1864 - 1945
Biography of Harold Caparn
Published June 14, 2008
Harold A. Caparn was born at Newark on Trent, Nottinghamshire, England. A number of his family members shared his interest in horticulture, landscape design, and the arts.
His grandfather, William Horner Caparn, owned a successful nursery and seed firm. His uncle, W. H. Caparn, Jr., was an organist, composer, and conductor, and it was in his home that Harold learned about music at an early age. Harold’s father, Thomas John Caparn, was an artist, businessman and horticulturalist; he owned the largest nursery in the English Midlands. His father no doubt provided encouragement in drawing and horticulture to the young Harold, as he had earlier to his nephew William John Caparne, who became a figure of note in both art and horticulture.
Harold Caparn received his education at the Magnus Grammar School in Newark, then continuing his studies at the University of London. Following a stint as a teacher at Canterbury Cathedral School, he studied art and architecture at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, and later in Buray’s Atelier, both in Paris.
Thomas J. Caparn, Harold’s father, left England in 1884 and settled in Short Hills, New Jersey. There he built a partnership designing gardens with his younger son, Arthur Tom Caparn, a nurseryman. By 1899, the father had opened a landscape architecture office in Newark, New Jersey. With much in common, Harold later often visited his father and brother in Short Hills.
After coming to America, Harold Caparn worked for about six years in the 1890s for J. Wilkinson Elliott, a landscape gardener from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He then moved to New York City in 1899 as an independent practitioner, opening an office there in 1902, just three years after the profession of landscape architecture was founded.
From about 1899, he and Warren H. Manning each provided advice to the New York Zoological Park in the Bronx. Over the next several years Caparn designed parts of the landscape and Great Steps of the Bronx Zoo. The general foreman of maintenance said many years later about the design, “Much of the massive planting that today is so natural . . . actually was planted about 1905.”
Caparn married Clara Howard (Jones) Royall, a successful voice teacher in New York City. They had two daughters, Anne Howard, a writer, and Rhys, a sculptor of note. In 1909, Caparn bought five acres in the village of Briarcliff Manor, about thirty miles up the Hudson River from their home in Manhattan. He proceeded to landscape the property and built an Arts-and-Crafts style dwelling, complete with a large music studio for his wife, as a country retreat.
During the summer of 1911, Columbia University offered for the first time, on an experimental basis, a course in landscape architecture taught by Caparn with six students enrolled. The university decided to continue coursework, leading to a degree, so in summer 1912 through spring semester 1913, Caparn taught together with Charles W. Leavitt and Ferruccio Vitale, each presenting separate topics. He thus helped to establish a degree curriculum at Columbia in landscape architecture.
On January 1, 1912, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden appointed Caparn its consulting landscape architect. His work there for over 32 years was his greatest achievement. He designed the overall plan after site layout and preparation by the Olmsted Brothers. He then designed, among others, the Cranford Rose Garden, the Magnolia Plaza, the Osborne Garden (known then as the North Addition), the Herb Garden, the Horticultural Section and especially the Systematic Section, now called the Plant Family Collection, presenting plants in botanic order of their evolution on earth. Beside his own work, during 1913 and again in 1919, his cousin William John Caparne of Guernsey, who had painted with and taken irises of his own propagation to Claude Monet at Giverny, sent him bulbs, plants, and seeds for the garden. Harold and his daughter Rhys jointly designed an armillary sphere that was erected in 1933 and stands at the center of the Magnolia Plaza. In 1980, Rhys gave her 1968, bronze sculpture, Moonrise, in memory of her father.
The parks Caparn designed include Grant Park and Columbus Park in Yonkers, New York; Lincoln Park and Milford Park in Newark, New Jersey; and John Jay Park on the upper east side of Manhattan. He also designed other park-like areas, including the grounds of the National Soldiers Home in Johnson City, Tennessee; the Woodland Garden in the Parade of Gardens at the 1939 New York World’s Fair; Lake View Cemetery near Ithaca, New York; the campus of Brooklyn College from 1937 to 1945; country club grounds in Montclair, New Jersey; and the grounds of an office building of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC.
Among outstanding private estates, he designed those of Mrs. Ben Ali Haggin, wife of the theatrical designer, at Onteora Park in the Catskills, now restored and known as Wildetur; Maitland F. Griggs, Esq., art collector and donor, at Ardsley on the Hudson; J. C. Willever, officer of Western Union, in Millburn, New Jersey, of which the East Gate with waterfall still exists on Glen Avenue; and the Honorable Joseph E. Willard, Ambassador to Spain, in Fairfax, Virginia.
He was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1905. He faithfully served on committees and in various offices of the ASLA Board of Trustees, being elected President of the Society in 1912, and of the New York Chapter in 1920. In the necrology for the ASLA by Charles Downing Lay, he said of Caparn, “In all his associations as in his writings and many activities, he was distinguished by his probity.”
During his fifty-year career, Caparn made lasting contributions to landscape architecture in three principal areas: designing and writing about parks, designing and writing about botanic gardens, and teaching, including a course on landscape architecture, in presentations at professional meetings, and in more than eighty articles in various journals. He also wrote early letters to newspapers and public officials to influence thinking on environmental issues such as soil erosion and air pollution and supporting Jackson Hole National Monument in the debate in Congress whether to abolish it, since “such scenery is a national, not an individual or local possession.”
His varied interests included photography, painting in watercolors, and especially music. He attended many musical performances and wrote knowledgeable letters to well-known conductors and newspaper critics. He died at New York General Hospital at the age of eighty, after a brief illness.
Internet Resources for Caparn
On his work in Yonkers, New York:
www.cityofyonkers.com/ Enter Find a Park, Playground, Grant Park; see photos, portion of one of lawn with boulders. (see also photos of Washington and Columbus Parks)
www.philipsemanorfriends.org/yi/y9.htm Grant Park history, with a statement on its design that can be attributed to Harold Caparn (beware of the typos, not his).
www.philipsemanorfriends.org/yi/y150.htm Residence and Garden of Thomas R. Almond, landscaped by Harold A. Caparn, given in his handlist of jobs.
On his work for the National Soldiers Home, Johnson City, Tennessee:
www.jcedb.org/history/va100/postcards.htm Views of grounds, National Soldiers Home, Johnson City, some views showing landscape design of Harold A. Caparn.
On his work for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn, New York:
www.bbg.org/ Brooklyn Botanic Garden, see Visiting, scroll to map, click on Plant Family Collection, Cranford Rose Garden, Osborne Garden, Herb Garden, Zuk Magnolia Plaza, Lily Pool Terrace; See history sections of various gardens that refer to Caparn.
On the present site of the park in Jamaica Bay, Brooklyn/Queens, New York:
www.nps.gov/gate/ Click on Jamaica Bay Unit, Maps and Directions; click on map of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, for overview of the area described by Caparn in his article.
As a member of the parks committee of the City Club in 1931 he suggested the development of Jacob Riis Park.
On Caparn’s father and daughter, Thomas John Caparn, Rhys Caparn: www.askART.com (available fully without subscription on Fridays only)
On Caparn’s cousin, William John Caparne: www.caparne.org About Caparne, describes his gift of iris to his cousin Harold for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
About the author
Oliver Chamberlain taught, performed, and conducted music at the university level, retiring as Executive Director of the Center for the Arts, University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is the fifth generation of the Caparn-Chamberlain family with interests in horticulture, landscape design, and the arts.