Inquiring Minds: Olmsted Holdings Offer Blueprint for Preserving Historical Landscapes

Arleyn Levee

Landscape historian Arleyn Levee first visited the Library’s Manuscript Reading Room in the early 1980s to consult the records of Frederick Law Olmsted and his firm. A 19th-century pioneer who developed the field of American landscape architecture, Olmsted shaped many notable sites throughout his career – New York’s Central Park, the U.S. Capitol grounds, the Biltmore estate in North Carolina and the park systems for Buffalo and Boston, among many others. Last week, the Library announced the online availability of Frederick Law Olmsted’s papers.

Levee was initially drawn to the Library’s Olmsted holdings through the National Association of Olmsted Parks, a coalition of scholars, municipal officials, citizen activists and preservation professionals who came together in 1980 to highlight Olmsted’s legacy. At the time, historical parks in many cities across the country were in a state of neglect and disrepair, and the association sought – and still seeks – to educate people about the origins of these beautiful spaces and to advocate for their preservation.

More than 30 years later, Levee is a recognized specialist on the Olmsted firm, and she continues to consult the Library’s holdings to inform her work with preservationists and landscape architectural firms to rehabilitate Olmsted-designed historical landscapes.

Levee has written many articles about the design work of the Olmsted firm and about its professionals. Her latest work, published in 2016, “The Blue Garden: Recapturing an Iconic Newport Landscape,” traces the creation, decline and renewal of a Newport, Rhode Island, garden designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.

Here she answers questions about her career and her experience as a researcher at the Library.

Please tell us a little about your background.
I have degrees from Wellesley College and Harvard University. Until a graduate school course in American intellectual history, however, I had never heard of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.  But I had always been around gardens and landscapes. With roots in Scotland and relatives who owned an Edinburgh nursery, being out in nature and observant was a given. As soon as I became a homeowner, I began to manipulate my own hillside space into something with seasonal appeal both for the eye and the “table,” making lots of design errors along the way, but trying to learn from my mistakes. It became clear that some professional guidance was required, so I enrolled in what was then the Radcliffe Seminars Program for Landscape Design. Beyond learning the craft of shaping and planting the land, there were informative courses offered in American landscape history – and Olmsted entered my scope of interest!

Frederick Law Olmsted designed the grounds of the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. Photo by William Henry Jackson, circa 1900.

For a paper on planning history, I decided to tackle the “unknown Olmsted” – John Charles Olmsted, the nephew and adopted son of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., whose papers had recently been acquired by Harvard. Unlike his younger half-brother, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., John Charles did not bear his father’s name; thus he was continually overlooked in references.

After hours, too many to count, spent in pencil transcriptions of his letters and other documents, I was hooked. The “middle” son led to the Frederick Law Olmsteds, senior and junior, and then to all those working “hands” behind the vast output from the Olmsted firm.  Slowly, the significant impact of the firm’s work, both on the American land and beyond –mostly unrecognized in the early 1980s – began to unfold before my eyes and stimulate my curiosity to explore further.

Two other events coincided at this time. In the first, the National Association for Olmsted Parks was born, bringing with it an ever-changing but enduring family of friends, mentors, colleagues and citizen advocates, all of whom want to share and learn from a mutual passion for “things Olmsted.”

Central Park’s terrace reflects Olmsted’s vision, circa 1894. Photograph by J.S. Johnston.

Second, activism had brought about the acquisition of Fairsted, the Olmsted home and office in Brookline, Massachusetts, which became the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. This modest farmhouse at a curve in a road revealed a treasure trove of information – thousands of plans, photographs and other documents about sites across the country and abroad.

Conserving and making this trove of documents publicly accessible was only part of the challenge. The senior Olmsted’s voluminous writings had been gifted to the Library of Congress, followed later by the gift and acquisition of thousands of client files and other records from the Olmsted firm. These records are critical to interpreting and fully comprehending the visual records at Fairsted.

With my burgeoning interest in matters Olmsted, I became inextricably involved in both these occurrences, an involvement that has continued unabated to the present.

How did you uncover the story of the Olmsteds and their firm at the Library?
Before the age of microfilm, laptop computers and scanning devices, I spent hours – and a fortune – at the copy machines, acquiring critical documents from the hundreds of files relevant to my search for information about community designs or the work of John Charles Olmsted. As a result, I am now saddled with file cabinets of paper records that cry out to be scanned.

Another view of Olmsted’s work in Central Park, circa 1905.

Augmenting my Olmsted files research, I branched out into other, but connected, Manuscript Division collections – the papers of Laura Wood Roper, the biographer of Olmsted Sr., and the records of the American Society of Landscape Architects. I have also ventured into the Main Reading Room to look at collections of park reports from various cities, and into periodical literature from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The collections of the Prints and Photographs Division and the Geography and Map Division have added to my visual understanding of the design and landscape planning that molded communities nationwide.

My research is a never-ending fascination that I hope will keep me engaged and productive for decades, not just for personal interest, but also because of the importance of gathering and sharing critical information about this design heritage with the people who are fortunate enough to inhabit or use these historic landscapes and to those who are responsible for their stewardship.

What is the significance of the firm’s story?
We are really still in the infancy of understanding the full impact of the Olmsted firm, both the individuals and their endeavors, on the culture and the landscape of this country. Not only were there the three Olmsted principals and their partners over the firm’s nearly 100 years of existence, but there was a remarkable staff of professionals, from various disciplines, trained at the firm. Some spent their entire careers associated with it. Others moved on to establish their own practices, bringing their skills and philosophical approach into ever-expanding venues.

Olmsted designed the grounds surrounding the U.S. Capitol. Circa 1908.

Research has yet to follow all these diverging paths to fully recognize the considerable contributions and influence of the Olmsted firm. With more than 4,000 commissions, and projects across the country and in Canada, Bermuda, Venezuela and beyond, each with a story to explore, there is material aplenty for curious scholars and practitioners for decades to come.

You were a consultant for the renovation of the Olmsted-designed U.S. Capitol grounds in the 1990s. Can you tell us a little about that?
I have had the good fortune to be engaged as a landscape historian on a number of significant projects, beginning initially in the mid-1980s with research for a park in Fall River, Massachusetts. From that work, other projects, both public and private, came my way, which enabled me to explore so much more of the Olmsted oeuvre in different locations and in different design modes. I began examining the development of the U.S. Capitol grounds, beginning in the late 1990s, with my colleague and mentor Charles Beveridge, editor of the Olmsted Papers Project. Our research took us into the depths of archival material, tucked away in various repositories besides the Library of Congress, bringing to light information that has hopefully helped to reshape the thinking about this iconic and complex American landscape.

Over the recent decades, other on-the-ground preservation projects have taken me across the country to Louisville, to the Pacific Northwest, to California, to Wisconsin, to Rhode Island and presently to Cleveland.

A stereograph card shows the grounds around the east front of the Capitol Building, circa 1903.

What has your experience been like working at the Library and with Library staff?
Working with the staff of the Manuscript Reading Room over the years has been a great pleasure, as we have all learned together about the dimensions and implications of the very complex Olmsted collections. I am in awe of the staff’s knowledge and in continuing appreciation of all their courtesies in helping me with my numerous queries.

The digitization of the papers of Olmsted Sr. and their availability online is a remarkable step forward by the Library to aid the intensively used Olmsted collections. For landscape scholars and practitioners, for stewards of and advocates for the properties designed by the senior Olmsted and for the interested public, providing easy access to the words of the “master” will greatly enhance our understanding of the process of his thinking and his design and the philosophical and social intentions behind his endeavors.

I am very glad the Library plans to continue this progress in the digital processing of Olmsted documents to include the much larger collections from the Olmsted Associates records, where the bulk of the client files for the thousands of design and planning projects across the country reside. These records contain correspondence and other material critical to comprehending and protecting the diverse and often city-shaping Olmsted projects.

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