By Francesco Isgro*
With its magnificent cascades, tree-shaded promenades and elegant observation terrace, Meridian Hill Park near 16th and Euclid Streets in northwest D.C., has the feel of an authentic Renaissance garden. In fact, the original plan for the 12-acre plot not far from the White House, called for a grand, formal park modeled after Italian gardens, such as those of King Victor Emmanuel III’s. The park was part of the grand design in the early 1900s to make the 16th St. corridor the home of foreign embassies. Indeed, the original Italian Embassy was located on 16th St., two blocks from Meridian Hill Park.
What is little-known about the park is that the chief designer for the planting plan was Italian-American landscape architect Ferruccio Vitale. Later a member of the Commission of Fine Arts, Vitale played an integral role not only in the design and development of Meridian Hill Park but also for landscape designs on the Mall, at the National Gallery of Art and for the magnificent Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania.
In the world of landscape architecture one name typically stands out, that of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. But, according to R. Terry Schnadelbach, author of Ferruccio Vitale: Landscape Architect of the Country Place Era (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001), Vitale’s “influence on the modern direction of landscape design and his promotion of it as a profession is arguable more significant than Olmsted’s.”
The author writes that Vitale’s “unique designs and philosophy, which challenged the then-dominant pictorial mode of landscape architecture, influenced generation of followers, and is still felt today.”
The son of an architect, Vitale was born in Florence in 1875 and was educated in Italy. He first came to the United States at age 23, when he was appointed military attaché at the Italian Embassy. However, his intense passion for landscape architecture soon took over, and within a few years Vitale resigned his military position to pursue his true desire. Upon returning to Italy, Vitale studied landscape at Florence, Turin, and Paris, and after graduation, worked in his father’s architecture office.
In 1904, he returned to the United States and went into private practice in New York City as a principal in the firm of Vitale, Brinkerhoff and Geifert. In 1919, he became chief designer of the planting plan for Meridian Hill Park, and his plan was incorporated into the final simplified plan for the park in 1920. In 1927, Vitale was appointed to the Commission of Fine Arts by Pres. Calvin Coolidge, where he continued to take an active role in the development of the park, serving on the CFA until 1932, one year before he died of pneumonia in New York City.
In 1994, more than 60 years after Vitale’s death, Pres. Bill Clinton designated Meridian Hill Park as “an outstanding accomplishment of early 20th-century Neoclassicist park design in the United States.”
Nevertheless, the encyclopedia of The Italian-American Experience does not even have an entry for Ferruccio Vitale. That is a significant oversight, considering that Vitale’s work stands among the greatest contributions to the building and beautification of America. •
-First appeared in Voce Italiana, May 2010