Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Frederick Law Olmsted & the Olmsted elm

Today marks the beginning of landscape architecture’s campaign for awareness. What is landscape architecture? It’s the design of outdoor spaces for environmental, socio-behavioral, and/or aesthetic purposes. Landscape architects design college campuses, golf courses, public parks, backyards, and everything in between.

The most iconic figure of our profession is Frederick Law Olmsted, often referred to as the “father of Landscape Architecture.” FLO was a journalist, naturalist, social critic, and public health advocate who believed that green space must be equally accessible to all citizens. His first design, New York’s Central Park in 1858, embodies that ideal.

Most Americans have probably visited an Olmsted commission, which are numerous and span the entire country. While touring FLO’s Emerald Necklace in Boston, I had the opportunity to visit the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts. Olmsted referred to his home office in Brookline as Fairsted.

Administered by the National Park Service, Fairsted remains virtually unchanged. Housing nearly 1,000,000 original design records for some of the most important American landscapes including the U.S. Capitol grounds, the Great Smoky Mountains, Niagara Falls Park, the Biltmore, etc.; Fairsted is a national treasure.

A central feature of the property was the ‘Olmsted Elm,’ a statuesque 200+ year old American elm tree which held court over the pastoral landscape Olmsted personally tended. And just as the man became a symbol of our profession, the elm has become a symbol of the man. Unfortunately, the Olmsted Elm’s tenure has ended.

Suffering from Dutch elm disease, the tree exhibited typical signs of decline, including crown die back, dropping limbs, and peeling bark. This spring, the NPS decided to fell the historic tree which posed too great a risk to visitors. There are high hopes that one day a genetic clone of the tree will be planted in its place, though this may take many years.

In the meantime, the images of the Olmsted Elm will endure as FLO’s design theories and social principles have endured in his writings and throughout our nation’s great public spaces. Olmsted is a touchstone for many in our profession; his paradigm for egalitarianism and environmental conservation continue to inspire us, 150 years later.

This poignant video documents the felling of this historic tree.

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