The Governor’s Palace’s mount is an ornamental perch for viewing the gardens; it also covers an icehouse.
A historian says Thomas Jefferson used mounts to create “neoclassical domed rotunda out of dirt” at his poplar forrest.
Heaving itself up to a height of 131 feet, Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, England, is a Neolithic ancestor of mottes and mounts.
Of Garden Mounts
by Michael Olmert
Vision, clarity, and perspective: such are the benefits of altitude. And altitude is what you got, from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, when you erected an earthen mount, or mound, in your ornamental garden.
At heart, garden mounts were meant to be artificial platforms from which to consider the sweep of nature, the tapestry of God’s grandeur. It was said that God gave humankind two essential books—the first, scripture; the second, nature—both to be read.
Just so, a garden mount was a scientific and moral instrument for peering into life. It was capable of stimulating the senses and the imagination, offering views of gardens, terraces, walks, allées, canals, follies, and all the other interventions and improvements you might use to tame and refine nature. And, by extension, yourself. Mounts gave mortals the view from on high.
It took servant, tenant, and slave labor to build them. Still, for the ruling classes and for their institutions—Virginia’s colonial government, for instance—a garden mount was de rigueur.
Which is why there is one at Colonial Williamsburg’s Governor’s Palace. And why not? In England, Charles II, after his restoration in 1660, erected such a mount in St. James’s Park, a fit partner to its flowery walks and orchards burdened with fruit. According to courtier-poet Edmund Waller, the finished park was:
All with a border of rich fruit trees crowned,
Whose loaded branches hide the lofty mound.
In 1625, jurist, alchemist, and natural philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in the essay “Of Gardens” that a proper garden must have:
In the very middle, a fair mount, with three ascents, and alleys, enough for four to walk abreast . . . and the whole mount to be thirty foot high; and some fine banqueting-house, with some chimneys neatly cast, and without too much glass.
Later in the essay he suggests that two mounts would be grander: “At the end of both the side grounds, I would have a mount of some pretty height . . . to look abroad into the fields.”
Thomas Jefferson owned Bacon’s Essays. Before 1811, he erected two twelve-foot-high garden mounts at his Poplar Forest retreat. He set them on either side of his octagonal house, on an axis that runs through the house and toward his two octagonal privies. The line-up is privy-mount-house-mount-privy.
Jack Gary, Poplar Forest archaeologist and landscape historian, says Jefferson’s “design was four weeping willows atop each mound, golden willows ringing the middle, and aspen trees around the base. It seems he meant the willows to be domes and the aspens to be columns. He had created a neoclassical domed rotunda out of dirt and trees.”
Jefferson saw a garden mount in the Williamsburg of his youth. There, in about 1715, Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood began to undertake architectural and landscape improvements at the Palace, refashioning it to reflect Britain’s majesty and sway. Part of this would have been the Palace’s twenty-two-foot-high garden mount.
Trouble is, there is no record of when the mount was built. Nor is there any documentary mention of it, from the Palace’s authorization in 1705 until the Palace burned in 1781. We chiefly know of the mound because it was built above—and was thermal insulation for—an underground icehouse of brick, Virginia’s most spectacular. Palace accounting entries show that a carter was paid for carrying ice to, or possibly from, the ice pit in 1769 and 1770. The icehouse is under there still. The pit is nine feet wide and eighteen feet deep. About half was dug into the earth, down to a layer of gravel that could carry off meltwater. The top half, with a vaulted brick roof, originally was exposed to the elements.
On completion, Spotswood covered the structure with earth, angling up to a flat twenty-by-twenty-foot viewing platform. Since the mount is square at the base, and the top platform is a smaller square, it appears to be a truncated pyramid. A stairway led to the top. Halfway up, a terraced walkway gave access to the four sides of the mount and hinted at what glories might be seen from above. This walkway also led servants around to the icehouse door.
The most prominent mention of the mound appears in an 1845 memoir, written well after the Palace burned and its grounds went to seed. By then, a portion of the icehouse vaulting had collapsed, giving the site the air of ruined antiquity. Recalling her life in Williamsburg, Cynthia Beverley Tucker Coleman wrote:
One spot in the Palace grounds has been reserved for preservation. It is a large earthen mound covered with trees, Virginia creeper, and bamboo briers. In one side is a cavernous opening, a cave into which one peers suspiciously down a circular shaft walled up with brick. What was it? Anyone of the locality will tell you that it was only Lord Dunmore’s icehouse.
After 1927 and the founding of Colonial Williamsburg, the icehouse core preserved the garden mount in the plans for the reconstructed Palace grounds. Foundation archaeologists Prentiss Duell and Herbert S. Ragland were not thinking garden mounts at all. They wrote in their Archaeology Report for the Summer Season, 1930:
Still further to the north is the so-called Governor’s Ice-House, which it very well may be. It is an interesting structure, more or less egg shaped, with a total height of probably 20 to 25 feet. A few steps (which had wooden nosings) lead down an arched entrance. . . .
A Palace site sketch by landscape architect Arthur A. Shurcliff dated September 17, 1931, identifies a large lump, with trees growing out of it and a stairway, as the “mound at ice house.” This visualization of the restored grounds shows the mound in relation to the canal and pond, the horse stable, and the seven-foot brick wall that separates the Historic Area from the public road.
At this stage, Shurcliff little understands the cultural heft of garden mounts, but he changes his mind after an August 1932 research trip to England. There, he visits ornamental gardens, and he returns fired by the notion of mounts. He is determined to make the Palace hillock more than practical earthen insulation for winter ice. November 3, 1934, restoration sponsor John D. Rockefeller Jr. agrees.
Colonial Williamsburg has a smaller garden mount, about eight feet high, at the end of a long allée of boxwoods on the Van Garrett property, now the Grissell Hay house. It too is a truncated pyramid, with nine- step stairways on its south and north faces. Its gravel platform on top is twenty by twenty feet, supporting three live oaks.
In a plan of the lot dated December 17, 1927, Shurcliff notes that Mrs. Van Garrett “says a mound stood here in 1896. It was 3 or 4 ft. high originally. She thinks it may have been a ‘mount.’” But the spot Mrs. Van Garrett put her finger on is twenty feet from Nicholson Street, at the front of the lot. Shurcliff puts his reproduction mount 200 feet away, down the double row of boxwoods, making a dramatic eye-catcher. It’s a romantic choice, the landscape architect going for emotion over accuracy. Today, eighty-some years on, it still seems a good choice.
In power landscapes, garden mounts are meant to foster awe in the hearts and minds of friend and foe. Which is why so many of England’s great country houses have garden mounts. At Dunham Massey in Cheshire, owned by the Earls of Stamford, a mount rises to the left rear of the mansion, bearing the same relationship to the house that the Williamsburg mount does to the Palace. A 1750 painting of the estate by John Harris shows that its mount has four concentric terraces leading to a crowning gazebo.
Jefferson visited Oxford on April 9, 1786. You wonder whether he saw any of the mounts found in the colleges. New College, for example, has a thirty-foot-high pyramidal mount with a flat top, a Mount Parnassus, home of the muses. The mount is as high as the medieval defensive walls and bastions that still surround the college.
The Exeter College mound is tucked in the corner of the Fellows’ Garden, where its south and east walls join at right angles. The mound is thought to have been created between 1731 and 1734, and so was in place at the time of Jefferson’s Oxford visit. About twelve feet high, one part botanical display and one part garden folly, the L-shaped mount allows a view of James Gibbs’s 1749 Radcliffe Camera, whose rotunda influenced the capitol in Washington, DC.
At Wadham College, there were two mounds. One remains. The first, in the Fellows’ Garden, stood in the center of four rectangular parterres. It had a summerhouse attached to its front and a statue of Atlas on top. In a 1732 engraving, the mound appears to be a little taller than the roof ridge of the summerhouse, perhaps sixteen to eighteen feet. The mound is round and bulbous. A sort of balustrade surrounds the top platform, on which Atlas does not shrug. A storm collapsed the statue, and in 1753, the mound was swept away. Garden mounds and mounts were approaching the end of their fashionable summer’s lease.
The second Wadham mound runs 150 feet along the edge of the Fellows’ Garden. It is six to seven feet high, with a six-to-eight-foot-wide walkway along the top. It is part of the defensive earthworks thrown up by the Royalist forces at the start of the English Civil Wars in 1642. Shurcliff walked along this wall in 1932, trying to take on board the presence of mounts as garden features. “It is perfectly straight,” he wrote. “The top of this mount is provided with chairs and tables and looks down on nearby gardens and low buildings.”
This sort of long, low mound is reminiscent of a suspected garden mount that survives at Green Spring, the site of the mansion of Governor Sir William Berkeley, built between 1643 and 1677, about five miles from Williamsburg. Green Spring functioned as a palace and would have been expected to have dazzling gardens. The house is gone today, but still visible is a long, man-made earthen berm covered with trees, an unnatural form in a rural space. About 250 feet long and 15 feet high, it probably is the linear mount from which the governor and his friends viewed his grounds. One wonders whether Jefferson walked it.
Jefferson could have seen Oxford Castle, a defensive work put up in the Middle Ages. The Normans erected about 500 such works in Britain after 1066 to occupy and supervise a conquered Saxon land. Such mounds, called mottes, were meant to be seen as stern presences in the landscape. The Oxford Castle, built in 1074, is 240 feet in circumference and 64 feet tall.
Mottes are taller and larger than garden mounts, because you want to wear your attackers out before they start fighting, and because the top must have room for a castle or keep. Most surviving mottes in Britain have lost their castle or have a few ruined walls left. Oxford Castle has long been just a green castle, mainly covered with grass, as it was when Jefferson was in town.
Because mottes are meant to control a murmuring populace, they usually are built in towns. Once the mottes had become lumpy relics, loads of people got used to the pleasure of climbing their local green castles in the sunshine and looking out over the countryside. So did the aristocrats and their landscape architects, who wanted viewing platforms from which to admire their estates. The garden mount is the civilized descendent of the once-bristling and angry motte.
Altitude is the key. Prehistoric humans often selected hilltop sites for their sacred places, possibly thinking they were closer to the heavens, to their gods, to the light. One such place, Silbury Hill, twenty miles from Oxford in the English county of Wiltshire, is for Britain the precursor to every motte or garden mount. Starting in about 2,750 BCE, it gradually rose 131 feet, with a flattened platform on top. It is said to have taken eighteen million man-hours to excavate and pile all the chalk to that height.
No one has sorted out what went on at Silbury Hill. Neolithic people left no written language to spell out their intentions. Was it a spiritual site? A demonstration of power? A warning to outsiders? Or a soft place to grab an eyeful of nature, its sunsets and blossoms, its seasons and tides?
These are the sorts of questions that still can be put to the restored garden mount at the Palace in Williamsburg. Here, three centuries later, the mount still supervises the colony’s royal enclave: its neoclassical buildings, its ornamental gardens, its elongated garden canal and pond—all orthogonal and proper.
It looks toward a dark and tangled wood that once extended north. All that green, of course, was a metaphor for the rest of untamed nature, whose wild exuberance had to be regularized and civilized for God, king, and country. Were they right?
Michael Olmert teaches English at the University of Maryland. He wrote Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies (Cornell, 2009) and contributed to the summer 2013 journal “Of Follies,” an article about whimsical garden structures.