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Colonial Williamsburg

The Issue of “Scrape vs. Anti-Scrape”
In the Revival Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg






A springtime panoramic view of tulips and other bulbs in the flower borders of the North Garden, with the Ballroom Garden and Governor’s Palace in the background. Note the lead urns on the cast stone plinths, interspersed with boxwood topiary figures along the main oyestershell marl pathway.


Gardens and historic sites in America typically focused on the “founding fathers” to inspire citizens to rise to the challenges facing the nation in our emerging role as a world power after World War I. Colonial Williamsburg’s physical-creation in 1927 was first intended to preserve surviving, old buildings, but turned out to be a unique mix of historical evidence coupled with design refinements intended make the colonial past more attractive to visitors.






This aerial view of the governor’s palace shows all of the different garden rooms” within ten enclosed acres, including the north garden, the ballroom garden, the fruit garden, the boxwood garden, the bowling garden, and the terraced, “falling” gardens, along the canal. In the memorial garden, soldiers of the revolutionary war are buried. PHOTO: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


The intersection of historical evidence and contemporary myth is perhaps most evident today in Colonial Williamsburg’s reconstructed gardens, first designed by Arthur A. Shurcliff, FASLA, and later by his assistant and successor, Alden Hopkins, FASLA. While based upon late seventeenth century English formal landscape design styles, the “period” gardens they designed reflected the nostalgic values and veneration of the American past typical of depression-era America. Today, these gardens are referred to as “Colonial Revival” landscape design.

As time passed, the public increasingly questioned the validity of the all-white, gentry biased, “picture-postcard” vision of our colonial past. Responding to the needs and desires of today’s society, Colonial Williamsburg’s interpretive focus shifted in the mid-1970’s to teach “social history,” or the history of all the diverse peoples of the community.






A colorful close-up view of the “North Garden,” with the Governor’s Palace in the background. The palace is one of Williamsburg’s chief attractions, with visitors riding to it in horse-drawn carriages. The restoration of the palace and the other homes in the colony could be attributed to a Williamsburg minister named W.A.R. Goodwin, who prompted John E. Rockefeller, Jr., to become interested in preserving the colonial appearance of Williamsburg. While it was Rockefeller and his money that first set up the Foundation, it has been the undying energy of countless others in the Foundation who have brought the restoration to fruition. PHOTO: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


In recent years, however, it has become evident that the teaching of social history visually conflicts with the existing gentrified garden settings created by Shurcliff and Hopkins. Scholars now believe that many of the colonial revival gardens in Williamsburg do not reflect the ordinary vernacular gardens that recent archaeological evidence suggests were more typical among eighteenth century middle class town dwellers. This raises the ethical debate known as “Scrape vs. Anti-Scrape.” The question centers around whether it is proper to revise (scrape) the Colonial Revival gardens to bring them into conformity with these simpler, vernacular gardens, or whether they be left intact (anti-scrape) because they are now visual documents of an earlier preservation philosophy and thus historic.






This fanciful colonial revival design by landscape architect Arthur A. Shurcliff, FASLA, is, the Custis Tenement Garden featuring dwarf english boxwood edging enclosing parterres planted with blue and white larkspur. Although not a part of the governor’s palace gardens, the garden’s elegant topiary suggests an upper-class owner. The design is somewhat reminiscent of the british “Union Jack” flag and was loosely copied from a garden plan shown on an eighteenth century map of New Bern, North Carolina, drawn by french mapmaker, Claude J. Sauthier, in about 1765. PHOTO: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


Historical research is an ongoing activity at Colonial Williamsburg, with a deep commitment to self-improvement. Colonial Williamsburg’s educational programs are continuously revised as perceptions of life in the past are being reshaped. To teach history better, Colonial Williamsburg recognizes that they must successfully integrate three elements into the learning process: visitors’ personal interests and concerns, the historical themes selected to shed insight on our shared national past, and the physical organization of the programs and exhibition sites used for transmitting those messages.






The Ballroom Garden, where the diamond-shaped, dwarf english boxwood parterres in the foreground reveal a well -maintained landscape. These restored landscape features were based upon the originals shown in the bodleian copperplate engraving of the palace that was etched in about 1738-40. To the right are two of the dozen pillar-like yaupon holly topiaries, which are called "The Twelve Apostles." Beyond the ballroom garden parterres lie pleached american beech arbors and the perennial and annual flower borders of the “North Garden. PHOTO: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


The “physical organization of exhibition sites” is where landscape design, preservation, and management enter into this complex equation. It is appropriate to question whether the colonial revival landscapes continue to support the evolving educational goals and objectives of the institution. If so, they obviously must be maintained and preserved. If not, where, how, and to what extent should they be revised?






The John Blair house herb garden is a very small colonial revival garden by Arthur A. Shurcliffe, FASLA, and was created around 1940. Its plantings of herbs shows a much older form of garden called a “physical garden,” more commonly seen among the early seventeenth century gardens at Jamestown and, even earlier, in Elizabethan England. PHOTO: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


The overall appearance of the Historic Area today continues to reflect the 1930’s colonial revival ethos, which re-created it. While the foundation works very hard to keep the gardens colorful and attractive to the eye, many lack enough substantive differences in detailing, plantings, maintenance practices, and materials used to reflect the site-to-site variances in economic status and personal tastes of individual eighteenth century owners.






The James Shields Tavern Garden is Colonial Williamsburg’s most recent garden re-creation, designed by M. Kent Brinkley and was completed in the spring of 1989. This design features a simple kitchen garden with raised, rectangular plots for vegetables, oystershell marl marks, and perimeter planting beds for figs, berries, and some culinary herbs. The lack of an ornamental character may make it less than eye-catching, yet is true to the colonial history of Williamsburg and to the educational mission of the foundation. PHOTO: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


In the gardens of the gentry class, the maintenance standards, design refinements, and degree of detailing should visually establish the owner’s wealth and sophistication to the casual observer. It is known that intricate fencing, repetitive flower planting themes, and delicately crafted topiary were all intended to convey that message to eighteenth century passers-by. In contrast, the simplicity of design and detailing in the vernacular gardens of the middle and lower classes should also be as apparent. Fences were simple, functional, and without much decoration; the variety of flowers planted in these utilitarian gardens was limited in species and quantity; and plantings were more random and mixed together. In addition, there were obviously more vegetables planted and few, if any, evergreen parterres or topiary.






A close-up view of one half of the “North Garden,” with a privy and pleached arbor of american beech (fagus grandifolia) to the left, and the perennl, and annual flower borders planted with tulips and other spring bulbs in the center. Note the “clairevoyee,” (balustraded) decorative fence with brick pilasters and cast stone ornaments spaced along its length. PHOTO: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


Today, although Colonial Williamsburg displays different types of gardens, the visual distinctions between these typological extremes still seem too subtle to be fully believable. Varying the standards of landscape maintenance in the gardens partially mitigates this “sameness of appearance” condition, but is not the ultimate solution. The solution lies with resolving other design and detailing issues.

To help resolve these issues, laboratory technologies and landscape archaeological techniques are now at the disposal of the foundation to give new insights to the people of the past and their many influences on the land. This is new information that our pioneer predecessors did not have to assist their efforts.






The Orlando Jones House Garden was designed by Arthur A. Shurcliff, FASLA. the design is based on the colonial revival philosophy shown by the degree of detail in the topiary and flower patterns. this approach often conflicts with reality, where the design of each garden reflected the social position of the individual owner. This conflict is at the heart of the “Scrape vs. Anti-scrape” issue.


While recent landscape preservation guidelines formulated by the National Park Service will be helpful to all employed in this line of work, realistically, there is no way that they can address all dilemmas posed by unique problems found on every historic site. In order to resolve the apparent impasse that surrounds the “Scrape vs. Anti-Scrape” ethical dilemma, each historic site must actively search for those variables and qualifiers peculiar to their respective institution rather than rely on generalized dogma on both sides of the debate. What works for one museum might not be applicable nor proper in other settings.






The Elkanah Deane House Garden is based upon the components of several gardens shown on Sauthier’s maps of 1765. This garden initially had an ornate appearance but was simplified in the late 1960’s.


Colonial Williamsburg recognizes that it possesses some of the finest Colonial Revival gardens in existence, many of them deserving to be preserved in perpetuity. Yet, if they are to remain a relevant outdoor museum into the next century, some physical landscape changes will have to be made. It is their hope that they will be able to devise more carefully considered approaches concerning how they can best manage their gardens in support of their teaching focus, while at the same time preserving the most important elements of their existing landscape environment. The way they choose to respond will be the legacy they leave to those whom Colonial Williamsburg’s future care will be entrusted.


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April 17, 2014, 11:05 pm EST

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