An Early Design by Olmsted – The Terrain

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by Chris Pattillo, FASLA

Cogswell Monument left of center and typical curvilinear plot with a variety of exotic trees / image: Chris Pattillo

The following article highlights the importance of documenting historic landscapes for life. For the 13th edition HALS Challenge Competitionthe Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) invites you to document Landscapes of Olmsted. 2022 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted, social reformer and founder of American landscape architecture. By documenting Olmsted’s landscapes for HALS, you will raise awareness of historic landscapes and illuminate Olmsted’s living legacy. Any site designed or planned in part or in whole by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., his firm and the firm continued by his sons, John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Junior, is eligible.

When you think of Olmsted, states like Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, maybe Connecticut immediately come to mind, but not everyone associates the Olmsted company with working in California, where I screw. Although the list of projects designed by Olmsted in my state is relatively short – I have identified ten projects so far – some of Olmsted’s most notable and impactful work has been done here in California.

The planning work done for Yosemite National Park is probably the most notable. Olmsted Sr. provided the original vision for Yosemite in 1865 and Statement of intent from Olmsted Jr. for the National Park Service in 1916 laid the foundation for our national park system.

The company also developed the first plans for two major university campuses in California: the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University in Palo Alto.

One of Olmsted Senior’s first commissions was for Mountain View Cemetery in my hometown. I documented it for HALS in 2009. For someone of such remarkable vision, it’s hard to imagine that Olmsted Sr. had poor eyesight as a result of a childhood illness. It was this deficiency that prevented him from fighting in the Civil War. Instead, Olmsted was accused of being an administrator setting up camp facilities for troops, and it was this experience that later led to him being hired by John C. Fremont to run a camp mining at the Mariposa gold mine in California. Olmsted arrived in Bear Valley, California in August 1863 and was immediately taken aback by what he discovered: a community ruled by violence, alcoholism and exploitation. Shortly after his arrival, the mine closed and it was around this time that the Mountain View trustees invited him to lay out their new cemetery.

Cedar Deodar at Miller’s Grave / image: Chris Pattillo

Mountain View Cemetery was Olmsted Sr.’s first solo commission, and it is the only example of a cemetery he designed. True to form, Olmsted applied his unique vision to the site. As Olmsted and his clients became more familiar with the lush East Coast climate, he immediately recognized California’s profound difference. In this capacity, he advised his clients to adopt a design suited to the dry landscape of California.

Italian cypress, one of the species mentioned in Olmsted’s account / image: Chris Pattillo

Olmsted’s plan for the new cemetery consisted of a large drawing (about six and a half feet by four feet) and a written narrative. In the account, he named only five tree species: Italian cypress, Lebanese cedar, umbrella pine, Monterey cypress, and holm oak (Quercus agrifolia). He requested that the slopes be planted with native grasses and plenty of shrubs. He wrote: “The brooding forms of the thickets and the canopy of the cedars would unite in the expression of protective care extended to the place of the dead, the sky-pointing spiers of the immortal cypress would evoke the consolations of faith.

Live oak, one of five species mentioned by Olmsted in his account for Mountain View Cemetery / image: Chris Pattillo

mountain cemetery occupies 226 acres in the hills of Oakland. Part of the land is level where Olmsted has laid out an official entrance with diamond-shaped roads. In hilly areas, he laid out curved roads and paths that follow the contours. The most prominent feature of the cemetery is a half-mile driveway that begins on the flat ground and climbs a gentle slope. Four nodes punctuate the driveway where Olmsted’s plan called for a public monument to everyone.

Olmsted envisioned a place where all people would be buried, he wrote, “a place of our common grief, our common hopes, and our common faith; a place where we can see and feel our sympathy for one another…where all elements of society would be provided for…so that the community of the dead would be an object lesson to the community of the living.

The view from what is called Millionaire’s Row / image: Chris Pattillo

Today, this large landscaped space in the heart of a densely populated urban area provides an oasis that is used by nearby residents as a place for walking or birdwatching.

Chris Pattillo, FASLA, co-founded the Northern California Chapter of HALS in 2003 with Cathy Garrett, ASLA, PGAdesign and Betsy Flack, ASLA. She originated the idea for the HALS Challenge in 2009 and has prepared several sets of HALS materials.

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For more information on the HALS Challenge 2022, Landscapes of Olmsted, please see this previous post. Each month by July 31 Deadline for the HALS Challenge, we will feature historical landscapes relevant to this year’s theme. Stay tuned for more HALS messages!

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