Rediscovering Olmsted layers at Plimoth: first steps

Starting a new job requires a lot of time spent learning and adapting to new work cultures, processes, work flows, and how to tap into the two-way flow of institutional knowledge. Amongst climbing this learning curve, settling in with my staff and department as well as tackling projects, I’ve been dying to begin starting to investigate more on the landscape legacy that Olmsted has left on the 120 acre property here at Plimoth. The extent of my knowledge about the landscape was that the Olmsted firm was hired to help shape the grounds on a least one or more occasions in the first half of the 20th century under the Hornblower family ownership. Little research has been undertaken to uncover the extent of their influence on the grounds. As curator of this landscape, my role going forward will be to help rediscover this Olmsted connection.

Often touted as the founder of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted’s (1822–1903) design in 1857 for Central Park in New York City propelled a legacy founded upon the restorative value of landscape and its role in social improvement and community. Together with his sons and successor firms they contributed designs to over 6,000 landscapes across North America. Notables include the Emerald Necklace in Boston, the Grounds of the White House and US Capitol, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. The Olmsted brand has left a permanent mark on the the fabric of America. His sons were founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects and additionally helped to form National Park Service.

My investigation into the Olmsted connection is nascent, yet I hope to share with you what i’ve been able to uncover so far as well as where i’m hoping to go. Researching changes in the landscape over time is a constant in my varied career. I’ve authored a full length cultural landscape report, been awarded a research fellowship to write landscape reports, nominated properties for historic landmark status, been hired by architects to inform design decisions, and even created finding aids to landscape resources in an information services capacity.

The first stop in this query actually began a few years ago with a visit to the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site [FLO NHS] in Brookline, MA. The archival collections here date from 1839-1980 and according to the NPS comprises approx. 139,000 landscape architectural plans and drawings, 70,000 sheets of planting lists, 60,000 photographic prints, 30,000 photographic negatives, 12,000 lithographs, financial records, job correspondence, records and reports, and models relating to over 5,000 design projects. Some of these collections are digitized, but many need to be accessed on site. I fully expect to have to pay a visit here some day.

Item Number: 6704-42-A Document Title: THE RIVER GARDEN ALTERATION OF TROUT POOLS/ ; SCALE 1/10″= 1′ Project: 06704; Hornblower, Henry; Plimouth Plantat. –Greenough, see — –; Plymouth; Massachusetts; 07 Private Estate & Homesteads; 39 PLANS () Artist/Creator: P., W.L. Location: Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, MA Category: PLAN Purpose: PLTG (Planting) Physical Characteristics: 11.75 x 16.5 graphite –ink trace Dates: 22-JUL-1920 Notes: OBLA, recto/ (Includes perspective.)/ See Plan B for revisions, recto/ Please credit: Courtesy of the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

Additionally, much of the firm’s correspondence is located in the Frederick Law Olmsted Papers and Olmsted Associates Records held by the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Its also important to note that much of the visual assets are fully digitized through a partnership with Flickr, which saves countless hours of site visits and scanning as is usually the norm.

I found a good introduction for searching and general context to be the Olmsted Online interactive database hosted by NAOP, the National Association for Olmsted Parks. It has a map view and can quickly tell you pertinent information for subsequent research such as job numbers and key dates. It was very easy to pull up the records to see that significant work was ordered here in the 1920’s. A very pleasant surprise was learning that the museum, perhaps under the guidance of Hornblower, engaged in the firm in the 1960’s as the museum was creating a physical campus. So within an hour of using this resource i was able to download and organize the plans and photography available for these two job numbers due to the brilliance of the Flickr digitization project with the LOC. There’s still some outstanding correspondence and textual documents to track down that are located in the LOC holdings.

I quickly learned that there were 39 drawings c. 1920’s on record for job #06704, all digitally available on Flickr. Further, there were two documents available at the LOC. The 1960’s work, job #10135, also had direct access through Flickr.

For those looking for a database-rich experience, i’d recommend the Olmsted Research Guide Online (ORGO). Its a simple interface, single database for records held at the Olmsted National Historic Site and the Olmsted collections at the LOC, which includes plans and drawings, photographs, lithographs, planting lists and correspondence. I found this to be very helpful when corresponding with Olmsted researchers between collections because all the information was very handy on one screen. The Master List view gives you all the metadata and filters you need: client name, historic job number, project type, city and state.

Overall, I am very pleased with my initial “research”. The folks at NOAP and FLO NHS have created some incredibly accessible resources. I have some primary sources to support future investigation in the landscape using methods such as photo analysis, conditions reports, and verification of features and elements. As we continue to build more supporting documentation about the Olmsted connection here at Plimoth, we will be looking in the near future for funding and scholarship opportunities to help investigate and document this landscape in further detail.

And as mentioned in the headline this is the first steps. Reports and studies must be done on these spaces to learn more. Some of this can occur in-house, but outside professionals in masonry and historic structures will need to be consulted. All work must also coincide with larger organization planning such as master plans and museum-wide goals. Depending on these variables, the next steps will be engaging stakeholders on the local, state, and national level to best support these preservation efforts. A cultural landscape report will be considered and will likely be highly recommended before the space is altered in any way for subsequent activities. We hope to use Olmsted 200, the Bicentennial of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted launched by NAOP to really kick off the project. In the meantime, more research and stakeholder gathering.

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