Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fairsted: Frederick Law Olmsted's Home in Brookline

Fairsted: Frederick Law Olmsted's Home in Brookline
travel memoir, historical non-fiction essay and photos
by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

               The October sunlight washed the maples in Brookline, Massachusetts, creating intense colors of orange and gold in the foliage as my wife, daughter and I walked along the sidewalks of the Boston suburb. Our weekend morning destination on the recent visit in Brookline was the National Historic Site of Fairsted.  It was the home and office of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect.  At the age of sixty-one in 1883, he moved his family there from New York. 

              Our walk to Fairsted began on Beacon Street, near my daughter’s apartment, where the transit lines come out from under the city of Boston, and the dense urban setting becomes a bit more relaxed, with spacious tree-lined avenues and bay-windowed buildings.  During the walk, the apartments gave way to large single-family residences with well-kept yards and flower beds.  It was hard to believe we were less than five miles from downtown Boston.  At an unassuming corner, we found the small National Park Service sign announcing the historic site.  The property was bordered with a pine fence, along with lush green bushes, maples, oaks and other trees.

               Olmsted was a self-educated man of many talents, a contemporary renaissance man.  He is best known as the father of landscape architecture and as the key designer for Central Park in New York City.  He was also a journalist and a writer, and he deeply loved America.  His passion was the outdoors, and he was compelled by a vision for the future of the country.  He truly believed that outdoor parks and green space soothed the soul and brought peace to hectic lives, and that these spaces needed to be available to all citizens.  In the mid-1800s, the European notion was that large gardens and parks were private tracts which were only available to wealthy landowners.  Large American cities were becoming congested, and Olmsted believed it was a critical time to begin incorporating parks and landscaped boulevards into city master plans on a regular basis.

               Brookline was on the edge of Boston when Olmsted decided to move there.  It was out on the edge of the city where subdivisions were beginning to carve roadways into the hillsides and former farm fields.  He was seeking a peaceful setting where he and his family could move from New York City.  His friend, the architect Henry Hobson Richardson, convinced him to find a home near Richardson’s Brookline residence.  Olmsted found a two-acre plot of land with an 1810 farmhouse and barn.  The property was owned by two elderly sisters.  It was their home for their entire lives and they did not want to sell.  In a short time, Olmsted struck a deal with them.  The basic agreement was for Olmsted to purchase the property for $13,200, as well as design and build a house at the rear of the site, allowing the sisters to live rent free for the remainder of their lives.
Entry drive and front door at Fairsted

               Our footsteps crunched on the gravel along the circular entry drive, and I touched the ends of a hanging bough of a massive hemlock.  The tree was centered on the circular island and shaded the entry to the house.  We met the park ranger who led us on the tour.  She explained when Olmsted redesigned the grounds of the property he created the new driveway and planted the hemlock when it was just six feet tall.

               Olmsted’s redesign of the grounds of Fairsted was similar to the process he employed on major parks.  He created distinct areas of interests, each for a purpose.  The “hollow” or wild dell was a sunken area carved out of the natural Roxbury puddingstone, creating a subdued retreat with an unkempt natural feeling, with vine-covered slopes and a grotto.
The Hollow

                We followed the ranger down the rough stone steps into the Hollow, brushing against the leaves of the rhododendrons, the cotoneaster boughs and yew shrubs.  She told us that Olmsted’s planting strategy was to use various shades of green with only a limited use of color from flowers.

               Charles Sargent, an arborist and friend of Olmsted’s, lived just across the street from Fairsted. Olmsted collaborated with Sargent, the director of Harvard’s arboretum. Together they designed the layout for the 265-acre Arnold Arboretum, and convinced Harvard and the City of Boston to incorporate it into the Boston park system, making it the world’s first public arboretum.

As Olmsted revised the landscape at Fairsted, Sargent provided him with a living gift: a cucumber magnolia tree, with yellow blossoms in the spring which bear red/pinkish fruit that look similar to cucumbers.  Olmsted planted it on the east edge of the property, near the rock garden path.

               The park ranger made a point of showing us the cucumber magnolia tree, the largest magnolia I’d ever seen.  She held a bud from the end of a branch and showed it to me.  I inspected the tiny symmetrical bud which had a fine sculpted quality.  The tree had survived 130 years of New England weather, and it stands today on the edge of the grounds like a stately king in fine clothing.

               Olmsted continued to improve the property at Fairsted.  He relocated the barn and removed a dying orchard, thus creating a large, open expanse of ground on the south side of the house.  He kept a lone elm, which became the focal point of the pastoral setting.
South Lawn at Fairsted

               The park ranger led us to the south lawn, and explained the elm became diseased and had to be cut down in 2011.  Experts hope to create a cultivar from remnant cuttings and plant a new elm in its place sometime in the future.

               With multiple commissions for Boston park projects, along with project collaboration with H.H. Richardson, Olmsted’s design practice thrived.  He expanded his business, and included his surviving sons, Frederick, Jr., and John, as part owners, and he hired well-educated apprentices.  He built additions to the house, and created a room called the conservatory, which became his favorite place to rest and contemplate as he turned more of the business responsibilities to his sons.
The Conservatory and view of the south lawn

               Once inside the house, I was drawn to the conservatory room. It seemed as if a peaceful spell had been cast upon me.  I stepped onto the brick floor and touched the stone aggregate coatings on the walls. The view through the large windows conveyed the south lawn and the various shades of green trees at the edge of the property.  The room seemed a part of the landscape, but it was also a part of the house.  I understood why Olmsted enjoyed his time there.  The ranger shared that Olmsted attempted to grow vines on the interior walls.

               The landscape projects continued to pour into the firm, and it prompted Olmsted and his sons to create additions to the rambling Fairsted structure.  Frederick Law Olmsted retired from the firm in 1895, and died in 1903.  His sons continued to manage a thriving practice, adding functional spaces to the office, including drafting rooms, photo filing, drawing storage, and blueprint developing equipment.
Drafting room

               The open drafting room, with ribbed-wood panels and open trusses was inviting.  I walked up to a large drafting table set on sawhorses, and touched the edge of the  table top, full of thumbtack holes from decades of pinning down large drawings.  I pictured the draftsmen with visors and aprons, tracing long curved roadways onto huge drawings of future parks.  I could almost smell their pipe smoke and envisioned it wafting up into the rafters.
               Olmsted’s landscape design practice created a legacy of thousands of projects throughout 44 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada.  The most notable projects were Central Park (New York City), U.S. Capitol Grounds redesign (Washington, D.C.), Columbian Exposition fairgrounds (1893 Chicago World’s Fair), Stanford University Campus (Palo Alto, California), Biltmore Estate (Asheville, North Carolina), and the string of parks in Boston called the Emerald Necklace.  Olmsted was also instrumental in convincing the federal government to create a national park system.

               When we left Fairsted, I felt as if I had stepped out of a time machine from the late nineteenth century, and had returned to the present. We walked across Brookline, back to Beacon Street to a park with a garden and a bench near my daughter’s apartment.  This pastoral setting was a prime example of Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision . . . a vision of peaceful parks within the dense cities of America, with spaces for all of us to enjoy.

Martin, Justin. Genius of Place – The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press – A member of the Perseus Book Group, 2011.
Fairsted. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
Frederick Law Olmsted. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior