Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Olmsteds Around America

A new guide reminds us that there are Olmsted designs to be seen and celebrated all over this country.
Olmsteds Around America

Even a brief summary of Frederick Law Olmsted’s work will run to great length–and for that, we remain grateful. Take this one, offered by the invaluable Cultural Landscape Foundation on the Bicentennial of Olmsted’s birth (this year):

[His p]rojects ranged in scope and scale from park and parkway systems—in  Brooklyn, Buffalo, Boston, Chicago, Louisville, and Seattle; major urban parks—Central Park, New York City; Franklin Park, Boston; and, Jackson Park, Chicago; scenic reservations—Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove and the Niagara Reservation; government buildings—the U.S. Capitol Grounds, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut State House; academic campuses such as Stanford University, Palo Alto, California; residential communities such as Riverside, Illinois, and Druid Hills, Atlanta, Georgia; and country estates such as Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina and Moraine Farm in Beverly, Massachusetts.

If you don’t travel with an Olmsted library in your trunk or saddlebag, this can be rather difficult to keep in mind. Some promenades, glades, and pleasure drives will evade your notice. 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 more than 300 Olmsted and successor firm landscapes, complete with map and other aids to reduce your odds of blithely passing by a superb landscape. The guide is a work in progress, which the CLF intends to expand. Even at current size, the guide will inevitably deliver surprises.

Consider Beardsley Park in Bridgeport, Conn., started by Olmsted Sr. and finished by his son, John Charles Olmsted, whose recommendations for the site—“thinning woodlands into open glades for parklike character, while encouraging native shrub growth for decorative understory; enhancing hillside areas for distant views while utilizing the natural boulders to create a vine-covered, bastion-like carriage concourse”—live on today. At 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 John Charles’ advice) is now gone.

Not so far away in New Britain, Conn., there’s Walnut Hill Park, an 1870 Olmsted and Vaux hilltop design that still stands as a credit to that city. There are also a variety of landscape features at Trinity College that endure in Olmsted’s native Hartford.

If you live in Connecticut you likely know about these sites, but there are many entries in the Olmsted guide beneath the first tier of his preeminent parks. Take Cadwalader Park in Trenton. If parks are the easiest elements on the list with which to engage, there is still much more, like Olmsted’s planned suburbs and communities. Sudbrook Park, plotted as a vacation community in Pikesville near Baltimore, outdoes the suburban neighborhoods that now surround it.

I didn’t know that the University of Maine at Orono existed, let alone that it featured design elements from both an initial Olmsted and Vaux 1867 scheme and later accentuations by the Olmsted Brothers firm. One theme that emerges as you peruse the guide is the ease with which someone can rip off a landscape plan. For example, the original Olmsted and Vaux plan at Orono was rejected, “but they adopted his concept of orienting academic buildings toward the Stillwater River and an open parade ground and arboretum.” In the 1930s, though, they hired the Olmsted Brothers firm, who plotted a new axis for building development, an elm allée, a landscaped lake, as well as suggestions for removing buildings.

Another Olmsted plan  you might 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 curving streets radiating around a village green, and homes uniformly set back 36 feet from the street on various hillsides. “More than 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 their initial commissions being followed by later work by the Olmsted Brothers firm. Sometimes, as these sites were constructed, there would be triple or even lengthier advice engagements over time. Thus, the principal benefit of the CLF guide is that it doesn’t stop with the work of Olmsted Sr., but covers the work of his sons, whose work was often of a similar quality to their father’s. The Olmsted Brothers firm produced over 6,000 projects until 1979, and the talents it employed went on to found a number of excellent landscape-architecture firms. One of the last partners, Joseph George Hudak, is still alive. Hence, almost 100 designers are profiled in the CLF guide, with numerous projects demanding our attention.

Many of these later works are excellent, and don’t tend to appear in the books on Olmsted. I had never heard of Wilkes-Barre’s Kirby Park. I had also never heard of Percival Gallagher’s Ball Nurses’ Sunken Garden and Convalescent Park in Indianapolis, featuring, per the guide, “a neoclassical geometric style, with a central square garden featuring a circular pool and statue and four planted quadrants, flanked on the east and west by two quadrangular turf panels outlined with strolling paths.”

The Olmsted Brothers’ Baltimore parkways were familiar to me, but if you are unfamiliar with them, they are worth your time. Other Olmsted street designs tend to avoid our notice: the riverfront Swasey parkway in Exeter, N.H., or Blackstone Boulevard in R.I., commissioned by a cemetery “to provide a more dignified arrival experience,” and succeeding at that.

There are more planned suburbs in the guide that one ought to see. Ashland Park in Lexington, Ken., or St. Francis Wood in San Francisco. Naturally, the latter was planned to suit the area’s topography, with a wide central boulevard and double row of trees, along with Italian Renaissance-style gardens, and its well intact. Contents expand beyond national borders, with Capilano Estates in Vancouver, a suburb and country club spanning 1,1000 acres designed to maximize water and mountain views.

Also included in the guide is the village of Kohler, Wisconsin, a name that might appear in your kitchen and bathroom, and whose founder commissioned a model community plan that was partially realized. There are numerous university designs included, too, from the University of North Alabama, Fisk University in Nashvhille, Huntington College in Montgomery, to the University of Florida at Gainesville, and others. If you don’t already make university tourism part of your travels, the contents of this guide provide a compelling reason to do so.

There is, of course, much more: the Washtenong Cemetery in Ann Arbor, the Yeaman’s Hall Country Club in Hanahan, S.C., the Bernheim Arboretum south of Louisville. The most unexpected entry must be the Caracas Country Club, a club-and-neighborhood commission obtained at the advice of Nelson Rockefeller. It’s still around, even if the odds of visiting it right now seem low.

There have been losses in the collection and unfortunate modifications, too, but there are also bright tales of revivals, corrections, and efforts to hew to Olmsted’s original plans in modern renovations. Of course, not all is rosy. Some of the items on the list are currently imperiled, and the CLF is planning a report focused on at-risk Olmsted landscapes. An example is Northern State Hospital in Sedro-Wooley, Wash., the site of a former mental institution that spans over 1,000 acres. It’s a rare largely intact Olmsted agricultural plan, even if most buildings are in a state of advanced decay. Every landscape needs some tending, and may this report encourage just that.

Anthony Paletta 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, urbanism, and place.



Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here