Historian and documentarian Laurence Cotton was in Louisville for a couple of weeks in October, filming, interviewing and generally poking his nose around.
That’s what journalists do.
Cotton’s mission was a PBS documentary he’s producing on Frederick Law Olmsted, the compelling father of American landscape architecture whose name is most famously associated with New York’s Central Park.
But Central Park was only one part of the Olmsted history.
In a 50-year career, which began with a Central Park design competition in the 1850s and ended at his death in 1903, Olmsted created urban green spaces for Brooklyn, Buffalo, Boston, Milwaukee, Niagara Falls and countless other municipalities – including our own “necklace of parks,” Shawnee, Cherokee and Iroquois.
He also designed Riverside, Ill., the first “garden city” development of green suburbia, private commissions like the Biltmore Estate for the Vanderbilt family in Asheville, N.C., and Chicago’s Columbia Exposition of 1893.
In fact, Olmsted had any number of compelling installations during his lifetime (he also designed campuses for the likes of Stanford University, the University of Chicago, Yale, Cornell and Miami of Ohio, among many, many others).
But Cotton feels Louisville’s park system is a standout. “They’re all classic Olmsted parks,” Cotton told me. “He made great use of the Louisville/Ohio River landscape, with the topography, the limestone bedrock and indigenous geological layers.”
“It’s the most distinctive of the three,” Cotton noted, “the most well-kept and most-used. So it probably receives the most amount of ‘love.’ ” In almost any language, “love” of that sort usually translate directly to “power,” “influence” and “money,” often a result of the surrounding neighborhood and the people who use the park, which is certainly the case with our Cherokee Triangle.
Apart from parks, by the way, Cotton was greatly impressed by what he called “this fascinating city.” “I loved my time in Louisville,” he told me. You have some of the most gorgeous downtown architecture I’ve seen plus, of course, all that great period residential architecture.
“A bartender told me that Louisville is often stated in the same breath as Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas, as one of the most happening, most creative small cities in America, a stirring pot of food, music and art.”
Cotton also fell in love with the Belle of Louisville. “Back home in Portland, I conduct tours on our sternwheeler, the Queen of the West, on the Columbia River.”
Like riverfronts, today we think of city parks as a romantic throwback, something we just accept as being there. But it wasn’t always the case. The idea of a city park was actually a cause driven by Olmsted (and others) as growing American cities became more crowded and dirty in the fourth quarter of the 19th century.
“He saw the park as a place to improve the lives of city dwellers, in as natural and rustic a motif as possible,” Cotton told me. “His creativity was driven by the fact that he was, at heart, a progressive social reformer. He saw his parks as a providing an opportunity for workers and their families to escape their cramped, crowded, dirty apartments and streets and enjoy fresh air, open spaces and scenery.
“Olmsted described it as ‘escaping from their nervous lives. His parks were the great democratic mixing bowl, bringing all people together, side by side and comfortable.”
Olmsted’s views, reflected in nearly all his parks around the country, were expressed by his belief in exercise, fresh air and peace and quiet in a pastoral setting. “He was reacting not only to what he was seeing in American cities but also what he had seen in the antebellum South,” said Cotton. “He felt conditions in the South made it a distorted society, doomed to fail. It just reinforced, in his mind, that while a free, open and democratic society would work, mistreatment of the labor force could sink it.”
So what would Frederick Law Olmsted think if he could see his parks today?
“I think he’d be relatively pleased,” Cotton said, cautiously. “He’d be shocked, of course, at the extent of urban development that has occurred since then – the sheer size of cities. He’d be pleased at the extent to which his parks have maintained their natural, green integrity.
“He would not be happy at the encroachment of non-park elements like roads, golf courses, swimming pools, softball diamonds, tennis courts, zoos. He did believe in recreation, but in a passive kind of recreation – long walks, nature hikes, birdwatching.
“Overall, though, I’m sure he’d be pleased that they’re serving the purpose for which they were designed, a public mixing place for people to spend time together in a pastoral setting.”
Cotton feels Olmsted would be especially pleased by 21st Century Parks and The Parklands at Floyds Fork, driven by David and Dan Jones, whom Cotton called “the new Olmsteds.”
“Olmsted always believed that a park should live and breathe with the community,” said Cotton, “and so it ought to be at the edge of the city, where the future growth is going to be. Of course, a lot of city edges in the 1880s are inner cities today. But Parklands at Floyds Park is exactly Olmsted’s vision – greenways, bikeways, lakes, natural areas, all threading naturally along and throughout this creek.”
One important thing to know about Frederick Law Olmsted is that he was not just the Johnny Appleseed of urban greenswards.
Well before Olmsted turned to park development, in his mid-30s, the Connecticut native was a seaman, a farmer, a journalist (co-founder of “The Nation” magazine), an abolitionist, executive secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission (a precursor to the Red Cross, during the Civil War), head of the first Yosemite commission, leader of the campaign to protect Niagara Falls, designer of the U.S. capitol grounds and helped found the Union League Club of New York, which was formed to promote loyalty and respect for the nation during tumultuous times.
Cotton is consulting producer of the 90-minute documentary, which will concentrate only on the life and works of Frederick Law Olmsted himself. There were many Olmsted-designed projects that occurred after his death, completed by his sons, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and John Charles Olmsted.
In fact, the firm continued until 1980.
Cotton originated and developed the project with Lawrence Hott, who is the producer/director of the film. It will appear on PBS stations next year, a co-production of Florentine Films/Hott Productions Inc. and WNED-TV Buffalo-Toronto.