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When Frederick Law Olmsted came to Boston

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  November 21, 2013 11:04 AM

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In the late 1870s, New York’s loss was Boston’s gain: Frederick Law Olmsted, renowned for designing Central Park but then booted from the Big Apple, landed in Brookline. Over the next decade he’d set in motion the Emerald Necklace and transform the young field of landscape architecture.

A new volume of Olmsted’s papers details those momentous years. “The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted: The Early Boston Years, 1882-1890,” is the eighth of nine planned volumes of Olmsted’s papers edited by Charles Beveridge and published by Johns Hopkins University Press. This one actually opens in 1878, when political infighting led to the elimination of Olmsted’s job as New York City's resident landscape architect . At the same time, officials in Boston were struggling to find a suitable proposal for restoring the Back Bay Fens (which Ideas wrote about in 2011). Olmsted swooped in with a plan and four years later, in 1882, he set up shop at 99 Warren Street in Brookline. The good work was just beginning.

“The Boston park system is the one where Olmsted’s ideas are the most fully developed,” says Ethan Carr of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who co-edited the volume. During the 1880s Olmsted designed the Back Bay Fens, Franklin Park, and the Muddy River Improvement as parts of the Emerald Necklace, the country’s first real parks system.

“Different types of parks connected by a parkway system,” says Carr, “that’s the essence of a modern urban park system. Some would be neighborhood playgrounds, some would be large rural landscapes like Franklin Park, and they’d all be connected by a parkway that emphasized pedestrians.”

The letters, photographs, and drawings in the new volume are being used today to guide restoration projects in the Emerald Necklace, including a major restoration of the Muddy River Improvement by the Army Corps of Engineers.

They also shed light on something more academic: the birth of landscape architecture as a defined field and practice. Olmsted could have gone anywhere when he left New York, and he chose Boston because the city offered the best opportunity for intellectual collaboration. Out of his home in Brookline—known as Fairsted—Olmsted and his stepson, John Charles Olmsted, developed the first modern landscape architecture firm. Olmsted was also close friends with Charles Eliot, son of Harvard University president Charles William Eliot, and in 1900 Harvard opened the country’s first landscape architecture program.

There’s no clean way to separate ideas from events from ideas, but Olmsted’s Boston years do show how the two modify each other. There’s no Emerald Necklace without the provocation of an idea, and sometimes it takes a grand demonstration to motivate a new line of inquiry.

The General Plan for Franklin Park, 1885
Olmsted 1.jpg

Boylston Street Bridge in the Back Bay Fens, c. 1900
Olmsted 2.jpg

Back Bay Fens, 1895
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Playstead Overlook Shelter in Franklin Park, 1889
Olmsted 4.jpg

Images courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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