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  Field Notes From
Frederick Law Olmsted

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Frederick Law Olmstead On AssignmentArrows

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From Author

John G. Mitchell

Frederick Law Olmstead On Assignment

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From Photographer

Melissa Farlow

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Brian Strauss (top) and Mark Thiessen


Frederick Law Olmstead On Assignment Author Frederick Law Olmstead On Assignment Author
Frederick Law Olmsted

Field Notes From Author
John G. Mitchell

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    The most satisfying part of this assignment was seeing how some of Olmsted's works were weathering the years, or at least making a comeback after decades of 20th-century abuse and neglect. I was impressed by the dedicated efforts of several administrators to restore and protect the landscaped venues Olmsted's vision bequeathed to us: Tupper Thomas's artistic re-creation of the ravine in Brooklyn's Prospect Park; Bob Cook's determination to retain Olmsted's original design for the Arnold Arboretum, a key gem in Boston's Emerald Necklace; Alan Banks of the Fairsted site in Brookline for his insightful interpretation of Olmsted's work; and Susan Rademacher of the Louisville Olmsted Conservancy, a tireless proponent of restoring what the master architect had originally prescribed for that city's park system. Finally, the wisdom and guidance of Charles Beveridge, preeminent Olmsted scholar and editor of the architect's voluminous papers, were invaluable in shaping a fitting tribute to Olmsted and his works. 
    Alas, the cutting-room floor at National Geographic is knee-deep in the gifts of information I gleaned from such folks. My apologies to one and all. In the business of magazine journalism, this is the price we pay trading background depth for tailored brevity.

    The worst of it all—at least in the field—were the golf courses. Olmsted was not enamored of this newfangled sport Americans were just discovering about the time his big urban parks were coming on line. In fact, Olmsted reportedly abhorred the emerging possibility that one day the pastoral sight of families democratically strolling some of his famous meadows might be replaced by the distinctly undemocratic spectacle of knickered gents swatting at little white balls.
    Okay, golf courses are nice and green, but so are cemeteries. Okay, and some of my best friends are golfers. Matter of fact, the vice chairman of the National Geographic Society Board of Trustees, Reg Murphy, is a past president of the United States Golf Association. Sorry, Reg! Can't help it. Carving golf courses out of Olmsted parks leaves me plumb teed off.

    Speaking of cemeteries, Olmsted designed a number of them, having been hugely influenced by the work of such graveyard gardeners as Adolph Strauch, the creator of Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio. Of all the burial places Olmsted conceived, the finest by far is Mountain View Cemetery in the Oakland hills, overlooking San Francisco Bay. Here stand mausoleums and memorials to the memory of some of the Bay Area's most notable figures, yet the perspective is anything but lugubrious; it is enchanting. Olmsted himself saw it as a place where "The brooding forms of the coppices and the canopy of the cedars would unite in the expression of a sheltering care," while "the heaven-pointing spires of the immortal cypress would prompt the consolation of faith."
    For my own part, I am not much of a religious person. But being in Mountain View one fine summer day, with the afternoon sun glinting softly off the bay and the conifers standing at full attention, I do believe I caught a bit of the drift of Olmsted's lofty proclamation.


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