Centennials are occasions upon which to reflect and bestow honor. This year, the American Society of Landscape Architects has an important, historic event to observe—the centenary of Edward Lawson, FASLA, winning the prestigious Rome Prize in Landscape Architecture at the American Academy in Rome in 1915. Lawson was the first landscape architect to win the coveted prize, which was sponsored by ASLA. It was a turning point for the profession as well as for this newly-minted Cornell graduate.
At the July meeting of the Potomac Chapter of ASLA, Brett Wallace, ASLA, and Shawn Balon, ASLA, of the Executive Committee endorsed the proclamation submitted by James O’Day, ASLA, the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) Chapter Liaison, to recognize the achievements and historic importance of Lawson’s ASLA-sponsored fellowship at the American Academy in Rome.
The presence of Lawson at the academy was a coup de main for ASLA. After years of striving, the nascent and evolving profession would be accorded the same recognition that its “sister” arts—architecture, painting and sculpture—had enjoyed since the academy’s inception in 1894. The new fellowship in landscape architecture made it possible for young professionals to join the collaborative dialogue that was shaping city planning and urban design.
The inclusion of a professionally trained landscape architect was tremendously important to ASLA leadership at the time. Lawson’s presence at the academy resulted from the efforts of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and Ferruccio Vitale. These visionary men ceaselessly lobbied ASLA membership, emphasizing the importance of a professional presence at the academy and for the establishment of a permanent endowment for a fellowship in landscape architecture.
Lawson’s tenure at the academy was considered a success. Despite misgivings about sending the young Cornell graduate to Europe during wartime, ASLA acquiesced when it learned that the academy intended to carry on its mission regardless of the conflict. During his fellowship, Lawson documented the iconic gardens and villas of the Italian Renaissance. He scoured Rome and the surrounding countryside, taking over 600 photographs and producing scores of sketches, measured drawings, and masterfully rendered watercolors for academy exhibitions. All of this was accomplished while the First World War raged around him and transportation to these far-flung sites was unreliable (if not non-existent) due to wartime conditions.
At the conclusion of his fellowship, Lawson created a much needed database and visual record of these Italian cultural landscapes that was used by a generation of students at the academy and at Cornell, where he was a well-liked professor of landscape architecture from 1922 to 1943.
The Potomac Chapter’s proclamation is a reflection of the membership’s appreciation of design history, historic preservation, and the profession’s historic development. This proclamation is meant to further educational outreach about this event on a local and national level, and among current ASLA leadership and members. Our knowledge and appreciation of our professional past will inform present-day design decisions, especially as we face the socioeconomic challenges of the 21st century. History matters.
A century later, Lawson’s contributions to the profession deserve recognition and celebration. His work continues to be examined and rescued from oblivion—forgotten after his departure from Cornell and by the onslaught of modernism and societal changes in the post-WWII period. At his zenith, Lawson was lauded by ASLA leadership as “Our first Fellow” for his pioneering work. His historic first fellowship led the way for the future and subsequent Fellows in Landscape Architecture at the Academy—many of whom he mentored while a professor at Cornell.
Edward Godfrey Lawson (1884-1968), FAAR’20, FASLA’37, Cornell University. B. S. (1913) and Master in Landscape Design (1914)
by James O’Day, ASLA, Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) Liaison for the Potomac Chapter of ASLA and author of Edward Godfrey Lawson: Continuum of Classicism—Photographs and Drawings of Italian Renaissance Gardens