Engineer to Architect
Today is the birthday of the Landscape Architect Arthur Shurcliff who was born on this day in 1870.
Shurcliff's path to Landscape Architecture was not clear cut. His dad had been a successful businessman. Arthur was supposed to follow in his dad's footsteps and become a Mechanical Engineer. But after receiving his degree from MIT, the field of Landscape Architecture was making waves thanks to the Olmsteds, Charles Eliot, and the Chicago World's Fair. Since no formal degree programs existed at the time, Shurcliff cobbled together his own curriculum at the Lawrence School of Science at Harvard.
All his life, Shurcliff loved being outside. He enjoyed camping and canoeing. He loved the scenery. He loved sketching the landscape. Looking back on his decision to pursue Landscape Architecture, Shurcliff remembered,
"All led me away from mechanics toward scenery, toward planning and construction for the scenes of daily life..."
In 1904, Shurcliff opened his own firm. Shurcliff designed recreational spaces in and around Boston like the Rose Garden, the Washington Garden at old North, and the park Back Bay Fens. But, Shurcliff will forever be remembered for the work he did at Colonial Williamsburg.
It was the first time an entire American community was to be restored. John D. Rockefeller financed the project. Shurcliff had over 30 years of experience behind him when he officially started the project on St. Patrick's Day of that year. He didn't just bring his Landscape Architecture skills; he brought everything he had; his training in engineering, his meticulousness, and his ability to get things done through his personal clarity, energy, and charm. The project would use every bit of knowledge, skills, and expertise that Shurcliff had acquired. It wasn't just the buildings that needed restoration; it was the land; the paths and streets, the gardens, and green spaces. It required tremendous research to restore it all. Shurcliff insisted that wherever possible, original items and authenticity was paramount. For example, Shurcliff's team actually went looking for "fence-post holes to ascertain the outlines of a "typical" backyard" - this was an authentic restoration in every sense of the word.
It took Shurcliff 13 years to finish the project. But, once it was done, Shurcliff had redefined Williamsburg; helping it to lay claim to it's past and ensuring that Colonial Revival garden design found legitimacy in 20th Century Landscape Architecture.