Even a brief summary of Frederick Law Olmsted’s work will be very long – and for that we are grateful to him. Take this one, donated by the treasured Cultural Landscape Foundation on the occasion of the bicentenary of Olmsted’s birth (this year):
[His p]projects varied in scope and scale from park and parkway systems – in Brooklyn, Buffalo, Boston, Chicago, Louisville and Seattle; large urban parks—Central Park, New York City; Franklin Park, Boston; and, Jackson Park, Chicago; scenic preserves – Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove and Niagara Preserve; government buildings — the US Capitol Grounds, Washington, DC and the Connecticut State House; college campuses such as Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA; residential communities such as Riverside, Illinois and Druid Hills, Atlanta, Georgia; and estates such as Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina and Moraine Farm in Beverly, Massachusetts.
If you’re not traveling with an Olmsted bookcase in your trunk or satchel, this can be quite difficult to keep in mind. Some walks, clearings and car rides will escape you. There is now a solution, however, in the form of the Cultural Landscape Foundation’s excellent resource called What’s Out There Olmsted, an online guide to over 300 landscapes by Olmsted and his successors, with a map and other aids to reduce your chances of passing happily. by a beautiful landscape. The guide is a work in progress, which CWF intends to expand. Even at the current size, the guide inevitably reserves surprises.
Consider Beardsley Park in Bridgeport, Connecticut, started by Olmsted Sr. and completed by his son, John Charles Olmsted, whose recommendations for the site – “thin the forests into open glades for a park-like character, while encouraging the growth of native shrubs for decorative understory; enhancing hillside areas for distant views while using natural rocks to create a vine-covered carriage hall, similar to a ‘bastion-live’ In Beardsley Park today there remain gable-roofed barns and bridges and a statue of James W. Beardsley A zoo full of retired Barnum circus animals (installed contrary to the advice of John Charles) has now disappeared.
Not far away in New Britain, Connecticut is Walnut Hill Park, an 1870 Olmsted and Vaux hilltop design that still does this town proud. There are also a variety of landscape features at Trinity College that endure in Hartford, Olmsted’s birthplace.
If you live in Connecticut, you’re probably familiar with these sites, but there are plenty of entries in the Olmsted Guide below the first level of its preeminent parks. Take Cadwalader Park in Trenton. While parks are the easiest items on the list to engage with, there are still many more, like the suburbs and planned communities of Olmsted. Sudbrook Park, plotted as a vacation community in Pikesville near Baltimore, rises above the suburban neighborhoods that now surround it.
I had no idea the University of Maine at Orono existed, let alone that it had design elements of both an initial Olmsted and Vaux 1867 scheme and later accentuations from the Olmsted Brothers company. A theme that emerges as you go through the guide is how easily someone can rip off a landscaping plan. For example, Olmsted and Vaux’s original plan at Orono was rejected, “but they adopted his concept of orienting university buildings towards the Stillwater River and an open parade ground and arboretum”. In the 1930s, however, they brought in the firm Olmsted Brothers, who laid out a new axis for the development of the buildings, an elm alley, a landscaped lake, as well as suggestions for the removal of the buildings.
Another plan of Olmsted that you could easily miss is that of Pinehurst, North Carolina, a resort community about 40 miles west of Fayetteville, originally planned by Olmsted in 1895. It features curved streets radiating around of a green village and houses evenly set back 36 feet from the street on various hillsides. “Over 225,000 plants were added during construction,” the guide notes, “with a preference for native plants and a dual emphasis on spring-blooming flowers and winter evergreens.”
A recurring pattern in these works is that their initial commissions are followed by later work by the Olmsted Brothers company. Sometimes, as these sites were built, there were triple or even longer consulting engagements over time. Thus, the main advantage of the CLF guide is that it does not stop at the work of Olmsted Sr., but covers the work of his sons, whose work was often of a similar quality to that of their father. The Olmsted Brothers firm produced over 6,000 projects up to 1979, and the talents it employed went on to found a number of excellent landscape architecture firms. One of the last associates, Joseph George Hudak, is still alive. Thus, nearly 100 designers are profiled in the CLF guide, with many projects that catch our attention.
Many of these later works are excellent and do not usually appear in books about Olmsted. I had never heard of Kirby Park in Wilkes-Barre. I had also never heard of the Sunken Garden and Convalescent Park of Percival Gallagher’s Ball Nurses in Indianapolis, with, according to the guide, “a neoclassical geometric style, with a central square garden with a circular pool and a statue and four planted quadrants , flanked on the east and west by two quadrangular slabs of grass bounded by walking paths.
The Olmsted Brothers Baltimore walks were familiar to me, but if you don’t know them, they are worth the effort. Other Olmsted street designs tend to elude us: the riverside Swasey Drive in Exeter, NH, or Blackstone Boulevard in the RI, commissioned by a graveyard “to provide a more dignified arrival experience. “, and succeeding.
There are more planned suburbs in the guide that one should see. Ashland Park in Lexington, Ken., or St. Francis Wood in San Francisco. Naturally, the latter was designed according to the topography of the district, with a wide central boulevard and a double row of trees, as well as Italian Renaissance style gardens and its intact well. Content extends beyond national borders, with Capilano Estates in Vancouver, a suburb and country club spanning 1,1000 acres designed to maximize water and mountain views.
The guide also includes the village of Kohler, Wisconsin, a name that might appear in your kitchen and bathroom, and whose founder commissioned a model community plan that has been partially completed. There are also many university designs, from the University of North Alabama, Fisk University in Nashvhille, Huntington College in Montgomery, University of Florida in Gainesville, etc. If you’re not already incorporating college tourism into your travels, the content in this guide will provide you with a compelling reason to do so.
There is, of course, much more: the Washtenong Cemetery in Ann Arbor, Yeaman’s Hall Country Club in Hanahan, South Carolina, the Bernheim Arboretum south of Louisville. The most unexpected entry has to be the Caracas Country Club, a club and neighborhood commission obtained on the advice of Nelson Rockefeller. It is still there, although the chances of visiting it right now seem low.
There have been losses to the collection and unfortunate alterations, but there are also shining stories of revivals, corrections and efforts to conform to Olmsted’s original plans in modern renovations. Of course, all is not rosy. Some of the items on the list are currently at risk, and the CLF is planning a report focusing on Olmsted’s landscapes at risk. One example is Northern State Hospital in Sedro-Wooley, Washington, the site of a former mental institution that spans over 1,000 acres. It is a rare largely intact Olmsted farm plan, although most of the buildings are in a state of disrepair. Every landscape needs to be nurtured, and may this report encourage that.
Antoine Palette lives in Brooklyn. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urban planning and places.