Remembering Daniel Urban Kiley and His Works
an Kiley’s name is legendary in Vermont, both within and outside the design professions. Eleven years ago, my spouse, Jim Donovan, and I found our place, a scenic west Charlotte former dairy farm, and settled in the town where Dan Kiley and his family had
lived for decades. My remembrances of the highly regarded landscape architect are rooted here and in my experiences of his works beyond Vermont.
Our town, about 1,600 households, and the surrounding Burlington region is a neighborly place, and I encountered Dan casually on several occasions. In person, Dan was lively, pulsing with kinetic energy, his white hair seemingly electrified. He spoke tersely, and his clear eyes observed everything around him. Once, Dan and his wife Anne were at the local woodstove store and we discussed stoves, wood, and heating performance; on town meeting day Dan was in line with us to vote, and we exchanged greetings; on a few early morning flights to see clients we talked briefly about where we were headed. When my office was researching a local historic district for a mutual client, we enjoyed a jovial, interesting lunch with Dan, Anne, and son Deedle Kiley across Lake Champlain.
In 1992, my office developed a comprehensive plan for the system of 32 parks in Hartford, Connecticut. One of these was the Alfred E. Burr Memorial Sculpture Court, which had been designed by the Kiley firm in 1968–70 and constructed in the early 1970s. Although in some disrepair and poised for significant changes, this urban plaza demonstrates Dan’s clarity and ingenuity as a landscape architect. The 1.7-acre space between the Atheneum and City Hall had as its focus a stepped
white marble fountain on the center axis and an Alexander Calder sculpture beside it. Dark slate paving was underlain with heating elements to melt snow (not functioning now). Two groves of London plane trees formed an inward-warped grid focused on an oval fountain (also not functioning). The ground plane under the trees was decomposed granite around marble tree rings, providing contrasting color and texture and requiring little maintenance. Locust and gingko trees and yew shrubs screened adjacent building facades. The open space around the fountain and sculpture and the dappled light under the open canopy of the groves provided a plaza interior of artistic charac- ter and refinement. Yet these trees were being cut as construc- tion was getting under way. We mourned the current taste that signaled disregard of the integrity of the original Kiley design.
I had the opportunity to observe and study the grounds of the St. Louis Arch in the early 1980s when, belatedly, additional ele- ments of Kiley’s original collaboration with Eero Saarinen were under construction. More recently, I lectured on the evolution of American estate design and design principles using six examples, including the Miller Garden in Columbus, Indiana, designed by the Office of Dan Kiley. Afterward, I led a tour of the Miller Garden for the symposium group, pointing out how Kiley’s landscape design worked in conjunction with the house design by Saarinen as well as with the Alexander Girard interiors.
Currently, in my role as a founding board member of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, I am supporting CLF’s efforts to fund an interactive computer-based learning segment of “Cultural Landscapes as Classrooms.” This initiative focuses on two modern gardens: Kiley’s Miller Garden and Thomas Church’s Donnell Garden.
As a part of the Wave Hill/Cultural Landscape Foundation/ National Park Service symposium, “Preserving Modern Landscape Architecture,” in April of 2002 (proceedings pending 2004, Cultural Landscape Foundation), I attempted to explain the spatial organization and character of Kiley’s design for the Lincoln Center Plaza in New York. Like many other people, I am dismayed at the prospect that this major work of modernist landscape design will be compromised by the proposed plan for the plaza’s renovation, which fails to reinstate the Kiley work.
As Dan Kiley’s productive career has ended, closing a significant chapter in modern landscape architecture, the mis- sion of understanding and preserving his reputation must con- tinue. It is my hope that the profession will widely recognize, document, preserve, and celebrate his legacy as a modern mas- ter of landscape architecture in the years to come.
Burr Sculpture Court, drawn by Office of Dan Kiley, 1970s.