New Book Outlines Influence Of Architect Jacob Weidenmann
By STEVE GRANT, Courant Staff Writer
October 16, 2007
Jacob Weidenmann was a significant influence on what we can call the face of Hartford, but in all likelihood, you've never heard of him.
Serious students of landscape architecture know of Weidenmann, who died more than a century ago, and respect his work. The rest of the world is essentially clueless, even the thousands of people who walk through Bushnell Park in Hartford, which Weidenmann essentially designed after an initial design turned into a mess.
Rudy J. Favretti, professor emeritus of landscape architecture at the University of Connecticut, wants to change all that.
In "Jacob Weidenmann: Pioneer Landscape Architect" (Wesleyan University Press, $49.95), Favretti works to rescue Weidenmann from what he regards as undeserved obscurity.
"Very few people know about him; I felt he was important," Favretti said in an interview.
For one thing, Favretti said, Weidenmann was highly regarded by the most prominent 19th-century landscape architects, notably Frederick Law Olmsted, who was born in Hartford and is regarded as the father of American landscape architecture. "For us here in Connecticut, where we have four of his projects that are still displaying pretty much his original design - out of five nationally - it is especially important to know about him."
Besides Bushnell Park, America's first park built entirely with public funds, Weidenmann designed Cedar Hill Cemetery, which straddles Hartford, Wethersfield and Newington and is considered a prime example of the "rural" cemetery designs that emerged in the late 19th century. Weidenmann, who died in 1893, was retained to design Cedar Hill in 1863.
"Cedar Hill is highly regarded as a rural cemetery because of the fact it has Weidenmann's concept of the open lawns, meaning there are no walls, curbs or fences," Favretti said. "Cedar Hill is more like a park with gravestones in it, if you will, with its flowing lawn and roads that follow the contours of the land. It really is an unusual space."
Weidenmann had a close association for many years with Olmsted, communicating often. Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux, prepared a landscaping outline for the Retreat for the Insane, now the Institute for Living in Hartford, that Weidenmann brought to fruition, providing much of the detail for the design.
Weidenmann also designed the gardens at what today is the historic Butler-McCook House and Garden, Hartford's oldest house. Its Victorian garden is the only surviving domestic project designed by Weidenmann. Another surviving Weidenmann commission is the capitol grounds in Des Moines.
Favretti began researching Weidenmann 40 years ago and for the past six years worked intensively on the book. He makes the case that Weidenmann ought to be considered the founder of landscape architecture in the United States.
"In the 19th century, he was the only landscape architect fully trained, as we think of training for landscape architecture today," Favretti said. Weidenmann put together his training piecemeal, because he had to. He studied architecture at one institution in Germany, engineering at another. He worked in the ateliers of several artists in Switzerland, then apprenticed at several botanical gardens.
"If you put it together, it is the same education we give landscape architecture students today, minus the computer technology," Favretti said. "In those days there were no landscape architecture programs you could go and study. He composed his own."
Still, he is overshadowed by Olmsted. But it may well be that Weidenmann today does not get credit for some of the work he did with Olmsted. Favretti found instances where Olmsted is credited with the design of projects that Weidenmann's daughter also cites in a paper she prepared listing all her father's projects.
Favretti said that could be one reason Weidenmann hasn't gotten the attention from scholars that he might have.
Weidenmann only lived in Hartford for about 10 years, but fittingly, he is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, in the city where the bulk of his surviving work can still be found.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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