Olmsted and the HABS/HAER/HALS Collection

by Chris Stevens, ASLA

Fairsted, HABS MA-1168, Brookline, Massachusetts. / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The following article highlights the importance of documenting historic landscapes for perpetuity. For the 13th annual HALS Challenge competition, the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) invites you to document Olmsted Landscapes. 2022 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted, social reformer and founder of American landscape architecture. By documenting Olmsted landscapes for HALS, you will increase public awareness of historic landscapes and illuminate Olmsted’s living legacy. Any site designed or planned in part or in full by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., his firm, and the firm continued by his sons, John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Junior, is eligible. 

The Olmsted Landscapes HALS Challenge deadline is quickly approaching. Short format histories should be submitted to HALS at the National Park Service no later than July 31, 2022. Surprisingly, there are not many Olmsted-related sites within the HALS Collection at the Library of Congress. Your entries will not only help celebrate Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.’s 200th birthday, but they will help round out the collection with more Olmsted documentation.

The Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) was created in 2000 to document our country’s significant landscapes. The National Park Service oversees HALS; the American Society of Landscape Architects provides professional guidance and support; and the Library of Congress preserves the documentation and makes it available to the public. The Historic American Building Survey (HABS, established in 1933) and the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER, since 1969) are older programs and thus have much more documentation.

Olmsted highlights from HABS include:

Fairsted, HABS MA-1168
99 Warren Street, Brookline, Norfolk County, MA

The Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, containing the home and office of America’s premier landscape architect, was established in 1979. The house (c. 1810) was bought by Olmsted in 1883 and remodeled before his death in 1903. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., landscape architect, lived there until 1936, modifying the house and adding a servants’ wing. Between 1963 and 1980 Olmsted Associates modernized the kitchen and added the brick terrace and swimming pool. Four office structures adjoining the north parlor were added from 1889 to 1925. In 1925 the west wall of the 1889 clerical department was moved west about five feet and a second story was added. The adjoining planting department was built in 1899. In 1911 the 1891 north drafting wing roof was raised, and a second story was inserted. The plans vault was built in 1901 with a third story added in 1911. The barn originally stood diagonally across from the house but was moved to its present location soon after 1883. The pre-1883 hay barn, carpenter’s shop addition (c. 1890), and wood shed (c. 1910) are now west of the office complex. The barn was used as a stable, model shop, and soil testing laboratory at various times.

Missouri Botanical Garden, HABS MO-1135
2345 Tower Grove Avenue, Saint Louis, Independent City, MO

A site of important botanical research since its inception, the Garden was one of the first institutions in the country for horticultural display and education. Just ten years after it was founded by Henry Shaw in 1858, it was considered to rival the finest such European institutions. Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. (1822-1903), John Charles Olmsted (1853-1920), and Charles N. Eliot ( d. -1908) designed the North American Tract of 1905.

Watertown Arsenal, Olmsted Landscape, HABS MA-1009-G
Arsenal Street, Watertown, Middlesex County, MA

The Olmsted landscape, designed in 1919 and executed beginning in 1920, at the Watertown Arsenal is significant as an excellent and reasonably well-preserved example of the work of the noted firm Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts. It is a contributing element in the Watertown Arsenal Historic District, a district eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

Liberty Memorial, HABS MO-1936, Kansas City, Missouri. / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Liberty Memorial, HABS MO-1936
100 West Twenty-sixth Street, Kansas City, Jackson County, MO

Liberty Memorial vividly exemplifies the fulfillment of city planning concepts, combining monumentally scaled Beaux Arts Classicism envisioned by some of the nation’s most notable and diverse delineators of the City Beautiful movement working in the early twentieth century. Liberty Memorial’s complex of limestone buildings, together with the towering shaft, vast sculpture, bas-reliefs, decorative bronze art, and dramatic open vistas, all contribute to its power and distinction. Today it stands as one of the most important landmarks in Kansas City and one of the most commanding memorial sites in the nation. Moreover, Liberty Memorial remains one of the nation’s most compelling monuments to those who sacrificed their lives during World War I and a remembrance of those who survived. Its dramatic combination of elements envisioned by architects, landscape architects, artists, and city leaders is not only a momentous tribute to those veterans but also an important expression of American memorial architecture of the early twentieth century. Additionally, the Liberty Memorial houses the only public World War I museum in the United States.

Franklin Park Zoo, Bear Dens, HABS MA-1316
Seaver Street, Boston, Suffolk County, MA

Built in 1912, the Bear Dens were among the first structures to be erected in Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo, and were used continuously until 1971. The design for the dens was the work of landscape architect Arthur Shurtleff, who also assisted the Olmsted-led design team with the plans for the larger park. The Franklin Park Zoo ‘s Bear Dens provide a prime example of how animals were housed in zoos of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, prior to the development of more humane, naturalistic animal habitats. The dens feature a relief with two bears holding up the city seal of Boston from 1912.

Fairmount Park, HABS PA-6183
Along Schuylkill River, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA

Officially founded in 1855 but with roots extending back to 1812, Fairmount Park represents one of the earliest efforts in the American park movement. While originally intended to protect Philadelphia’s water supply from the effects of increased industrialization to the north, the land’s initial function as a buffer zone was soon eclipsed by its role as a public pleasure ground. Although no formal design plan was directly imposed on the park, Hermann Schwarzmann, engineer for the Fairmount Park Commission from 1869-1876, culled elements from several 19th century sources when laying out the park’s infrastructure. With its winding paths, framed vistas, and vast open spaces, the park is an excellent example of American romantic design deriving from a combination of English garden theory, Transcendental thoughts on nature and conservation, and design innovation by American landscape pioneers Andrew Jackson Downing, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Calvert Vaux. The existing park contains elements constructed over the course of three centuries.

Druid Hills Historic District, HABS GA-2390
US 29, Atlanta, Fulton County, GA

Druid Hills is historically significant in the areas of landscape architecture, architecture, and community planning. Druid Hills is the finest example of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century comprehensive suburban planning and development in the Atlanta metropolitan area, and one of the finest turn-of-the-century suburbs in the southeastern United States. Druid Hills is more specifically noted because: (1) it is a major work by the eminent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his successors, the Olmsted Brothers, and the only such work in Atlanta; (2) it is a good examples of Frederick Law Olmsted’s principles and practices regarding suburban development.

Rockefeller Carriage Roads, HAER ME-13, Mount Desert Island, Maine. / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

One Olmsted  example from HAER:

Rockefeller Carriage Roads, HAER ME-13
Mount Desert Island, Bar Harbor, Hancock County, ME

Built by industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the carriage road system on Maine’s Mount Desert Island has become one of the principal attractions of Acadia National Park. Rockefeller, who had an avid personal interest in carriage driving and landscape design, built the roads to indulge his favorite pastime, but made the system available to the public for their use and enjoyment. The roads provide access to many of the island’s favorite scenic attractions, and include lakeside circuits, climbs to mountain shoulders and a summit, and routes through dense forest groves. The carriage road system is significant as a reminder of the early twentieth century interest in carriage driving as a leisure activity, for its careful attention to landscape design, and for its engineering structures, notably eighteen large stone-faced bridges. The Rockefeller carriage roads are the best-preserved and probably the largest surviving intact system of developed horse roads in the United States.

Some Olmsted examples from HALS:

Theodore Roosevelt Island, HALS DC-12
Potomac River, Washington, District of Columbia, DC

Theodore Roosevelt Island’s primary significance rests on its role as a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt and his devotion to the conservation of America’s natural resources. However, the site also enjoys a rich history with several additional periods of significance. During the Civil War, Union forces occupied Theodore Roosevelt Island. During the summer of 1863 the island functioned as the camp of the 1st United States Colored Troops, an African American regiment composed of free blacks and escaped slaves. From May 1864-June 1865 a freedmen’s refugee camp occupied much of the island, including the Mason mansion.

Following a long period of transient ownership, short-term tenancy, and disuse, the Roosevelt Memorial Association (RMA) purchased the island in 1931 as a national memorial to the former president. The following year the RMA gave the island to the federal government, but maintained planting and development rights. Between 1934-1945 the RMA retained renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to replant the island as a planned wilderness “to be preserved as nearly as possible as in its natural state.” This concept of designed nature is significant in that it forces people to rethink the human relationship with the natural world, and indeed, what constitutes nature. Less abstractly, the planting plan, carried out by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers, “represents one of the most complete expressions of Olmsted’s ideals on scenic preservation, through his attempt to recreate the island’s presumed former appearance so that it could continue its natural evolution to a stable, ‘climax’ forest.” Finally, Gugler’s plaza and Manship’s Theodore Roosevelt sculpture represent a distinct step in the development of presidential memorials within Washington, DC.

Piedmont Way & the Berkeley Property Tract, HALS CA-2, Berkeley, California. / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Piedmont Way & the Berkeley Property Tract, ALS CA-2
East of College Avenue between Dwight Way & U.C. Memorial Stadium, Berkeley, Alameda County, CA

The design of Piedmont Avenue and the adjacent University of California campus and residential tract are significant for several reasons. Olmsted was in California at a crucial time in his career. He had recently completed the design for Central Park in New York City with Calvert Vaux, he had left the US Sanitary Commission, and he was seeking to explore his future, possibly leaving the field of landscape design. The opportunity to manage a gold mining operation seemed to promise a new opportunity. Vaux was asking him to return to New York and work on Prospect Park in Brooklyn. But his design work and residence in the California gold country at the Mariposa Estate helped him in clarifying his thinking and bringing him to the conclusion that he would continue his career in landscape design.

The design work that he did for the Berkeley Property Tract, i.e., the design of the campus, residential area, and roadways curved to the topography, is significant in its own right. The alignment of the roads, the shape of the residential blocks, the relationship of the private blocks to each other, and the opportunities for healthful views and walking outings are all representative of Olmsted’s civic and design principles (Hallinan: 2004, 28). The written Olmsted report to the Trustees accompanying his design provides his vision for the property. These significant design details and ideas would go on to inform his subsequent work in New York. This is particularly important in his most well-known suburban developments, Riverside, Illinois, and Druid Hills, Georgia. The ideas of broad roadways, curved to the terrain, separated or controlled access roads, curved lot lines, views and vistas and tree-lined spaces, including parks, and recreational areas were new to the thinking of town planning. He was no doubt familiar with Llewellyn Park, laid out by Alexander Jackson Davis or possibly even Glendale, Ohio (1851), also laid out with a curving pattern of streets shaped to the topography as well as with London examples by John Nash and James Pennethorn. Many of the cities in Olmsted’s east coast experience had been laid out on the grid pattern with simple square open spaces, such as New Haven, where he attended Yale for a period. He lived in San Francisco when he first came to California and was thus very familiar with a rigid grid street pattern overlaid on the very hilly terrain. He broke from such molds to establish new models designed to enhance the lives of the residents of these newly planned communities.

Tidal Basin, HALS DC-59, Washington, DC. / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Tidal Basin, HALS DC-59
Roughly bounded by Independence Avenue, Fourteenth Street, East Basin Drive, and Ohio Drive, Southwest, Washington, DC

The creation of Potomac Park and the Tidal Basin was a significant engineering feat that utilized the most sophisticated technologies available at the turn of the twentieth century. The importance of this newly created land, located as it was just south of the White House and the Washington Monument and on the banks of the Potomac River, was immediately recognized and care was taken to develop it appropriately. The Tidal Basin is world renowned for its cultural landscape comprised of thousands of flowering cherry trees and for the monuments to significant American leaders now located on its shores.

You may search the HABS/HAER/HALS Collection at the Library of Congress. The search feature works like an internet search. Broad terms return more results, while specific terms return less. When your search results return, you may group individual records, like photographs, into their site surveys by selecting the “Surveys Only” box.

Here are the HALS Surveys that appear when searching for “Olmsted HALS”:

We look forward to adding your Olmsted documentation to this list!

For more information on the 2022 HALS Challenge, Olmsted Landscapes, please see this previous post. July 31, 2022 is the deadline for submissions.

Chris Stevens, ASLA, is Senior Landscape Architect, Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS), National Park Service; past chair of the ASLA Historic Preservation Professional Practice Network (PPN); and past ASLA HALS Subcommittee Chair / Coordinator.

Leave a Reply