If you live in Louisville, chances are you’ve spent time in an Olmsted park. Even if you haven’t, you may have visited a building, neighborhood or even driven on a parkway designed by Frederick Law Olmsted or his firm.
The Frazier History Museum has a new exhibit highlighting Olmsted’s place in Louisville history: Olmsted’s Louisville, which is on display now through Oct. 20. Assistant curator Amanda Briede researched and designed the installation, which displays information about Olmsted himself, the places and parks he designed and his impact on the landscape, culture and history of Louisville.
Olmsted was born in Connecticut and had many careers before finally doing landscape architecture full time starting at age 65. As a journalist, he researched the American South for The New York Times and published several books on his findings. Before his trip, he was anti-slavery, but after seeing slavery for himself, he became a staunch abolitionist, Briede said. The Frazier has three of his books on display.
Layla George, president of the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, said the organization worked with the Frazier to create the exhibit because this year is the 30th anniversary of the organization, which was founded after the devastating tornado that tore through Cherokee Park and Louisville in 1974.
The opening reception for the exhibit coincided with a conference hosted here of the National Association of Olmsted Parks in conjunction with the Kentucky Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. “These are people from all over the country who have their own Olmsted parks systems,” George said. “They were just blown away! Not only with the history we have here but how well it was visually displayed at the Frazier.”
If you’ve been to Cherokee, Iroquois or Shawnee parks, you may not know that these three major parks were designed as part of a system, not to be considered individuals. The three parks were named for Native American tribes by the Board of Park Commissioners after someone wrote to the Courier-Journal suggesting the names. They were connected by four parkways, designed specifically to connect them. “He designed it that way so that people, no matter where you live you could walk to a park-like atmosphere,” Briede said. “So even if you couldn’t get to a park, you could get to a beautiful greenspace.”
Many of the designs Olmsted did around the country never came to fruition due to local issues and funding, George said. “It’s just a miracle that Louisville did this, not only build a park but an entire park system and how much money that cost and the work to acquire all the land. Then decades of investment and building. It cost so much money but the city leaders recognized the importance of it and built it.”
One section of the exhibit celebrates Big Rock, an iconic section of Cherokee Park. The display has some historic photos on display, but it also has submitted photos from local residents. “We’re going to continue to add to this wall as we get more pictures,” Briede said. “I got a lot more than I expected. Even people that didn’t share pictures with me shared their stories.”
Fans of blueprints and original architecture plans will be able to spend hours looking over the collection at the Frazier. There are plans that include details of bridges, statues and more. Planting plans are also on display, showing the very specific plans that Olmsted had for plants. Every place Olmsted planned for plants, he listed exactly which plants would go where.
“When you get into bigger ones, they get so detailed,” Briede said. “I just think they’re really fascinating. Olmsted really had a specific way that he liked to layer plants.”
While most of the exhibit is on the first floor, Briede “sneaked” a bit of Olmsted onto the third floor into the “Spirit of Kentucky” bourbon exhibit. The Brown Forman main campus in Louisville was designed by Olmsted as well as the Kentucky Dew Distillery, the Labrot and Graham distillery and the Early Times distillery, Briede said.
During the pre-prohibition era, Olmsted was popular among the Bourbon barons of the time. Several of them — I.W. Bernheim, J.M. Atherton and E.H. Taylor — all hired Olmsted to design their estates. On display is a letter from E.H. Taylor to Olmsted and his brother discussing the trees on his property, and it’s signed by Taylor, in the same signature that is now on each E.H. Taylor bourbon bottle. After Olmsted’s death, the firm was hired to design the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, Bernheim’s gift to the people of Kentucky.
Other unique items at the exhibit include artifacts from Shakespeare in the Park and the Dirt Bowl, a table where kids can design their own Olmsted park and oral histories where visitors can listen to stories about the parks’ effects on the culture of Louisville.
This is Briede’s first project since being promoted to curator at the museum. “I got lucky because I’m really interested in this, and I love trees, so I got to indulge my love of trees.”
The exhibit runs until Oct. 20 at the Frazier Museum. If you’d like to contribute photos to the Big Rock exhibit, e-mail them to [email protected].
The museum along with the Olmsted Parks Conservancy will have programming throughout the summer and into fall. This Friday, the museum will host A Celebration of Frederick Law Olmsted’s 197th Birthday and Arbor Day 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. There will be tree saplings given away. Watch the Frazier Museum’s calendar for more events to come.