The Rhode Island Landscape Survey: An Overview

by Elena M. Pascarella, RLA, ASLA, and Jennifer Robinson

Richard Upjohn’s perspectival illustration of Kingscote, circa 1840. / image: Avery Architectural Library, Columbia University. NYDA.1000.011.00761.

In October 2017 Brent Runyon, Executive Director of the Providence Preservation Society, assembled an ad hoc committee representing various historic organizations and groups in Rhode Island. The committee was comprised of:

  • Brent Runyon, Executive Director, Providence Preservation Society
  • Rachel Robinson, Director of Preservation, Providence Preservation Society
  • Jim Donahue, Curator of Historic Landscapes & Horticulture, The Preservation Society of Newport County
  • Kaity Ryan, Deputy Chief of Staff, The Preservation Society of Newport County
  • Elena Pascarella, RLA, ASLA, Landscape Architect and Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) Liaison for the Rhode Island Chapter of ASLA
  • Karen Jessup, PhD, Landscape Architectural Historian and former professor at Roger Williams University, Bristol, RI

The purpose of this committee was to develop ideas for initiating a new survey of Rhode Island landscapes. The most recent survey of Rhode Island landscapes was Historic Landscapes of Rhode Island, compiled in the 1990s and published in 2001 by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.

Given recent demands for developing open spaces, particularly in the Rhode Island cities of Providence and Newport, the committee felt an updated survey of significant landscapes was warranted.

The purpose of such a survey or inventory would be educational, helping owners or stewards of significant historic open spaces and landscapes to understand their properties and to apply appropriate maintenance and improvement schemes. Endangered landscapes could be identified, and potentially result in Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) documentation. The survey would be initially focused on Newport and Providence to establish a template from which other community surveys could be developed at a future time. Larger initiatives may also result, including:

  • An Historic Landscape Trail (working with RI tourism)
  • A statewide What’s Out There®-type public program similar to that of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

In 2018, Ms. Jennifer Robinson was awarded an Historic Landscapes Research Fellowship by The Preservation Society of Newport County. Her project represents the Society’s first collaborative fellowship with the Providence Preservation Society. I interviewed Ms. Robinson at the new visitor center at The Breakers mansion in Newport, RI.

What was the rationale for selecting Providence and Newport as the “template” communities for this landscape survey?

Both Providence and Newport contain some of the state’s most treasured and recognizable designed and cultural landscapes—Roger Williams Park, Benefit Street, the tennis courts at the Newport Casino, and the grounds of the Newport Mansions, among many others. Both cities also contain sites that span the breadth of American landscape history, and that were touched by some of landscape architecture’s most notable figures, including Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted. Almost two decades have passed since a state-wide survey was completed in 2001, and it is important to revisit these communities, as they are home to the state’s highest concentrations of historic resources. Our working assumption is that if we can create a model that will work in Providence and Newport, that model can be scaled and used throughout the state.

What guidelines are being used for the survey documentation?

After considering a variety of survey methods, I decided to utilize HALS short format templates to organize the data I have collected so far. I felt it was the best way to accurately capture each site’s history and current conditions in a way that would allow future researchers to continue adding to survey information in a consistent way.

You considered a number of significant landscapes in both Newport and Providence for this survey. What led you to focus on Kingscote in Newport?

Several of the Preservation Society’s larger estates in Newport have been the subject of landscape research and restoration in recent years. Most notably, perhaps, is the development of a Cultural Landscape Report and subsequent rehabilitation of an Ernest Bowditch-designed serpentine path at The Breakers (currently underway). This renewed investment in landscape stewardship has led the Society to continue intensive research at its other properties.

Kingscote is unique because of its position as one of the earliest Bellevue Avenue estates. Built between 1839-1841, its Picturesque landscape is sometimes attributed to Andrew Jackson Downing. Although I have found that this conclusion is nearly impossible to verify, Kingscote’s landscape certainly exhibits the hallmarks of Downing-esque design, including an oblique entrance, winding paths, a wide piazza, and irregularly-spaced trees. I have continued to consider the sources that may have prompted this design—for example, Downing’s journal, The Horticulturist—and the local landscape gardeners who may have contributed to its layout.

What led you to focus on the sites chosen for Providence?

The Providence Preservation Society had several sites in mind that connected with their continued advocacy work and efforts to document sites over time. Kennedy Plaza and its adjacent Burnside Park have been a hub of transportation since the 19th century, and as a result, have been subject to myriad changes throughout the years. India Point Park, a waterfront park completed in the 1970s, is frequently in the midst of competing interests, considering its proximity to a major I-195 highway interchange.

I was also asked to take a closer look at the Metropolitan Park Commission, which marked an early 20th-century effort to create a network of parks and parkways throughout Greater Providence—much like the Emerald Necklace in Boston. Although the original ideas for the project, provided by the Olmsted Brothers in 1906, never materialized, many individual sites were realized and are still used today. For example, I am investigating a site with naturalistic trails called Blackstone Park, which is identified as an asset in the 1906 plan and which continues to be an important neighborhood open space.

Detail of map from Providence’s Metropolitan Parks proposal. From Second Annual Report of the Metropolitan Park Commissioners. Providence: E.L. Freeman & Sons, 1906. / image: Courtesy Providence Public Library Special Collections, Providence, RI.

What are some interesting or unexpected findings that you have noted so far in Providence?

In Providence, one of the most interesting aspects of studying these sites is their relevance to current issues. For example, the effects of coastal storms were very clearly recognized in the past—a subject that is being revisited as we consider the impacts of climate change. Concerns about storm drainage and tidal surge around Downtown Providence and near present-day Kennedy Plaza were being discussed in the 19th century, and were expressed in printed material promoting the development of new park land.

Additionally, India Point Park is important as a landscape of the late 20th century—especially interesting as preservationists have begun to reconsider sites of the recent past. India Point is uniquely situated as an early manifestation of waterfront revitalization in Providence, which ultimately resulted in the development of Waterplace Park in the 1990s.

The 1906 Metropolitan Parks proposal highlights many parks and parkways that many Rhode Islanders would not consider as potentially interconnected. I think revisiting the Plan can shed light on ways in which the community-at-large, across city boundaries, can continue to draw attention to important shared public resources—Blackstone Park being just one such scenic landscape.

Illustration from Providence Parks Association tract, “The Great Storm of 1815.” From “Parks of Leading Cities of This Country; Their Advantages” and “Parks of Providence. The Cove Park. Terminal Facilities.” No. 7. Providence: J.A. & R.A. Reid, 1887. / image: Courtesy Providence Public Library Special Collections, Providence, RI.

How about in Newport?

At Kingscote, I began to recognize through city atlas research the ways in which Picturesque design influenced the development of Bellevue Avenue. It was a reminder that in many ways Kingscote set the tone, both in architecture and landscapes, for what would follow. I was also stunned by early renderings that show Newport with very few trees. For a city now renowned for its arboreta, it was eye-opening to consider Kingscote’s completely unobstructed water views which resulted in part from clear cutting associated with 18th-century farming.

Layout of Kingscote’s grounds, 1907. image: From Atlas of the City of Newport and the Towns of Middletown and Portsmouth, Rhode Island, L.J. Richards, Springfield, MA.

When will the study be completed and how will the information be shared?

My fellowship will conclude in August 2019, when I will present my findings on Kingscote in a program hosted by The Preservation Society of Newport County in Newport. My research on Kingscote will also be published by the PSNC in an anthology with the work of this year’s three other fellows. Additionally, I hope to share the information found on India Point Park, Burnside Park/Kennedy Plaza, Blackstone Park, and the Metropolitan Park Commission through the Providence Preservation Society’s online platforms and programming.

Elena M. Pascarella, RLA, ASLA, is the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) Liaison for the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects and Principal Landscape Architect at Landscape Elements LLC. Jennifer Robinson is a Research Fellow at the Preservation Society of Newport County, Rhode Island.

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