Hartford residents rightly take pride in Bushnell Park (1860), the nation's first urban park built with public funds. Though it looks like a bit of untouched nature in the middle of the city, the park isn't really natural. It is a totally human-made design that came about through an early example of urban renewal.
The skillful transformation of slums and factories into bucolic trees and lawns has led to the common notion that the park was designed by the renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. That's easy to believe; Olmsted was a founder of the profession of landscape architecture, one of the team that designed and built Central Park — and one of Hartford's most famous native sons.
But it isn't so. Bushnell Park was designed by another man, whose name has long lain in undeserved obscurity: Jacob Weidenmann (1829-1893). His life and work are finally getting some long-overdue attention, thanks to "Jacob Weidenmann: Pioneer Landscape Architect," a new book written by Rudy Favretti and published last year by the Cedar Hill Cemetery Foundation in cooperation with Wesleyan University Press.
Born in Switzerland, Weidenmann realized early on that he wanted to design landscapes. At a time when landscape architecture did not yet exist as a profession, he managed to cobble together a education that combined architecture, engineering, sketching and botany, all of which would be of use to him in his career, and supplemented these studies with travel to California, Panama and South America before settling in the United States in 1856.
After a few years in New York, Weidenmann moved to Hartford, where he enjoyed the most successful period of his career. Professional reversals led him to move back to New York in 1874 and he spent the rest of his life there, except for a brief and unsuccessful attempt to establish a practice in Chicago.
In the last 20 years of his life, Weidenmann struggled to maintain his practice. Fortunately, whenever things seemed bleakest, Olmsted helped him find work. It's a sad story of talent not fully realized, but in the end the quality of his works outweighs the sorrow. Among them are the grounds of the Iowa state Capitol, a park in Saratoga (both of which survive), federal facilities in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, and residential landscapes in Connecticut, New York and the Midwest.
Weidenmann's legacy goes beyond his landscape designs. He also worked to establish landscape architecture as a recognized profession. To educate the public of the importance of good landscape design, he published two books — "Beautifying Country Homes" (1870) and "Modern Cemeteries" (1888) — and started a third. To supply well-trained professionals, he took apprentices into his office and drew up curricula for professional education. (It's interesting that his triple-headed career has found a parallel in that of Rudy Favretti, who also is a landscape architect, an author and an emeritus UConn professor.)
But it's the landscapes that lie at the heart of Weidenmann's life work. Hartford boasts more of Weidenmann's surviving designs than any other place. In addition to Bushnell Park, there is Cedar Hill Cemetery (1863), the city's contribution to the rural cemetery movement that swept the nation.
On Main Street, the garden of the Butler-McCook house (1865), now owned by the Antiquarian and Landmarks Society, shows how homeowners increasingly turned to professionals to combine utility and beauty around their homes. Also in Hartford, Weidenmann oversaw the implementation of Olmsted's and Calvert Vaux's plan for the Retreat for the Insane, now the Institute of Living (1861), where winding paths and lush plantings created a naturalistic landscape intended as an integral part of the patients' treatment.
A home, a secluded hospital, a downtown park and a contemplative home for the hereafter — together they give us a remarkable picture of an age that wanted to live in harmony with nature. Go see them.
Christopher Wigren is deputy director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. A version of this article appeared in the trust's magazine, Connecticut Preservation News.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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