Gift of Lithographic Plans Reveals
Olmsted’s Landscaping Genius

By Gary Schmidgall

If there is one subject on which all New Yorkers—especially Manhattanites—agree, it is in expressing gratitude for the existence of Central Park. Perhaps none said it better or more succinctly than Henry James, when he wrote in The American Scene that “to pass, in New York, from the discipline of the streets to this so different many-smiling presence is to be thrilled at every turn.”

Only a handful of the grateful millions who enjoy the park every year know the name of the man who was the original driving force behind the project: Andrew Jackson Downing (death in a riverboat accident in 1852 cut short his involvement in its early stages). But many more are aware that Central Park was primarily the creation of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. The Connecticut Yankee Olmsted (1822- 1903) and Londoner Vaux (1824-1895) submitted the winning plan in a design competition in 1858, and they worked together on the park for the next two decades.

Curator Hanque Macari
But Olmsted was clearly the Batman of this dynamic landscaping duo. He and Vaux worked as Architect-in-Chief and Consulting Architect for the Park Commission, and Olmsted went on to become the acknowledged founder of American landscape architecture, as well as its most prolific and distinguished 19th-century exponent.

Now, amid intense concern that designers of buildings and landscapes “get it right” at the World Trade Center site, CUNY’s School of Architecture, Urban Design and Landscape Architecture at City College has honored Olmsted—who got it brilliantly right in such metropolitan public spaces as Central Park, Prospect Park, Riverside Drive Park and Washington Park (Fort Greene)—with a recent exhibition titled “Sheep Grazing in the Meadow: The Olmstedian Landscape.”

The exhibition coincides with the sesquicentennial of State legislation that established Central Park, and it is fittingly on view in the Architecture School’s exhibition gallery in architecturally landmarked Shepard Hall. But the real purpose of the installation, its curator and Professor of Architecture Hanque Macari explains, is to display the 50 original lithographic plans that were donated to the School last year by the Frederick Law Olmsted Association.

The collection came to the City College through the good offices of President William Alex, for 30 years the driving force behind the Association, and Architecture School Dean George Ranalli, after earlier discussions initiated by Professor Lee Weintraub, director of the Urban Landscape Architecture

CCNY School of Architecture Gallery
The story behind the donation begins more than 30 years ago, when Alex first became interested in Olmsted’s work. He soon recognized that one of the “most famous Americans of the Victorian era” (he was even touted as a possible Vice Presiden-tial candidate) had “simply slid into almost total obscurity.” In short order Alex became active on the Olmsted Sesquicentennial Committee, which orchestrated a wide variety of celebrations of the great landscape architect’s work in 1972. Alex was largely responsible for the coup of simultaneous Olmsted exhibitions at the Whitney and the National Gallery in Washington.

A thorough revival of Olmsted’s fame and interest in his legacy was successfully commenced.

At the suggestion of Alice Kaplan and the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the Sesquicentennial Committee re-formed itself as the non-profit Olmsted Association in 1972. Since then it has provided assistance in the form of exhibitions, publications and research assistance to the general public, parkland managers, urban planners, scholars and students.

In 1978, the Association also lobbied with success for the Olmsted Associates business site in Brookline, Mass., to be named a U.S. Historical Site in 1979. The firm shut down for good the next year, and the rich Olmsted estate archives are now managed by the National Park Service. A few years ago, Alex assisted the Uffizi Gallery in Florence in mounting an Olmsted show.

During a conversation with Alex—aptly enough in the Upper West Side’s pocket Straus Park, near his home—he explained that, “feeling my age,” in 2001 he began to close the Association and look for an appropriate safe place for the Olmsted treasures left in the Association’s possession from the 1972 shows.

Though Alex, a Columbia University Master’s grad, had previously given a choice collection of Vaux and Olmsted materials to his alma mater, he decided this time to make a call to Prof. Weintraub. Would the CCNY School of Architecture be interested in such a donation? “It didn’t take me long to say ‘Yes!’” Weintraub recalls. “Alex, I believe, recognized the School was an important repository for landscape architecture theory.” He also came to City College, Weintraub believes, because so much of Olmsted’s pioneering early work was accomplished in New York City.

Soon Alex was writing to Dean Ranalli, expressing his confidence that “this unique collection of Olmsted lithographs will find not only a proper home but a felicitous study environment at City College.”

And that is what has happened, says Weintraub. “Putting exemplary materials in front of landscape architecture students doesn’t happen enough, and donations like the Olmsted make this possible.” Weintraub was particularly pleased that Alex was present for the first seminar employing the lithographs in their new home.

Alex inspected the exhibition before the seminar and was delighted. “It was so beautiful—everything up to the highest standard.” A good thing, too, since Alex believes that, except for the holdings at the Olmsted Historic Site in Brookline, so rich a concentration of Olmsted plans cannot be duplicated in the nation.

Macari is delighted to have the trove on campus, as it offers prime examples to the School’s future landscape architects of “how to create a diverse, but unified plan in great detail and, perhaps, simply to inspire innovation.” Among the innovations Macari points to is the overpass. “At that time overpasses over bodies of water—bridges—were of course common, but the separation of pedestrian and carriage traffic, as you see at several places in Central Park, was something new.”

Also revolutionary was Olmsted’s profound belief in the need for citizens, as Macari says, “to escape to natural settings to find touchstones for regaining contact with their aesthetic selves.” In pressing for the restorative powers of large natural spaces in large cities, Olmsted was not above a little intimidation.

To the town fathers of Chicago in 1895, he spoke his mind about the future Jackson Park, along Lake Michigan: “There are three elements of scenery… which must be regarded as indispensable to a fine park on your site, the first being turf, the second being foliage, and the third still water. For each of these you are bound at the outset to make the best of your opportunities, because if you do not, posterity will be likely to lay waste what you have done, in order to prepare something better.”

Another Olmsted characteristic was his concern to create a kind of “gallery” of carefully composed scenes as a visitor rambled along a path. Next to a lithograph of Prospect Park, Macari has included a drawing showing Olmsted’s proposed sight lines for a meadow-side path. These create what landscape designers now call “view sheds,” the cone of vision that opens up from a particular vantage-point.

Olmsted’s remarkable attention to detail is notably on display in the large, often- reproduced 1873 lithograph of Central Park, the one that shows both the old Croton receiving reservoir (now the Great Lawn) and the much larger new one. If one looks very closely, the entire park is gridded into 100’ by 100’ squares, and we learn from excerpts from Olmsted’s voluminous journals included by Macari that Olmsted had very specific ideas for each location in the park. For example, for square 5-A, just inside the park opposite 61st Street and Central Park West, he specified 166 Syrian hibiscuses, Roses of Sharon and Shrubby Altheas. Macari says these planting specs were followed for decades afterward.

There are also instances in which Olmsted showed that the ideal public park must avoid the man-made “discipline” that Henry James mentioned. In a March 1872 memorandum of “Certain Work to be Done in Central Park,” he wrote, “The patches of shrubs are now generally much too garden-like. They are to be made more natural and picturesque, especially those on hillsides and broken ground.”

Also on view is a small colored lithograph of Washington Park, and a 1913 plan for the extension of Riverside Park from 155th Street to the Harlem River. (Olmsted’s sons carried on the work of the firm, which was based in Brookline, Massachusetts, from 1883 and continued in existence until 1980).

Most of the 50 lithographs are from the northeastern U.S., notably a lithograph of the Muddy River section in Boston, a part of the so-called “Emerald Necklace” of parks that wanders from the Charles River and the Fens through the northern part of the city.

Though Olmsted himself never earned a college degree, he created several distinguished campus designs. Three are represented in the exhibition: the American University in the District of Columbia, Washington University in St. Louis and U.C. Berkeley.

Olmsted also conceived many housing developments with curvilinear, tree-lined streets. On display is a plat of the Bryn Mawr neighborhood in Yonkers and Worlds End in Boston. Projects further afield are represented by Louisville’s Iroquois Park, Atlanta’s Druid Hills Park, and Milwaukee’s Lake Park.

When asked if he has a favorite lithograph among the fifty, the curator points to the plan for Belle Isle Park in the Detroit River, which separates the U.S. and Canada.

A native of Detroit, Macari admits: “I have mixed feelings about growing up in the Motor City, but certainly remember fondly Olmsted’s island park.

I can still recall vividly, as a child, taking pony-drawn buggy rides along pine-scented paths, engaging edges of the dense, enchanted forest reserves on the island.”

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