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Melodramatic Landscapes

Urban Parks in the Nineteenth Century
Heath Schenker

BUY Cloth · 248 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813928425 · $38.50 · Dec 2009

During the nineteenth century, large, naturalistic urban parks began to appear in cities around the world. These parks, as Melodramatic Landscapes engagingly demonstrates, offered the opportunity for visitors to assert their social status in performances suited to the theatrical age in which they flourished. How and why did prototypical park landscapes— characterized by groves of trees, expanses of mowed meadow, man-made lakes artfully designed to emulate their natural counterparts, and meandering paths— become the norm in the midst of modernizing industrial cities?

Focusing on iconic parks in Paris, New York, and Mexico City, Heath Schenker explores the cultural and social meanings embedded in these elaborate stage sets. Schenker teases out the goals and ambitions of park proponents and describes the singular ways in which the public received and used the parks in each city. The book showcases some of the trademark features of these parks, ranging from the soaring, rocky cliffs of Buttes-Chaumont in Paris to the mythic Aztec springs of Chapultepec Park in Mexico City to the secluded Dairy in Central Park.

Drawing on a wealth of historical sources, including original plans and drawings, descriptions in guidebooks, newspaper articles, and even representations in novels, Schenker reveals how civic leaders adapted the park ideal to serve their particular political, social, and economic agendas. The narrative boasts a number of first-person accounts by nineteenth-century visitors, populating the picturesque scenery with a lively cast of characters worthy of the age of melodrama.


Contrary to what is often assumed in the somewhat banal and unstrenuous histories of the nineteenth-century public parkland, Heath Schenker's work argues for a new version where parks sought to stage a fundamental reworking of civic society. But the parallel is now no longer with a largely exhausted repertoire of landscape styles, but with the exciting new European phenomenon of theatrical melodrama, and its widespread effect upon audiences. Clever stage sets, like Haussmann's parks, Chapultepec in Mexico City, and New York's Central Park, where reception had as much impact as did its design, transformed the configuration of these Melodramatic Landscapes. Obscured by habit and imitation, we need to find renewal in public parks--historical, no less contemporary--for the staging of various competing publics. A coda, with its appealing examination of Christo's Gates in 2005 Central Park, makes a final plea for neglecting landscape's 'natural phenomenon' in face of its origins and motives in the midst of modern cities.

John Dixon Hunt, Emeritus Professor of the History and Theory of Landscape, University of Pennsylvania

In Melodramatic Landscapes Heath Schenker studies the design, use, and recpetion of parks in Paris, New York, and Mexico, uncovering social constructions and cultural expressions. Because Schenker reveals the parks as comprised of so much more than trees and turf, Melodramatic Landscapes will serve as a guiding light for new scholarship on the history of landscape architecture.

Daniel Nadenicek, Landscape Historian and Dean of the College of Environment and Design, University of Georgia

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