Home » “Unusual care” – Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and the plan for Guilford

Photograph of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. seated at a drafting tables. Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-47901.

“Unusual care” – Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and the plan for Guilford

After a bit of a summer break, we have our latest guest blog post by Tom Hobbs, President of the Guilford Association from his series on Guilford’s 100 years of history. Find out more about upcoming events in Guilford on the Guilford Centennial Facebook page including our September house tour with historian Ann Giroux!

Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts
Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts

The Directors of the Guilford Park Company, determined to create a garden suburb of the highest quality, engaged the Olmsted Brothers to prepare the plan for development of the Guilford community. The Olmsted Brothers company was the foremost landscape firm in the country. Its principals were Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and John Charles Olmsted, the son and stepson of the late Frederick Law Olmsted, the dean of American landscape architects and founder of the firm, designer of Central Park, numerous other city park systems, great estates and plans for many noted institutions.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. was the principal who primarily worked on the Guilford plan and landscape design. He was a highly respected designer, widely regarded as the intellectual leader of the American city planning movement in the early twentieth century. In 1901, he was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt as a member of the McMillan Commission to plan for the restoration of the Washington Mall and other aspects of the L’Enfant plan for Washington. He had a lifetime commitment to national parks and planned many of them; he designed park systems for many cities, including Baltimore and he designed a number of planned communities.

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, NPS
Illustration comparing a 1908 map projecting the Baltimore City grid through the Guilford area with an early street plan prepared by Olmsted for the Guilford Park Company prior to 1911 when it merged with the Roland Park Company, courtesy the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, NPS/Guilford Association.

When the Guilford Park Company acquired the Abell estate, the City already had on paper a plan to continue the grid street system north throughout the estate property. Such a plan would have disregarded the topography and devastated the lush forested areas. The Directors rejected such a plan and were determined that there should be a green garden suburb reflecting the value of the countryside supplied with urban conveniences but removed from the city’s “congestion, noise, crime and vice.”

Illustration of Ebenezer Howard's Garden City plan, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
Illustration of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City plan, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies

Olmsted was a proponent of garden suburbs in America where people live harmoniously together with nature, a concept advocated by Ebenezer Howard in England. The Guilford site was surveyed and existing trees and vegetation were inventoried in detail. He laid out streets to follow contours of the land, preserve stately trees and valued vegetation and generally enhance the natural beauty. Traffic was to be concentrated on a few wide streets with pedestrian walks along well planted areas. Most roadways were to be quiet and safe with traffic channeled to the thoroughfares.

When the Guilford Park Company merged with the Roland Park Company there was no question that Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. would continue as planner and landscape designer. He had designed the western portion of Roland Park and he and Edward Bouton, now the president of the Roland Park Company, had consistent ideas about the development of the garden suburb and specifically the objectives for Guilford. They also were working together on Forest Hills Gardens, the Russell Sage Foundation developed planned community, outside of New York City. There Bouton was general manager, concurrent with his role as president of the Roland Park Company, and Olmsted was the planner and landscape designer. Olmsted also was engaged in other Baltimore projects, including the design for the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus, the Charles Street approach to Guilford and a plan for the Baltimore park system.

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, NPS
Detail from the Olmsted Plan, courtesy Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, NPS

When the Roland Park Company took over the development of Guilford in 1911 plans were sufficiently prepared for the company’s engineers to design the infrastructure systems and begin detailed designs for the roadways. Olmsted continued to refine the design and prepared road and landscape designs for each block of Guilford. As the Roland Park Company information brochure for potential buyers indicates: “The planting of trees and shrubs in the parks and sidewalk lawns, along slopes and in other unoccupied spaces, has been made a distinctive feature of Guilford. The plans for this planting have been developed by Mr. Olmsted in the form of a carefully studied unified design for the whole property… Unusual care has been taken in the designation of the trees and shrubs to be used.”

Of great importance to Olmsted in his designs for new communities was “the separateness and internal integrity that would promote tranquility and give rise to the development of a sense of ‘shared community’ among their residents.” In addition to the general lush planting and walkway system, three community parks were planned (the Sunken Park, Stratford Green and the Little Park). In addition, Olmsted introduced private parks, little parcels of land spotted in the centers of many Guilford blocks as further evocations of “natural” land.

There were other conditions unique to the Guilford site that required careful consideration by Olmsted and Bouton. The Episcopal Diocese had purchased a site at the southwest edge of Guilford on which it planned to build a large, twin-towered cathedral, requiring Olmsted to plan options for both the cathedral site and the important southern entrance to Guilford. All along the eastern edge of the site on the east side of Greenmount Avenue/York Road was the grid street pattern and unplanned development; on the north was Cold Spring Lane and uncertain development. To address the issue of the north edge of the site that abutted Cold Spring Lane, Olmsted used “back-turning” streets at Whitfield Road, Bedford Place and Charlcote Place. English cottage houses were built along the eastern end surrounding a private “close.”

Roland Park Company Magazine
Courtesy Sheridan Libraries JHU

The eastern edge of the Guilford site presented a greater challenge. It was here that the Roland Park Company undertook initial development, building the architecturally admired Tudoresque houses of Bretton Place and Chancery Square, creating an internally focused English village-like environment. Handsome and setback row houses were built along Greenmount Avenue to the south and the homes of York Courts surrounding private green spaces were built to the north. At the Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts there are over 500 drawings and records covering the Guilford plans. In addition there are relevant Olmsted records at the Smithsonian and many additional records related to the planning among the Roland Park Company files now at the Johns Hopkins Library. These all are being searched for the planned book on Guilford.

Both Olmsted and Bouton were committed to the importance of protective covenants as the best means for assuring “stability” and “permanence.” Without control on development, they had observed high quality single family communities transformed by conversion to multi-dwelling and commercial uses and value change and character loss. Nuisance laws and design guidelines had proven to be insufficient protection against decline and change. Deed restricted covenants, including design controls, they argued protect purchasers against unwanted change that might “destroy the setting and they assure long-term well-being.” The collaborative work of Bouton and Olmsted in refining protective covenants became a model for similar provisions that are still widely used.

At the presentation of the Pugsley Gold Medal Award in 1953 honoring champions of parks and conservation, it was observed:

“Carrying on the ideals of his father, and with many of his father’s special qualities and characteristics, Olmsted was an outstanding leader in advancing landscape architecture to a status of honor and recognition among the professions. Indeed, for over a half-century Olmsted was the preeminent practitioner and spokesman for landscape architecture and comprehensive planning both interested in the interrelationship of people and their environment.”

Olmsted summarized his philosophy about landscape architecture in the following terms:

“In dealing with existing real landscapes, I have been guided by an injunction impressed on me by my distinguished father: namely, that when one becomes responsible for what is to happen to such a landscape his prime duty is to protect and perpetuate whatever of beauty and inspirational value, inherent in that landscape, is due to nature and to circumstances not of one’s contriving, and to humbly subordinate to that purpose any impulse to exercise upon it one’s own skill as a creative designer.”

Guilford residents and the City of Baltimore are the fortunate beneficiaries of Olmsted’s insight and design skills, living in and with one of the country’s most admired and lasting communities.

This piece was originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of The Guilford News. Thanks again to Tom Hobbs for sharing his research – take a look at Tom’s previous posts on the early history of the A.S. Abell estate and developer Edward Bouton.

2 comments

  1. gabregni says:

    “Carrying on the values of his dad, and with many of his dad’s unique features and features, Olmsted was an excellent innovator in improving scenery structure to a position of respect and identification among the careers. Indeed, for over a half-century Olmsted was the prominent specialist and spokesperson for scenery structure and extensive preparing both enthusiastic about the interrelationship of individuals and their atmosphere.”

    NyLotto

Leave a Reply