I have felt vulnerable all summer long, while working on my contributions for our Salem book: my chapters relate to academic fields for which I have no professional preparation, including African-American history (John Remond), art history (the Colonial Revival) and urban planning (Salem’s 20th-century development). I read widely and had support from my colleagues, and all the chapters will be peer-reviewed, so I don’t think I’ll embarass myself in the end, but I’m still a bit anxious. I’m co-writing the last referenced chapter, on Salem’s development from the Great Salem Fire of 1914 to the present, with my co-editor for the entire book, and after I plowed through rebuilding and urban renewal I simply dumped it on him, just done with it! It wasn’t fun to write and I needed some distance to reflect. So that’s what I have been doing for the last two weeks or so, trying to read histories of urban planning for pleasure. This is a field that intersects with the history of landscape design and garden history—and as the latter is more familiar to me I found a comfort zone. So I got some grounding and feel ready to go back into this chapter with some different perspectives and questions. I also realized I needed to cap off my weeks of reading with a visit to what must be the Mecca of landscape history: the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts.
So Chestnut Hill, a beautiful section of Brookline which extends over into Newton, was my weekend destination. This is where Boston Brahmins established their country seats in the later nineteenth century, and because of these considerable investments in land the area still retains its pastoral feel despite its proximity to Boston. At the height of his pathfinding career in 1883, Frederick Law Olmsted purchased an early 19th century farmhouse and several acres of land from two elderly spinster sisters who were reluctant to move: he built them a house next door. Another neighbor was Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose “Green Hill” summer house was built by Salem ship captain Nathaniel Ingersoll earlier in the century. Olmsted did not intend for his new house, named Fairsted, to be a seasonal showplace: it became the center of his business and his practice, as well as a center for the emerging new discipline of landscape architecture. This is the focus of the site’s interpretation: on the practice rather than the personal. The farmhouse was expanded in all directions, most conpicuously in the office addition which served as the headquarters of the Olmstead Brothers after the Frederick Law’s retirement in 1895. The firm endured (as the Olmsted Associates) until 1980, the same year that the National Park Service acquired Fairsted. As you can see from the photographs above, the orginal farmhouse its garden addition are not in the best shape: a planned and funded restoration has stalled due to the quality of the workmanship, and is delayed until the next funding process (but private donations can be made here). The interior of the farmhouse is pristine, and (again) dedicated to telling the story of the Olmsted practice. The office addition is like a time capsule of a 1920s-1930s architecture firm: with a drafting room, a photography room, a blueprint-printing room, a shipping room, and a vault, where all the Olmsted plans are archived.
In the main house: very few personal items, it’s all about the firm. I was primarily interested in the urban planning inititatives of the Olmstead firm as my chapter on Salem’s 20th century development begins with Harlan Kelsey’s 1912 City Plans Commission report. Because the Olmsted projects are so extensive, both in sheer number and geographically, the firm’s archives are always in demand and consequently the NPS has completed a major digitization project and also furnished researchers with an invaluable research guide to the collections. I found five Salem projects, the most important of which is the subdivision of the famous Pickman/Loring farm c. 1900: this was Salem’s first planned neighborhood, and I didn’t include it in my draft chapter (but I’m certainly going to do so now)!
The Olmsted site offers two tours, both of which were given by enthusiastic and articulate interns: one on the cultural landscape, the other on the office and practice. In the first, we learned all about Olmsted’s design philosophy (naturalistic and anti-Victorian, not particulaly interested in PLANTS, “borrowed view”) and the second focused primarily on how the firm was run during the era of the Olmsted sons/brothers. I just loved the office tour: forget AI and digital “reality”: this was immersion!
The Olmsted office wing: photography library with project #s (all materials are preserved in the vault now), drafting room, planting specifications, blueprint-printing room (and a very strange blueprint drying machine), shipping room, little cubbyhole office outside the vault.