A highlight from 124 - Sculpting Nature: The Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted - Kirk R. Brown


The Garden Question is a podcast for people that love designing, building, and growing smarter gardens that work. Listen in as we talk with successful garden designers, builders, and growers, discovering their stories along with how they think, work, and grow. This is your next step in creating a beautiful, year -round, environmentally connected, low -maintenance, and healthy, thriving outdoor space. It doesn't matter if you're a beginner or an expert, there will always be something inspiring when you listen to The Garden Question podcast. Hello, I'm your host, Craig McManus. It's been over 200 years since he was born. People still absorb his parks and public gardens in more than 5 ,000 communities across the North American continent. The goal is to give the common man in this new world the same opportunities to experience creation as any king in his private preserve in the Old World. Frederick Law Olmsted is prevalently pronounced the father of American landscape architecture. In this episode, Kurt R. Brown interprets Frederick Law Olmsted. Kurt is a member of the International Garden Communicators Hall of Fame. He is a green achiever being recognized with many industrial awards. He represented Joanne Kostecki Garden Design as a leader in the design bill industry. At America's oldest garden in Charleston, South Carolina, he worked as national outreach coordinator. He is the past president of GardenCom. In the U .S. and Canada, he's delivered hundreds of keynote addresses, guest lectures, teaching symposia, and certified instruction over the past quarter of a century. He's also known to interpret historic horticulturalists and international dignitaries as John Bartram, Frederick Law Olmsted, among many others. He still finds time to cultivate his own private display garden. Join him now as he unveils his views of Olmsted. This is Episode 124, Sculpturing Nature. The Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted with Kurt R. Brown Interpreting, an encore presentation and remix of Episode 63. Mr. Olmsted, would you take us back to when you were 36 years old and tell us what was your most valuable mistake up to that point? I sometimes have problems remembering what happened yesterday. Remembering what happened when I was 36 takes me to a point in time where I felt that I would never wake up, that somehow whatever hope I had of being properly engaged in an adult employment was never going to occur. However, it was at a time when seemingly everything in the world that I had touched or attempted had turned to dross. With that, when you are at the bottom, looking up from the bottom of that big black pit that you feel yourselves in, God smiles sometimes. And when he smiles, he puts in front of you an opportunity that unless you'd been in that pit of despair, you wouldn't think was a positive. I went over the brink of bankruptcy with a publishing company that my father had financed to put me on my feet in the world of communicating, largely garden communicating. But in that day, when publishers have cash in the drawer and decide that it's better in their pockets and they skip town, I was left holding an empty bag. When my sanity was at risk, there were a group of friends, Dutch elders from the state of New York, who looked at me in my circumstance and they said, without much thinking about it, we have a job for you, sir. And this was from Washington Irving, whom you might have heard, James Hamilton, the Cooper Hewitt later, and David Dudley Field, among many, many others, they said in response to my question, what is this job all about? They said, we believe that from your practical training as an agriculturist, from all of your horticultural writings, from your talents and from your obvious character, I took them at their word on that, we believe you eminently qualified for the duties of the Office of Superintendent of the capital T, the Central Park of New York. They wanted me to be a crew leader of one of the largest public works projects that had been undertaken since the construction of the pyramids. They thought by giving me this job, it would put my feet under my own table and allow me to support the family that I had inherited and adopted after my brother's death. So you see, this is a laugh because being a construction foreman on a landscape project the size of Central Park allowed me into other rooms and gave me the ability to meet other people, most notably among them, Calvert Vox. Of course, from that participation, from that connection, from that wonderful start at 36, climbing out of the black pit and going on into the greater international world of garden design. That's how you find me, sir. From that point till now, you have to consider all of the other doors that opened, designing the country's first great urban and public park. It was a democratization of space. That's the most important aspect that we were driving. All of the big parks of the old world were private preserves, were aristocratic in their founding or country homes of the elite and money. They were not open to the general public. Here we were designing a space, an urban space of green that would allow people at all levels of income to rub elbows and participate in a great and refreshing space. Out of that, the other things that came to my table were the obvious connections of making plans for residential subdivisions. I was ultimately asked to design a world's fair. And in that regard, I was one of the few who designed a fair that actually made money. Mostly the cities in which the Olmsted partnership worked were green belts. It wasn't just one isolated urban jewel. They were a necklace. They were a green necklace surrounding all of the major cities in which we did work, involving and parkways park sides with garden views. And with all of that, the infrastructure that necessarily came along with the design was an increasing awareness of public health and sanitation. I was also involved at the beginning of the American Red Cross with standardizing field operations, with organizing national outreach and coordination, and with putting women in nursing wards. I was also there at the beginning in trying to inventory the natural resources of Yosemite, and that began the National Parks Movement. I also encouraged managed forestry. I was the first person here in this country to hire a forester to help develop plans for management of 137 ,000 acres in Biltmore, not less. Governor Pinchot, as he later came to be known, was the first man that held the post at the National Center where he managed the national parks and forests. I was always involved in garden communication. I was a syndicated New York Times columnist. I was an abolitionist. I believe strongly in the development of cemetery arboretum where families could mourn the death of their loved ones. And I was the first one to be recognized for the design implementation and successful development of riparian restoration using early sustainable practices, because overarching all of these individual jobs, I believe that environmental health was also humanities welfare. Eventually, many of the things that we did for the first time or did for all of those who came later to ask us to repeat our success, eventually we codified most of the things that we were doing, and we were there at the beginning writing a syllabus for the American Society of Landscape Architects when Harvard graduated its first class. That's the beginning. And through it, we've tried to reach a point that you can look back and decide whether what we do, whether creating public parks, whether recognizing national parks, whether doing things as a green infrastructural implementation, whether that is garden design, whether it is landscape design or whether it is landscape architecture. I have certainly left the responsibility of that to all of the generations that came since the implementation of Central Park of New York. So let's look at the Central Park of New York. Where you started to turn around was when you got the job as superintendent. How did you make the jump from superintendent to being credited as the designer and builder of Central Park? I would never accept that title. I was mentored by a man far greater than I. His name was Andrew Jackson Downing, and he lived upstate New York. The concept of Central Park and the concept of public urban horticulture was his. He was the first man here in this country to successfully write that there was a model to be offered and followed in the development of landscape practices. He wrote and published a book in 1841 called A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. It was his idea in the 1840s what he called the picturesque landscape has great advantage for the common man. The raw materials of grass, water, and woods are at once appropriated with so much effect and so little art in the picturesque mode, and the charm is so great. You'll recall that 200 years ago I was born. It was also the same year that Napoleon died. There was a great turning where people decided it was no longer appropriate to design landscapes in the French style. The formality of trimmed hedges and topiaries and the development of boxed and hothouse grown examples of tropical horticulture. What they wanted was a natural or romantic view of the world. Downing's response to that was his development of the picturesque here in North America. So while the international turned on what was their term called romanticism, Downing's belief was that it needed to be picturesque. He brought a man from England who was just spectacular with the development of line and architectural standards. His name was Calvert Vaux. So we had Calvert Vaux doing all of the housing plans for Downing's models. Downing began a magazine called The Horticulturist where he promoted all of the values of horticulture and agriculture, how to design, creating a design for living. He encouraged all of us to plant spacious parks in our cities and unclose their gates as wide as the gates of mourning to the whole people. I was a very small part of the initial concept when they were looking for the construction foreman. Downing had been killed in a steamboat accident on the Hudson River. While they were searching for the plan, they had more than 30 proposals submitted for what Central Park was to become. Calvert Vaux had a concept and he asked me if I would join him in its presentation to the committee. My thought was that a proper city park should provide escape from the city. We solved all of the inherent problems of the design so that nature of the space would be one of unending vistas of green and the lawns would seem to go on forever. With Vaux asking me to be a partner, at that low point in my life, my answer was an unqualified sir, this partnership is on. We called our design and our proposal Greensward. I would still think of it with that name. Of course, everyone else has just taken it to heart and made it Central Park. I was 36 years old. I had a neighbor in Hartford as I was growing up and then on the speaking circuit in later years and Mark Twain, you might know him as Samuel Longhorns Clemens, said that age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter. What were some of the challenges in the implementation of the Central Park design? The money was coming from Albany and the old Dutch money that still remained somewhat in the Tammany Hall organization of downtown New York politics would get their hands on the money before it would feed through to enrich, encourage and grow the project. The old Dutch burghers wanted an honest man as the paymaster. And so at the end of those long days, I was the man handing money to the day workers with cash on the barrelhead, paying them for moving the hundreds and hundreds and millions of cubic yards of soil that was transported to do those effortless looking hills and dales and rambles that became Central Park. The park itself is a democratic development of the highest significance. We can never, never, ever forget that public urban horticulture is that. It is the extreme expression of democracy. And simply put, we were looking at the three grand elements of Downing's definition of picturesque or pastoral landscape. Those three elements remain the same today as they were then. The symphony of grass, water and woods joined together with many, many artificial tricks of the trade into one uncommon space. At Central Park, we also added what would be in our concept the only sculptural element that was to be included in the final design. That was the Bethesda Fountain. With Bethesda, we wanted it to be similar to the quote from the New Testament, John chapter 5, verse 4, for an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water. Whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well of whatever disease he had. This becoming a place of union for all of those tired and poor of the city who would otherwise not have a green space with good public water. It became that, certainly, after the Civil War and even up until these days when the symbol of the fountain, that angel of the waters that was given to the first woman who ever won a sculptural commission in the city of New York later to become angels in America. Through all of this, that symbol of health and well -being has been guarded through all of its artistic progress. What other, as you referred to them as, tricks in the landscape design were implemented in the park? There were requirements, as most things are. They had to have cross streets, but we didn't want to interrupt the view of green. We sunk the roads, and it was unique in its concept because all of those cross streets that were mandated in the design brief were not seen once you were at grade or at the park level, so that all of the sheep's meadow and the grand lawns of Central Park were seemingly undivided and the cars would travel underneath that layer. The other thing was fresh water. The 800 and some odd acres of Central Park had to include what was an existing reservoir. The walk around the reservoir had to be included in the acreage, and to do that, we made the north part of the park into what I called a ramble. If you take the word ramble, it puts me back into my childhood. I had rides with my father and mother in the woods and fields. In those days, we were in search of the, well, the picturesque. Any man then who sees things differently than the mass of ordinary men is classified as one who has a defect of the eye and a defect of the brain. Who would think that you could move mountains to create a distant view while the cross -street thoroughfares of a major urban environment would traffic unwitnessed with the calm and peace of nature around you? In later years, it gave the common man access to a broader world. In the early days, when the park first opened, what we discovered is that entrepreneurs of the city would get a chance to meet and greet people who were not of or in their class, and everyone came together on the lake to ice skate. That had never been accomplished in an urban environment before, where the lowest and the highest achieved self -standing stature over a pair of ice skates. What other ways did you incorporate the blending of the classes? There were several types of road. There were access roads for tradesmen, and then there were the carriage trade highways that would tour the park and allowed for another whole type of merchant in the hiring of horse -drawn vehicles that are still there, conveying tourists into and around the park today because of the way the layout was designed. We also included space for a zoo and for ornamental horticulture in the display of flowers. It also gave space for the Metropolitan Museum, and then as you'll see over all these years, many, many other opportunities for people to regard themselves highly by installing other busts and portraiture. There's Cleopatra's Needle, which was that large obelisk that came from Egypt that has its own following up above the museum. It's all part and parcel of creating the ambiance of nature in an artificial way. You had some experiences of your own in a walking tour in England. How did those influence your view of design, and how did you take those and implement them in the park? The only difference is that in England, what we were looking at in the assortment of grass, water, and woods was that most of the developed areas were done for members of the aristocracy. They were country homes at the time. Previous generation, they were landscapes designed and achieved by Lancelot. They called him Capability Brown. Those assortments of grass, water, and woods were no different in concept, really, for the public parks that we were designing. The only difference is that in public funded projects, they had access for people of all social classes. There was no admission, no gate. I've heard it said you become who you hang out with. Tell us about some of the people that you have surrounded yourself with.

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