Olmstead's Legacy: Parks for American Cities
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
OK, I'm about to diss the park for which we are named, Bryant Park. Why? Because I have to tell you there is almost no better place to be on a beautiful spring day, like today, in Manhattan, than in Central Park. It is chock full of people strolling and running. Catching a little snooze under a tree, tourists snapping photos. In any season it is a sanctuary from the cacophony and chaos of Manhattan, and it has become the nation's quintessential urban park. One man was primarily responsible for creating that park, his name is Frederick Law Olmstead, and tomorrow he would have turned 186 years old. That's very old.
And this weekend, New York will celebrate 150 years since Olmstead and his partner, Calvert Vaux, won the competition to design Central Park. After that masterpiece, Olmstead went on to design Brooklyn's Prospect Park, Boston's Emerald Necklace, Mount Royal Park, in Montreal, The Biltmore Estate in North Carolina Park and places and parks in dozens of other states and college campuses from coast to coast. He is now hailed as the grandfather of landscape architecture, but most folks still don't know really anything about this man.
So we are going to try to fix that. Enter our guest, Charles Berveridge, he's the editor of the Frederick Law Olmstead papers and the author of "Frederick Law Olmstead: Designing the American Landscape." He'll be participating in a panel discussion on Central Park at the Metropolitan Museum of Art tomorrow, he joins me on the line now. Hi Charles.
Mr. CHARLES BEVERIDGE (Author, Frederick Law Olmstead: Designing the American Landscape): Hello.
MARTIN: Thanks for joining us.
Mr. BEVERIDGE: Well, glad to be with you.
MARTIN: So first, let's set the scene a little bit. What were parks in America like before Frederick Law Olmstead?
Mr. BEVERIDGE: There were not very many parks. A number of cities had made very small parks, squares and so forth. But none anything like the extent of Central Park. That was an example that really came from Europe, from the parks that were being created in Paris in the 1850s. You know, metropolitan size parks for the great new metropolis that was developing both there and here in the 1850s.
MARTIN: So, if you're talking to someone, if you come across them, who has never heard of this person before, Frederick Law Olmstead, what would you tell them to help them understand why this guy is such an important figure in American history?
Mr. BEVERIDGE: Yes, well, I mean, Central Park is the first great urban park and sets the example for so many that have been built, especially over the next 50 years throughout the country. And he and his partner, Calvert Vaux, did a marvelous job of creating a particular kind of park that was both a gathering place for people, a promoter of community and creating the kinds of landscape that were, they thought, a medical antidote to, you know, the rush and the sound and the hard edge and all of the city. Something, a landscape, that in fact, counteracted what we now call stress. So that, making an institution in a sense, that was both psychological and social, was really a marvelous conception.
MARTIN: A lot of the psychology, the philosophy behind Central Park emerged from his time in the pre-Civil War South of the United States, right? He was a reporter for the New York Times, which had just been founded as an anti-slavery paper. Describe what impact that time had on his work.
Mr. BEVERIDGE: That's right. It was really very important. He went through the South over a number of months, wrote 75 letters to the New York Times, made an analysis and then wrote three books that were part travel account, part analysis of the South. And what he wrote really became a very important base for the growing political anti-slavery in the North and for the Republican Party that was forming on that basis. But for him too, he was in the South, and he ended up, when he could, arguing with Southerners and slaveholders about which kind of system was better, superior.
Slave society or free-soil society. And he was distressed that the extent to which they could argue, that the society of the North was not all that is ought to be, or all that he claimed it was. So he came back from the South, and he writes his friends and says, well, we've got to do a much better job of demonstrating the superiority of free-labor society and particularly, we've got to show that a republican country, small r, can create institutions of culture and science and others that are available to everybody. And he mentions parks in particular, and within a few years, he's in the midst of that whole process, creating the first great parks.
MARTIN: Because he didn't want these parks, like the predecessors in Europe that he was looking at. Those, often times, were not open to the public. So he really used parks as a way to manifest his belief in freedom and equality.
Mr. BEVERIDGE: That's right. I mean, the parks were beginning to be opened up to the public, even in France. But the parks in Paris were being built by a dictator, Napoleon III. In other countries they were simply opening up Royal parks that had been limited to the aristocracy and were perhaps slowly being opened to the public but were not designed as public parks. So for Olmstead, it was a different kind of park, on the one hand and it was also being created by the people, for the people. Demonstrating that the people in a democracy could provide what in the old world was provided by autocrats and aristocrats.
MARTIN: But not many people appreciated what he was doing as he did, right? He was the founder of what we now can call landscape architecture.
Mr. BEVERIDGE: That's right.
MARTIN: And at the time, many people thought, what are you talking about? You're a gardener. What arguments did he make to try to legitimize landscape architecture?
Mr. BEVERIDGE: Well, part of it was simply the kind of scale that he was working on, in the parks and the parks systems that he and his partners created. That was a crucial element, but also, he made the point that gardens were limited, not only in space but also limited in the kind of effect, the psychological effect and the kind of psychological benefit that they could offer. So, it was really an argument for both a social benefit, structuring the city, making greenways through the city with what the other things that he and his partners really invented. like the park way and the park system. On the one hand, therefore working at that kind of scale, it was not decorative. There was a flow, either within the park itself, or between one park and another, that covered a lot of ground and involved a lot of engineering and architecture as well as landscape.
MARTIN: So, it's really this balance though, of using architecture, of being very intentional about where you are placing things, but at the same time not wanting it to feel artificial. You're trying to create a natural ambiance.
Mr. BEVERIDGE: That's right. Olmstead was trying to harness the power of nature as he was aware of it, and as people were aware in the nineteenth century. And the sort of, beneficent quality of nature. So, that meant that when you were designing you were creating something that had a particular beneficial, restorative landscape - I mean, psychological effect.
MARTIN: I want to ask you, real quick, before we go to a break, what were a couple examples of things that we would see in the park that Olmstead took pride in?
Mr. BEVERIDGE: Well, certainly, one element is the whole circulation system. Partly the separation of the ways so that you have a different kind of landscape experience whether you're walking, or on horseback or you're in a carriage, the way that those were the modes in those days. And not only that each, there was a separate kind of landscape experience, a separate speed for each one, but also they were separate so you didn't have to worry about a collision, and didn't experience collision. So that the idea of a way to move through the landscape without destroying either yourself or the landscape, was a crucial element. The other part was, on the one hand, creating broad expanses of meadow that he thought, really, was the kind of openness and sense of space that people particularly needed in the cities. They had to blast rock and move dirt in vast amounts to create this meadow in Central Park, for instance, because of the rocky character.
MARTIN: I'm sorry to interrupt you, I want to keep you over the break if you don't mind, we're speaking with Charles Beveridge, he's the editor of "The Frederick Law Olmstead Papers," the author of "Frederick Law Olmstead: Designing the American Landscape." We're talking about the impact Frederick Law Olmstead had on America. He's the designer behind Central Park. You're listening to the Bryant Park Project, from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
PESCA: Welcome back to the Bryant Park Project from NPR News, we're on digital, FM, Sirius Satellite Radio and online at npr.org/bryantpark. I also hear we're in a hollowed out tree in Central Park. I'm Mike Pesca.
MARTIN: And I'm Rachel Martin. Coming up, the director of the new satirical film "War Inc." is in the studio to talk with us. But first, we are finishing up our conversation with Charles Beveridge, he's editor of "The Frederick Law Olmstead Papers," author of "Frederick Law Olmstead: Designing the American Landscape." And that's what we are talking about. Frederick Law Olmstead, he would have been 186 years old tomorrow, he's the man who created the design for Central Park and Charles, I understand, he was not perhaps, the easiest person to work for. What kind of person was he, in the context of this park that he had created, he was a little bit of a micro manager, right?
Mr. BEVERIDGE: Yes, well the last question you raised, and this relates to it too, his ability to see the big picture, to have a big plan, and then to keep track of every detail and that meant that he dorve himself and his engineers, for those incredible three years when they built the whole lower park, of Central Park, between 1858 and, really, the outbreak of the Civil War. All of them were working madly to get that work done and he was keeping track and organizing and administering in an amazing way. And so he drove himself harder than anyone else, I think, but I'm sure that he got a little out of sorts when people were not pulling their weight, at least.
MARTIN: Or even with citizens, who said, who took issue with, when they would cut down a tree, he would say, listen people, this is my vision. You've got to stick with it. I don't want you messing with it.
PESCA: Did he not want the kids playing on the lawn?
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Mr. BEVERIDGE: Yeah, well, both of those. He sometimes had to take the axe from the men working on the park and cut down a tree because people were objecting. Because they didn't want to see any trees hurt or taken out. But his point was that, if you're going to have a park, you plant in such a way that you have to cut out the trees that are not coming along right. And then you get a final satisfactory result. Otherwise you get everything growing too close together, and they all look spindly and they look like an unkempt forest. And the same thing with the green. You want to keep people off the grass when they have to be kept off and they had a flag that they raised when it was too wet to use the grass, to protect it so it could continue, of course, that's a continuing problem. How do you keep a resource like that alive unless you have some kind of maintenance, or some kind of control?
MARTIN: Well, it's clear, if you do any reading about this, he had such a reverence for that particular work, and it's impact can be felt any time you visit myriad different parks that it was modeled after. Tomorrow would have been his 186th birthday. This weekend New York celebrates 150 years since Olmstead and his partner won the competition to design Central Park. Charles Beveridge, thanks for joining us. He's the editor of "The Frederick Law Olmstead Papers," biographer of Frederick Law Olmstead, thanks for helping us pay homage to Mr. Olmstead today.
Mr. BEVERIDGE: Well, thanks very much. And keep landscape architecture in mind, it's a marvelous profession and contributes a great deal, today, as well as then, to American society.
MARTIN: Thank you Mr. Beveridge. Right now we are going to get some news headlines from the BPP's Mark Garrison.
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