Sunday, May 15, 2011

Program on "The Historic Landscape"

Presentation by Barbara Geiger, Landscape Historian

On May 14, 2011, the Citizens for Glen Ellyn Preservation scheduled a program on Preserving Historic Landscapes. This was an engaging presentation. By covering topics such as preservation theory and research methodology, Barbara Geiger, a landscape historian, presented the challenge of preserving or restoring unique historic landscapes. She made it clear that individual groups seeking to restore a landscape surrounding an historic building must determine the specific time period of interest. A home of historic value may have had an original landscape typical of the period in which it was built. Over the years, the landscape was likely modified to satisfy the tastes of a subsequent time period. If the original owner of the home was a famous person, restoration may best be focused on that time period. This helps an individual or group make decisions about how to restore the landscape. The audience learned that a home built in the Victorian era, for instance, rarely had foundation plantings, nor high-maintenance gardens that were viewed as impractical to the people of the day. Additionally, such homes did not have the immaculate lawns of grass that we think of today.

Ms. Geiger, being interested in historic landscapes, did not always focus on the same issues that modern homeowners might. For example, although many old homes had large trees adjacent to them, she did not advocate that this was necessarily desirable. Early American homebuilders, she argued, made mistakes about the placement of large trees, leading to potential damage to the structure from falling trees and branches. Ms. Geiger seemingly did not suggest that historic landscapes were designed for comfort and energy efficiency. Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but it is important to know what motivated people in bygone eras when buildings and surrounding landscapes were designed and constructed. It is also revealing to know that they sometimes made mistakes, even as we continue to do so today in a time when climate change and rising energy costs make landscape design more challenging.

Bio from Citizens for Glen Ellyn Preservation Web site: Barbara Geiger did her graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializing in historic landscape research and preservation. She has served on the Wilmette Historic Preservation Commission, the Fund and Easement Committee of Landmarks Illinois, the Frances Willard House board, and other organizations, as well as professional consulting on landscape restoration projects. She has taught landscape history and preservation at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the Chicago Botanic Garden for 8 years; she also teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

- Jeff Gahris

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