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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Garden Time Travel

While October is American Archives Month, the behind-the-scenes work needed to keep an archives running smoothly happens all year long. This past summer was a whirlwind for me as I completed an internship at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens (AAG).   Among the many projects I worked on, I helped process a portion of a recently donated collection.

Rudy J. Favretti, a noted landscape architect and author who specialized in the restoration of historic gardens, indicated his desire some years ago to AAG to find a permanent home for his design files where they would be accessible to future researchers.  The time was finally right this past spring; amidst working in his own garden in Connecticut, Professor Favretti packed up several boxes of file folders, images, and landscape plans to donate to AAG.

Very fortunately for AAG staff, the design files were meticulously organized by project-- beginning in 1955 with photos from Favretti’s Master’s thesis work--and include contracts, correspondence, research notes, clippings, and landscape plans that show how an original design or restoration project comes to fruition.  For an intern with a library science background, it was a dream to see the work of someone who understands the importance of having an effective organizational system in place! 

When Favretti began his career in the 1950s, there were few people involved with historic landscape restoration.  In the book Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings, co-authored by Professor Favretti and his wife Joy, and considered by many to be the reference for historic landscape restoration, they state that “grounds do not usually show the same degree of care and thoroughness in restoration that the buildings do, and the two do not work in unison to present a total picture.”  We expect historic houses and buildings to take us back in time, and it only makes sense that the outdoor landscape should offer the same time travel experience. 

Mount Vernon, parterre, c. 1930s. Hand-colored glass lantern slide.

Mount Vernon, parterre, 2011. Kayla Burns, photographer.
As I worked my way through Professor Favretti’s files it was fascinating to discover how many times the same landscape might be reworked, and by many different landscape architects.  This point further emphasizes the importance of the resources included in the Archives of American Gardens.  While studying historic images of George Washington’s Mount Vernon from the Garden Club of America Collection, one of the hundreds of old and new sites that Favretti worked on, I was struck by the similarities (and differences) between them and the ones I had taken on a recent trip to Mount Vernon.  With images, be they illustrations or photographs, it is much easier to recreate a garden’s layout and style and to understand what it was like to have stood in that particular garden, whether it was a century ago or just yesterday.

Kayla Burns, Intern
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens

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