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Daniel Urban Kiley

By Kevin Roche

Landscape architecture is the least celebrated of the arts, unless of course you happen to be Le Notre and the Sun King is your patron. Daniel Urban Kiley was not so fortunate, but in the century in which he worked he became the preeminent landscape architect and had, if not the Sun King, many distinguished institutions and individuals as patrons.

He was born in Boston in 1912. At the age of 18 he apprenticed to Warren H. Manning, who was an associate of Fredrick Law Olmsted. He enrolled at the Graduate School of Design’s landscape architecture program at Harvard but left disillusioned about the school’s lack of support for modern expression in the practice of landscape design. He joined the armed forces in 1945 and was sent to Germany to rehabilitate the Palace of Justice into a courtroom for the Nuremburg Trials. In 1951, he moved his family to Vermont and opened an office near his home on Lake Champlain.

From his many landscape projects, here are just a few:

Jefferson Memorial Arch, St. Louis
Miller House, Columbus, Indiana
United States Air Force Academy
Rockefeller University
Dulles Airport
Lincoln Center
Oakland Museum
Dalle Centrale, Paris
John F. Kennedy Library
National Gallery of Art
The Ford Foundation Headquarters
National Sculpture Garden, Washington

We who knew him and worked with him were blessed to know a wonderful human being and a superb visionary who could quickly design an appropriate response to the complex problems which surround the creation of a work of art. If, as Eero Saarinen used to say, architecture moves in elephant time, landscape architecture moves in dinosaur time. The vision precedes the reality by 10, 50, or even 100 years and the creator rarely lives to see the magnificence of the creation which nature eventually realizes. As Joyce said, “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined and out of existence.”

Dan Kiley accomplished great and original things in his profession, but his real love was Anne, his wife of many, many years, and his pride and joy was his family of eight wonderful children and, of course, the land he lived in and on. Here are a few of his thoughts about that. He always spoke best for himself.

Anne and I live as simply as possible on the land within the forest and farmland of northern New England. We chose to live here, in this way, to keep our minds open and our senses attuned to the organizations and evolutions of nature’s order.

Searching for the… connection which holds us all together… there is an evolving, ever-changing many-faceted order that binds everything into harmonious parts of a greater whole.

He continues:

I was drawn to the richness of the rural landscape and fascinated by the force of its purity: one thousand sugar-maple trunks on a leaf-strewn slope; a rippling twenty-acre blanket of ripe, golden hay that reversed in winter to reveal a brilliant snow-field…; a burst of fragrant apple blossom frothing above the crab grass of the local orchard.

Recalling his childhood, he wrote,

It was at my grandmother’s that I first felt infinity. I discovered, like Thoreau, that one need not travel to the ends of the earth or concoct some complexity to find the truest measurement of human existence; it is here all around us.

The greatest contribution we can make is to link the human and the natural in such a way as to recall our fundamental place in the scheme of things.

He had for us a final remembrance.

My father was the head of a construction business and an excellent boxer. We called him ‘the Champ,’ and he kept us all on our toes. Especially me—I had to stand on my tip toes at the age of four in his favorite bar to drink the gin laced with sugar and hot water that he ordered for me.

Those who know Dan will recall his impish smile as he continued, “I have enjoyed gin ever since.”

After a long productive life, passionately devoted to his art, Daniel Urban Kiley, to borrow a Victorian phrase, “joined the majority” on February 21, 2004, leaving a body of work which will continue to mature and will be cherished and studied by many generations yet to come.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 7, 2004.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters