Community By Design: The Olmsted Firm and the Development of Brookline, Massachusetts

Community By Design: The Olmsted Firm and the Development of Brookline, Massachusetts


“You people of Brookline
ought to be good.
You already live in paradise.
” Father Edward Taylor
Narration: Brookline,
Massachusetts
was a bit of paradise,a middle landscape
that embraced
the best of city
and country life.
Hemmed in on three sides byBoston’s sprawling
neighborhoods,
it should long since have been
absorbed into the metropolis,
but even today its
borders are intact.
By 1880, the
people of Brookline,
without Boston’s help,had created a
local streetcar line,
a school system,a fire department,
a full time police force,
a water works
and a sewer system.
All this, and then Frederick
Law Olmsted came to town.
Narration: Winter, 1881 Snow
was general all over Boston.
It was falling softly
on the Back Bay Fens,
the Muddy River, and on the
heart of Brookline Village.
To Frederick Law Olmsted,visiting from New York,
the scene was lovely.
Keith Morgan: Olmsted
had begun to work for the fledgling Boston
municipal park commission. One particular visit
occurred during winter months, when there was a
major snowstorm. And Olmsted woke
up to see a magical winter landscape
that was glorious,but he was equally delighted to
see that the city grounds crew
was already out shoveling awaythe snow to make
the roads passable.
He evidently said,“This obviously is a
civilized community.
I hope I’ll be able to
live here one day myself.”Narration: If Olmsted was
attracted to Brookline by
its natural beauty,
he was also drawn by the city’s
distinguished
artistic residents ━
among them was
the brilliant and
eccentric architect
Henry Hobson Richardson,
the designer of
Trinity Church in Boston.
He and Olmsted worked
together on many projects,
and the two were close friends.Charles Sprague Sargent,the eminent
horticulturalist and
director of the
Arnold Arboretum,
also lived
in Brookline.
His estate, Holm Lea,with its flowing
mix of lawns, groves,
woodlands, meadows and gardensdrew visitors from
around the world.
In 1883, when Olmsted
moved to Brookline,
these men became neighbors,and formed a kind
of triumvirate–
the most influential Americans
in the fields of horticulture,
architecture and landscapearchitecture all
lived in Brookline.
Keith Morgan: Olmsted
and his family choose
an early 19th century
farmhouse and then turn
it into a laboratory
for landscape ideals.
When you come through
the front entrance gate,
you suddenly understandOlmsted and the
way he designed,
because he gives you a wholeseries of different
types of landscape,
a sunken garden, a large lawn,
different types
of landscapes are
developed around the house.
Since this was a
place that clients came
to meet with the
principals in the firm,
they were immediately ushered
into this very special sylvan
world that represented the kindof work that Olmsted would do.Narration:
Prospective clients
could see another
example of
Olmsted’s work — the firm was
transforming the Muddy River,
on the border between
Brookline and Boston,
as part of the
park system that
would be known as
the Emerald Necklace.
The improved waterway would
only add to the property value
in a town that
already called
itself the richest
in the world.
Brookline was home to the
nation’s first country club,
and a full 36
percent of its families
were rich enough to
have live-in servants.
Many were able to afford
Olmsted’s design services.
Among the firm’s
clients was Henry M. Whitney,
the owner of theWest End Street
Railway Company.
He commissioned a design
that would turn Beacon Street,
a country road, into aboulevard with a
commuter trolley line.
Beacon Street would
thus be a direct link to
the fashionable Back
Bay section of Boston.
Keith Morgan:
Olmsted and Whitney
took a 50-foot-wide
country lane,
proposed to open it up
into a 200-foot-wide corridor
that would include acentral space
for the streetcar,
room for bicycles,
driveways for carriages,
and sidewalks
for pedestrians…
a comprehensive zonethat would bring people
out from the center of
Boston through the
northern reaches of Brookline.
It was originally
intended to be
lined by large
single-family residences,
but as the trolley system
gets electrified very quickly,
commuting from this area into
the center city is much simpler
and townhouses
and apartment buildings begin to replace
single-family residences.They become some of the mostimportant early
apartment buildings.
Narration: The Olmsted Firm
did not design these buildings,
but rather inspired
other architects
to create private
spaces that were linked by
natural features to
Olmsted’s Beacon Street design.
Keith Morgan: You
can see Richmond Court,
an apartment complex with agreen courtyard
and u-shape group of
five-story apartmentsaround it that
focus out onto and
connect with the greencorridor of Beacon
Street itself.
Stoneholm is another
early example where, again,
a central courtyard
with garden spaces leading
up to the entrance to
the complex connect to the
green corridor of the
main trolley line as well.
While the original
character of the Beacon Street
Corridor has been eroded by the
automobile and the need for parking
and expanded lanes,there’s certain sections
along the Beacon Street
Corridor where you can stilllook down the
central trolley line
and see the arch of the
trees and the character of the
adjacent neighborhood oftownhouses and
apartment buildings.
Narration: As Olmsted’s
work in Brookline and
nearby Boston expanded,
so did the Olmsted firm.
His stepson, John Charles,
who graduated
from Yale in 1875 and
apprenticed with the firm.
After the move to Brookline,
John Charles became a partner,
while other apprentices soon
found their way to Fairsted.
Keith Morgan: Training in
landscape architecture in the United States begins
at 99 Warren Street.In addition to
John Charles Olmsted,
there were a whole
series of interns
and young trainees
who were receiving an
education in landscape
architecture before
any university or
college developed a program.
Some became partners
in the firm,
and many of themwent on to form landscape
practices in their own right.
Men like Charles Elliot,
like Henry Sargent Codman,
Warren Manning,
Arthur Shurcliff were
nurtured here in
the Olmsted office.
Fairsted was a busy, noisy,chaotic environment
with lots of
young men working
very hard here,
but also having a good time.Narration: One young man
was in the Fairsted office
because Fairsted was his home.
Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.
spent his teen years there,immersed in the
workings of the firm.
When he finished
Harvard,
he would join the
firm as a partner.
In 1886, the
Olmsted firm began
work on Fisher
Hill in Brookline,
one of the firm’s
largest subdivisions,
but not its first.Seventeen years
earlier Olmsted and
Calvert Vaux had created
Riverside, near Chicago,
a suburban development with
private homes and communal
spaces laid out alongrolling hills and
curving roadways.
Olmsted adapted this sameapproach to Fisher
Hill, creating,
as he wrote “generous
spaces…to suggest leisure,
contemplativeness
and tranquility.”
Keith Morgan: I love the view down certain streets
in Fisher Hill, because you have this
great canopy of trees,you have houses thatmaintain their
original character.
Fisher Hill becomes
something that is emulated in
landscape projects in
suburbia all across America.
Narration: In Brookline,
a constellation of
architects worked with theOlmsted firm on
dozens of projects.
These partnerships laid
the groundwork for the as
yet young profession of
landscape architecture ━
establishing the process
through which a landscape
architect deals withclients and
other professionals.
In the early 1880s,
for example,
Olmsted teamed up with
the architectural firm of
Cabot and Chandler to
design the house and
grounds for the wealthy
merchant Charles Storrow.
Keith Morgan: The Charles
Storrow house is a classic
example of the
private residence
developed by
the Olmsted firm.
The shingle-style
house settles
easily into the
surrounding environment.
Local materials
such as Roxbury
pudding stone define
the exterior boundary. .
There is a swale that
runs through the property
with a small
arched pudding stone bridge.
It uses banks of rhododendrons
and other plant material to
screen the streets andcreate an inward-looking
neighborhood.
One of the most impressive
things today is the fact
that this landscape has
remained open despite the fact
that it’s owned by three
separate property owners who
share its management and
can enjoy its common quality.
Narration: Early
Olmsted associates
shaped landscapes all
across North America.
Henry Codman worked
on the grounds for the
White City at the
World’s Fair in Chicago.
Charles Eliot worked onBoston’s metropolitan
park system.
Warren Manning planted
the lush lanscapes of
the Biltmore estate inAsheville, North Carolina.Arthur Shurcliff designed theEsplanade on the
Charles River in Boston,
and then, with
Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.,
founded the nation’s
first academic program for
landscape architecture
at Harvard.
Frederick Jr.
went on to lead the
field in education
and conservation,
working on projects from
the Everglades to Yosemite.
Keith Morgan:
It’s very important to understand this sort of
growing tree or genealogy of the people who worked
here in the Fairsted office. Not just people whose
names began with “O,” but people who
became dominant figures in landscape planning,
in park making, the creation of the
National Park Service, the development of city and regional planning
across the country.Fairsted and 99
Warren Street is of really
international
importance to the
history of the
designed landscape.
[Narration:] Today,
Fairsted is preserved as
an historic site by the
National Park Service,
with an archive chroniclingOlmsted’s work
around the world,
and around the
town of Brookline.
If there is an anomaly
in Olmsted’s work here
it is that the man known
as the great designer of
public parks did not design
a public park for Brookline,
and advised the
town not to create one.
Brookline, with its
rolling hills, leafy gardens
and flowing waterways,
was park enough to Olmsted.

Author: Kennedi Daugherty

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