By Carol Stocker
Landscape architects and historians from around the country converged on the Boston Athenaeum Saturday night to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Library of American Landscape History, the foremost publisher in the genre, which is headquartered in Amherst. The non-profit has published a cannon of 26 books on the history of landscape design in this country, working with the University of Massachusetts Press. They include the award winning "A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era," by Robin Karson, LALH's founder and executive director, who briefly addressed the gathering.
Also in attendance were Iris Gestram, executive director of the National Association for Olmsted Parks in Washington, director Mark Zelonis of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Bob Cook, former director of the Arnold Arboretum, Meg Winslow, archivist for the Mount Auburn Cemetery, and Lee Farrow Cook of the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic National Park Service site, named Fairsted.
Nancy Turner, the LALH's founding president, was honored. "I met Robin when she came to write about my Fletcher Steele garden," recalled Turner in an interview. The famous Boston landscape designer had had an office on Louisburg Square, but had retired to Pittsford, N.Y., near her estate, and created his last garden there for her. Karson documented it in her great book, "Fletcher Steele, Landscape Architect." Written shortly after Steele's death in 1971, the book documented many of his gardens before they were lost. Steele gardens were generally high maintenance and seldom survived their owners, "but Mabel Choate preserved her Naumkeag," said Turner. She referred to the The Trustees of Reservations' Steele garden in Stockbridge, famed for its series of white Art Deco staircases and waterfalls framed by birch trees..
Turner now lives in Connecticut. Does her own Pittsford garden still exist? "I don't know. I never went back to look. There has been a tremendous increase in the cost of maintenance." She smiled. "Gardens are like sand castles. It survives in Robin's book," she said as she flipped though the book's pages, which featured photos of her well planted granite staircase, orchard, and a series of terraces that led to a round reflecting pool. "It's very quiet, a placid place that reflected the final year of Fletcher Steele's life."
It was after completing this survey of Steele's rapidly vanishing gardens that Karson decided there needed to be an organization that published books on American historical landscapes. She was able to start one with Turner's support, and has kept it going for 20 years, during which she has assembled the most important authors of books on landscape architecture in this country.
New books include "Community by Design; The Olmsted Firm and the Planning of Brookline," by Elisabeth Hope Cushing, Roger G. Reed and Boston University professor Keith N. Morgan, who was at the party. After designing Central Park, Olmsted deserted New York for Brookline, which had proudly anointed itself "the richest town in the world." Little has been previously published on the importance of Brookline as a laboratory and model for the Olmsted firm's work. This book will detail how his son and namesake saw the town as a grounds for experimenting in the new profession of city planning.
It will be followed next year by a study of another important locally based designer. "Arthur A. Shurcliff and the Making of the Colonial Williamsburg Landscape," by Elizabeth Hope Cushing, will spotlight this under-appreciated force in the Colonial Revival house and garden movement. His projects included aspects of the Charles River Esplanade, the Franklin Park Zoo, and, at the end of his life, the iconic gardens at Colonial Williamsburg.
Next year will also see the LAHL's publication of "The Best Planned City in the World: Olmsted, Vaux, and the Buffalo Park System," by Francis R. Kowsky, cq writing about Buffalo, N.Y. "We try to focus the study on individual places," explained Karson. It will be the first in a series edited by Ethan Carr called "Designing the American Park." Another new series will deal with environmental design.
Interest in the history of American landscape architecture has blossomed in the last three decades, said Carr at the gathering. He linked it to the resurgence of interest in New York's Central Park and it's history. That park, which sunk to an all-time low in the 1970's, is now in the best shape of its history, thanks in part to LALH board member Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the founder of the powerful Central Park Conservancy.
Boston's Emerald Necklace, another Olmsted masterpiece, has also enjoyed rejuvenation and scholarly attention. The Frederick Law Olmsted Papers Project will soon publish Volume Eight of Olmsted Sr's letters, dealing with the 1880's when the Emerald Necklace was created, said Carr, who is the editor.
The U. Mass professor is also the editor of one of LALH's prizewinning books, "Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Dilemma." And what is the dilemma? "Too little money, too many visitors," said Carr succinctly. "And too many cars."