Poetry and Song in the Landscape

by Chris Stevens, ASLA

Black and white photograph with perspective view of house
Anne Spencer House, HABS VA-1173-A-1. Perspective view, showing garden in background. Anne Spencer House Study. / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The following article highlights the importance of documenting historic landscapes for perpetuity. For the 12th annual HALS Challenge competition, the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) invites you to document historic Black landscapes. Black people have built and shaped the American landscape in immeasurable ways. Documenting these histories and spaces will expand our understanding of America’s past and future.

Two entries from the 2013 HALS Challenge, Documenting the Cultural Landscapes of Women, provide inspiration for the 2021 HAS Challenge, Historic Black Landscapes. These historic sites commemorate two significant Americans, both Black women and artists.

The first example, the Anne Spencer Garden, HALS VA-59, of Lynchburg, Virginia, was documented in 2013 by Elizabeth Blye Delaney, RLA, ASLA, and Ted Delaney, Assistant Director of Old City Cemetery, Lynchburg.

From the HALS Report:

This landscape is significant because it was created by an African American woman, Anne Spencer (1882–1975), who was a distinguished poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Spencer was a librarian and educator in the segregated school system of Lynchburg, Virginia, a co-founder in 1919 of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights activist, and a gardener.

Anne Spencer Garden, HALS VA-59. All of Anne Spencer’s original roses were salvaged, including the ‘Spanish Beauty’ pictured here. / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Anne Spencer and her husband Edward built the house at 1313 Pierce Street in 1903 and lived there until their deaths. Anne planted and tended the garden behind the house throughout her life. It served as a place of refuge during the troubled times in which she lived, as well as a source of inspiration for much of her poetry. The Spencers had numerous visitors to their house and garden, including James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. DuBois.

Anne Spencer Garden, HALS VA-59. Anne Spencer in her garden in the 1920s. / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The garden is no less significant because of the intervention and faithful restoration of Jane Baber White, a landscape designer in Lynchburg, Virginia, beginning in 1983. Not long after Spencer’s death in 1975, the garden became overgrown and unrecognizable. As White says in an article she wrote for American Horticulturist in 1987, “I did go see the remnants of the garden. Nothing about my life has been the same since then! […] At the little broken English boxwood, the pond with the African [sculpture] no longer able to spit water, just the feeling of the place said Anne Spencer had loved this garden.” (American Horticulturist, a publication of the American Horticultural Society, “Restoration of a Poet’s Garden,” by Jane Baber White, October 1987).

Anne Spencer Garden, HALS VA-59. View looking back toward the pergola. / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Along with the support in time and money of the Hillside Garden Club of Lynchburg, White undertook a loving restoration, faithful to Anne Spencer’s original vision, which is still ongoing today even after 30 years.

Anne Spencer Garden, HALS VA-59. Edankraal, Anne Spencer’s writing cottage in the garden. / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The second example, the Marian Anderson Heritage Village, HALS PA-23, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was documented in 2013 by Susan M. Mattison, ASLA, Landscape Architect and Planner of Philadelphia.

Marian Anderson Heritage Village, HALS PA-23. Marian Anderson Recreation Center, Front Entrance, Mural and Photo of Marian Anderson featured. / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

From the HALS Report:

Marian Anderson Heritage Village: Commemorating A Singer of International Fame

Marian Anderson was a world-renowned contralto and opera singer. Born in south Philadelphia in 1897, Anderson was one of the most celebrated singers of the twentieth century, and she was an important figure in the quest for black artists overcoming racial prejudice in the United States. As an African-American singer, she broke barriers for minority artists through many signature musical events including that of being the first African-American to perform in the Metropolitan Opera (Giuseppe Verdi’s Uno ballo in maschera) (biography.com – Marian Anderson). Her Lincoln Memorial Concert to an audience of approximately 75,000 people on Easter Morning, April 9, 1939 in an open air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (a concert aided by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) was arranged after Anderson was denied a singing appointment at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Anderson’s unusual voice was described by Arturo Toscanini as the type that comes along “once in a hundred years” (Charles L. Blockson, “Marian Anderson The Lady from South Philadelphia,” Free Library of Philadelphia, Commemorative Exhibition, 1991). Anderson’s worldwide concert tours spanned 1925-1963, including Europe, Asia, Australia, and the United States, with musical repertoire of classical concert, lieder, opera, traditional American songs, and spirituals. The recording “Marian Anderson, a Portrait of Music” was released in 2004, featuring two Festival of Music telecasts from 1956.

Marian Anderson Heritage Village, HALS PA-23. Marian Anderson House and Museum. / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

In addition to her singing career, Anderson was a United Nations delegate in 1958 for the UN Human Rights Committee and as a “goodwill ambassadress” for the United States Department of State. She participated in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, singing at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Numerous other awards include the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the National Medal of Arts in 1986, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991 (biography.com – Marian Anderson).

Anderson’s singing career began in south Philadelphia where she initially participated in the choir at the Union Baptist Church at 19th and Fitzwater Streets. At the age of ten, Marian joined the People’s chorus under the direction of Emma Azalia Hackley, where she was awarded solos. Her early exposure to music was through local Philadelphia churches, the YMCA, and other community music events throughout the city including the Philadelphia Choral Society. In her early teens, she received further opportunities through the Baptists’ Young People’s Union and the Camp Fire Girls. Funds were raised on her behalf by her church community to receive voice lessons from local singer and coach Mary S. Patterson and to attend and graduate from the Philadelphia High School for Girls (Allan Keiler, Marian Anderson, A Singer’s Journey, 2000, 31-33). Her training continued outside of Philadelphia through vocal competitions and through growing success as a concert artist through training with noted singing coaches including Guiseppi Boghetti and Agnes Reifsnyder (Allan Keiler, Marian Anderson, A Singer’s Journey, 2000, 31-33).

Marian Anderson Heritage Village, HALS PA-23. Marian Anderson Heritage Village banner on 19th Street utility pole. / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Historic Site: The site is a recognized historic “village” in south Philadelphia, known as the Marian Anderson Heritage Village, which received official recognition in Philadelphia in November 2008. The village is not a designated city historic district, however the area would benefit from a nomination through the Philadelphia Historic Commission for historic recognition. The size of the village is 14 square blocks, with boundaries defined by Broad to 21st Streets (E/W), and Bainbridge to Christian Streets (N/S). The village receives international visitors and had generated news stories including a number of television documentations and broadcasts. Local interest for the district within Philadelphia is low, and the historic village and museum draws very few local visitors. There are minimal visual reminders of the singer to draw attention to the village area and museum on Marian Anderson Way (Martin Street). A few street-sign banners are noted on utility poles (which are faded and need replacement), and more banners are needed to define the village perimeter. The curator of the Marian Anderson Historical Society, Phyllis Sims, has noted that funds are needed for banners and other area improvements.

Marian Anderson Heritage Village, HALS PA-23. View of 20th Street at Bainbridge Street, south view. / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Within the village, the following sites were frequented by Anderson in her youth or commemorated in her name (in addition to the home and museum):

  • Edwin M Stanton Grammar School – formerly at 1700 Christian Street
  • Union Baptist Church – at 19th and Fitzwater Streets, where Anderson sang as a child
  • Birthplace – 1833 Webster Street (see image above)
  • Other family lodgings were either rented by the family or owned by other family members where Anderson and her sisters and mother resided after the death of Anderson’s father in 1912 – i.e. 1617 Fitzwater Street, 2000 block of Carpenter, and various residences on Christian Street (Allan Keiler, Marian Anderson, A Singer’s Journey, 2000, 23-25)
  • YMCA – 1724 Christian Street (rebuilt), where Anderson sang on occasion
  • Marian Anderson Recreation Center – 17th Street between Fitzwater and Catherine Streets – commemorated in Anderson’s name after being rebuilt in 1951 – formerly the McCoach Playground, which features a playground, baseball diamond, multi-purpose youth facilities, community center, and swimming pool.

I hope these two landscapes inspire you to enter the 2021 HALS Challenge: Historic Black Landscapes. If you are interested in reading more, these two HALS historic reports are available in full online with the rest of the HALS Collection at the Library of Congress.

There are many more great American landscapes with stories to be revealed. For 2021, people from every state are hereby challenged to complete at least one HALS short format history to document historic Black landscapes.

Preservation through documentation!

For more information, contact Chris Stevens, 202-354-2146, Chris_Stevens@nps.gov.

Chris Stevens, ASLA, is Acting Chief of the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) at the National Park Service, past chair of the ASLA Historic Preservation Professional Practice Network (PPN), and past ASLA HALS Subcommittee chair / coordinator.

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For more information on the 2021 HALS Challenge, Historic Black Landscapes, please see this previous post. Each month between now and the July 31 HALS Challenge deadline, we’ll be showcasing historic black landscapes that have already been documented for HALS, like Marian Anderson Heritage Village and the Anne Spencer Garden, highlighted here, Allensworth: A Town Built by and for African Americans, featured last month, and the Smokey Hollow Community, featured in February. If you missed the HALS Challenge webinar on Acknowledging Historic Black Landscapes with Elizabeth J. Kennedy, ASLA, NYCOBA-NOMA, Andrea Roberts, Ph.D., Joseph Disponzio, Ph.D., and Christopher Stevens, ASLA, the recording is now available.

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