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A sea of buildings would cover the Island of Manhattan, and the iron tentacles of urbanization would extend outward over hundreds of square miles, even into distant Riverdale in Westchester County - the once rural site of Wave Hill. The picturesque rail line that up the eastern shoreline of the Hudson had by now been joined by a maze of elevated railways, streetcar lines, and examples of a new form of transportation that would soon change the landscape even more - the automobile. The year after William Henry Appleton's death, New York's first subway line would go become operational. Skyscrapers, like the Flatiron Building (1902), would soon rival in height the mountains so beloved of the Hudson River School.
One response to the looming crisis of nature was to come in the form of city beautification, specifically in New York's case, in Central park - a new direction in American urban planning:
Landscape architects were influenced by the Hudson River School painters (ardent cultural nationalists) and the Romanticism preached by Emerson. Both Downing (who grew up among the Hudson River painters in Newburg), and Vaux, who also lived in Newburg and married the sister of a Hudson River School painter were influenced by this school of art. Olmsted, the other leading landscape architect, had less contact with the Hudson River School but was influenced by Emerson.
Each of these men was directly involved in the creation of Central Park. The Romantic ideals of the Hudson River School are reflected profusely in the simulation of a wild and rugged landscape that is one of the great charms of this huge urban stretch of fresh air, green grass, trees, flowers, and pools that resemble natural lakes and ponds. The simulation of the wilderness in the heart of the nation's chief city was, of course, not tantamount to actually preserving nature. While certain features of the park are natural, for example, the bluffs that appear so frequently in the design, their retention by Olmsted and Vaux was more in the way of incorporating them into a purposeful human design. As at Wave Hill, nature was being "used" to suit a human conception of the natural world. Things like views, cliffs i.e. The Palisades as seen from Wave Hill, and water - the Hudson itself - were employed to construct a "picture" of an idealized romantic landscape.
Others, including one of Wave Hill's most famous guests/residents, Theodore Roosevelt, took away a different, and more wide-reaching, message from the Hudson River School's attempts to capture nature in her glory and decline. The Roosevelt Family rented Wave Hill for a number of summers in the 1870s. Thus, the house was familiar to Theodore Roosevelt as a young man. Clearly, its beautiful setting helped to shape his adult views in regard to the natural world. Theodore Roosevelt would later travel widely in the United States, and around the globe, visiting many remote places hardly touched by the hands of human beings. On his journeys, Roosevelt witnessed nature in all her purity, in places that most residents of gigantic cities, like New York, would never visit. Though these locations were far from the ever-expanding realm of industries, and hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the dark and crowded tenements of Manhattan and Brooklyn, Roosevelt realized that they represented an aspect of the Earth that needed to be preserved. Roosevelt, schooled literally in the lessons of Wave Hill, and growing up in the shadow of the Hudson River School, would become a leading advocate of the Conservation Movement.
Roosevelt, always an ardent fighter for his ideas, took time to put his mark on some of the public discussions concerning nature which were held in the first decade of the century. As it became fashionable to be interested in nature, many voices were raised in its praise. Mingled in this chorus were the "nature fakers," as they were mockingly called, who colored and unduly sentimentalized their natural history by writing stories in which animals behaved in some heroic manner.... Discussions began to take a more serious turn after Theodore Roosevelt gave an interview on the subject of nature fakers.... The President was quoted as complaining that the persons who were misinterpreting nature and replacing facts with fakes -- for example, by endowing animals with anthropomorphic powers -- were hindering the work of those whose love of nature and true knowledge of it made them interpret it in the right way.... Roosevelt maintained vigorously that real knowledge and appreciation of wild things gives "added beauty and health to life."
Roosevelt was able to see past the "memento paradigm" of many of the works of the Hudson River School. Realizing that nature was much more than something to be shaped to suit human needs, he advocated a sensible policy in exploiting the resources of nature. Specifically, nature was not to be exploited, but used in a way that allowed her to regenerate, and that permitted all - and that included wildlife as well as human beings - to enjoy her bounty. Roosevelt established the first national parks in the United States. Unlike Central park, these were areas of genuine, untouched wilderness. The purpose of these parks was to secure natural lands and habitats for future generations of Americans.
Wave Hill clearly played a role in shaping the policies and ideas of its residents. The beauty of its setting appealed to artists, writers, philosophers, and any others who admired nature, and could appreciate her beauty. Wave Hill's setting makes it a kind of time capsule of American, and New York history, revealing stages in the nation's, the state's and the city's growth and development. Wave Hill also inspired in its residents a desire to share, and to preserve, the natural world. Itself reflective of the thoughts of the Hudson River School and the Romanticists, Wave Hill was both an expression of, and a source, for those who created Central Park, and similar urban oases, for human enjoyment, and also for people like Theodore Roosevelt, who saw the need to preserve and maintain the genuinely wild places in this country. Today, Wave Hill is a historic site that serves all of thes e purposes. Open to the public, it showcases, not just its history, and the lives of its owners and guests, but, furthermore, its twenty-eight acres of gardens and lawns continue to offer its visitors a beautiful place where they can "just relax." More than a century after it was built, and after New York has expanded to become a city of millions, and of worldwide importance, Wave Hill still looks out onto the sparkling and majestic Hudson, and out toward the soaring cliffs of the Palisades - Nature has been preserved!
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Hans Huth, Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1990) 179-180.[continue]
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