point out individual featuressuch as the arrangementof shrub and herbaceous borders, and the exact locationsof furnishings,lighting, and fence alignments. This knowledge can provebeneficialbefore an on-site visit.

Aerial photographs provide clues that can help orient the viewerto thelandscape. The next step may be to view the landscape froma high pointsuch as a knoll or an upper floor window. Such avantage point may providean excellent transition before physicallyentering the cultural landscape.

On ground, evidence should then be studied, including character-definingfeatures,visual and spatial relationships. By reviewing supportingmaterials fromhistoric research, individual features can be understoodin a systematicfashion that show the continuum that exists onthe ground today. By classifyingthese features and relationships,the landscape can be understood as anartifact, possessing evidenceof evolving natural systems and human interventionsover time.

For example, the on-site investigation of an abandoned turn-of-the-centuryfarmcomplex reveals the remnant of a native oak and pine forestwhich was cutand burned in the mid-nineteenth century. This previoususe is confirmedby a small stand of mature oaks and the presenceof these plants in theemerging secondary woodland growth thatis overtaking this farm complexin decline. A ring count of thetrees can establish a more accurate age.By reading othercharacter-defining features-such as the traces ofold roads, remnanthedgerows, ornamental trees along boundary roads, foundationplantings,the terracing of grades and remnant fences -the visual, spatialandcontextual relationships of the property as it existed a centuryago maybe understood and its present condition and integrityevaluated.

The findings of on-site reconnaissance, such as materials uncoveredduringarchival research, may be considered primary data. Thesefindings make itpossible to inventory and evaluate the landscape'sfeatures in the contextof the property's current condition. Character-definingfeatures are locatedin situ, in relationship to each other andthe greater cultural and geographiccontexts.

Historic Plant Inventory

Within cultural landscapes, plants may have historical or botanicalsignificance.A plant may have been associated with a historicfigure or event or be partof a notable landscape design. A plantmay be an uncommon cultivar, exceptionalin size, age, rare andcommercially/ unavailable. If such plants are lost,there wouldbe a loss of historic integrity and biological diversity ofthecultural landscape. To ensure that significant plants are preserved,aninventory of historic plants is being conducted at the NorthAtlantic Regionof the National Park Service.8 Historical landscapearchitects work withlandscape managers and historians to gatheroral and documented historyon the plant's origin and potentialsignificance. Each plant is then examinedin the field by an experthorticulturist who records its name, condition,age, size, distribution,and, any notable botanic characteristics.

Plants that are difficult to identify or are of potential historicalsignificanceare further examined in the laboratory by a planttaxonomist who comparesleaf, fruit, and flower characteristicswith herbarium specimens for namedspecies, cultivars and varieties.For plants species with many cultivars,such as apples, roses,and grapes, specimens may be sent to specialistsfor identification.

If a plant cannot be identified, is dying or in decline, and unavailablefromcommercial nurseries, it may be propagated. Propagation ensuresthat whenrare and significant plants decline, they can be replacedwith genetically-identicalplants. Cuttings are propagated andgrown to replacement size in a NorthAtlantic Region HistoricPlant Nursery.

  • 1. The Arnold Arboretum's preservation technician, lilac specialist,andhorticulturist compare lilacs from the Vanderbilt MansionNational HistoricSite in Hyde Park, New York with lilac specimensin the Arboretum's livingcollection. (courtesy Olmsted Center)
  • 2. The Arnold Arboretum's horticulturist and preservationtechnicianexamine an enormous black locust tree at the Home ofF.D. Roosevelt NationalHistoric Site in Hyde Park, NY. (courtesyOlmsted Center)
  • 3. The Arnold Arboretum's horticulturist, landscape historian,and preservationtechnician examine shrubs at the Longfellow NationalHistoric Site in Cambridge,MA. (courtesy Olmsted Center)

    Site Analysis: Evaluating Integrity and Significance

    By analyzing the landscape, its change over time can be understood.Thismay be accomplished by overlaying the various period planswith the existingconditions plan. Based on these findings, individualfeatures may be attributedto the particular period when theywere introduced, and the various periodswhen they were present.

    It is during this step that the historic significance ofthe landscapecomponent of a historic property and its integrityare determined. Historicsignificance is the recognized importancea property displays when it hasbeen evaluated, including whenit has been found to meet National RegisterCriteria.9 A landscapemay have several areas of historical significance.An understandingof the landscape as a continuum through history is criticalinassessing its cultural and historic value. In order for the landscapetohave integrity, these character-defining features or qualitiesthat contributeto its significance must be present.

    While National Register nominations document the significanceand integrityof historic properties, in general, they may notacknowledge the significanceof the landscape's design or historicland uses, and may not contain aninventory of landscape featuresor characteristics. Additional researchis often necessary toprovide the detailed information about a landscape'sevolutionand significance useful in making decision for the treatment andmaintenanceof a historic landscape. Existing National Registerforms may be amendedto recognize additional areas of significanceand to include more completedescriptions of historic propertiesthat have significant land areas andlandscape features.

    Integrity is a property's historic identity evidenced bythe survivalof physical characteristics from the property's historicor prehistoricperiod. The seven qualities of integrity are location,setting, feeling,association, design, workmanship and materials.10When evaluating thesequalities, care should be taken to considerchange itself. For example,when a second-generation woodlandovertakes an open pasture in a battlefieldlandscape, or a woodlandedge encloses a scenic vista. For situations suchas these, thereversibility and/or compatibility of those features shouldbeconsidered, both individually, and in the context of the overalllandscape.Together, evaluations of significance and integrity,when combined withhistoric

    research, documentation of existing conditions, and analysis findings,influencelater treatment and interpretation decisions.

    Developinga Historic Preservation Approach and Treatment Plan

    Treatment may be defined as work carried out to achieve a historicpreservationgoal-it cannot be considered in a vacuum. There aremany practical and philosophicalfactors that may influence theselection of a treatment for a landscape.These include the relativehistoric value of the property, the level ofhistoric documentation,existing physical conditions, its historic significanceand integrity,historic and proposed use (e.g. educational, interpretive,passive,active public, institutional or private), long- and short-termobjectives,operational and code requirements (e.g. accessibility,fire, security) andcosts for anticipated capital improvement,staffing and maintenance. Thevalue of any significant archeologicaland natural resources should alsobe considered in the decision-making process. Therefore,a cultural landscape'spreservation plan and the treatment selectedwill consider a broad arrayof dynamic and interrelated considerations.It will often take the formof a plan with detailed guidelinesor specifications.

    Adopting such a plan, in concert with a preservation maintenanceplan(page 18-19), acknowledges a cultural landscape's ever-changingexistenceand the interrelationship of treatment and ongoing maintenance.Performancestandards, scheduling and record keeping of maintenanceactivities on aday-to-day or month-to-month basis, may then beplanned for. Treatment,management, and maintenance proposalscan be developed by a broad rangeof professionals and with expertisein such fields as landscape preservation,horticulture, ecology,and landscape maintenance.

    The selection of a primary treatment for the landscape, utilizingtheSecretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment ofHistoric Properties,establishes an overall historic preservationapproach, as well as a philosophicalframework from which to operate.Selecting a treatment is based on manyfactors. They include managementand interpretation objectives for the propertyas a whole, theperiod(s) of significance, integrity, and condition of individuallandscapefeatures.

    For all treatments, the landscape's existing conditions and itsabilityto convey historic significance should be carefully considered.For example,the life work, design philosophy and extant legacyof an individual designershould all be understood for a designedlandscape such as an estate, priorto treatment selection. Fora vernacular landscape, such as a battlefieldcontaining a largelyintact mid-nineteenth century family farm, the uniquenessof thatagrarian complex within a local, regional, state, and nationalcontextshould be considered in selecting a treatment.

    The overall historic preservation approach and treatment approachcanensure the proper retention, care, and repair of landscapesand their inherentfeatures.11 In short, the Standards act asa preservation and managementtool for cultural landscapes. Thefour potential treatments are describedin the box opposite.

    Landscape treatments can range from simple, inexpensive preservationactions,to complex major restoration or reconstruction projects.The progressiveframework is inverse in proportion to the retentionof historic featuresand materials. Generally, preservation involvesthe least change, and isthe most respectful of historic materials.It maintains the form and materialof the existing landscape.Rehabilitation usually accommodates contemporaryalterations oradditions without altering significant historic featuresor materials,with successful projects involving minor to major change.Restorationor reconstruction attempts to recapture the appearance of aproperty,or an individual feature at a particular point in time, as confirmedbydetailed historic documentation. These last two treatmentsmost often requirethe greatest degree of intervention and thus,the highest level of documentation.

    In all cases, treatment should be executed at the appropriatelevel reflectingthe condition of the

    Search Improvement Project