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Greenscapes: Olmsted’s Pacific Northwest

By Joan Hockaday

Review By Larry McCann

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 169 Spring 2011  | p. 147-148

This book is about John Charles Olmsted, the nephew cum stepson of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., the renowned landscape architect of New York’s Central Park. The senior Olmsted created an urban plan for Tacoma in the early 1870s that was never acted upon; Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., John Olmsted’s stepbrother and younger than John by eighteen years, offered comments on an initial design for the University of British Columbia and some other Vancouver civic projects just before the outbreak of the First World War, but he did nothing else in the Pacific Northwest. The source of the signature Olmstedian curving roads and city park systems in the Pacific Northwest was John Charles Olmsted (18521920). While working in the region early in the twentieth century, he was the senior partner of Olmsted Brothers, for many years North America’s leading firm of landscape architects and town planners. It is John Olmsted’s landscape designs that grace numerous cities, small towns, and older suburban communities throughout the region, especially in and around Seattle and Portland. His many projects in the Pacific Northwest are brought to the fore in this handsomely illustrated book. 

Like his illustrious stepfather, John favoured the pastoral and picturesque approaches to landscape architecture. But he could also replicate any style of design desired by a client. Among many accomplishments, he was a founder and the first president of the American Association of Landscape Architects (1899). John Olmsted was most renowned as a park designer. The park systems of Seattle, Portland, and Spokane stand as outstanding illustrations of this line of work in the Pacific Northwest. But there are several hundred other landscape projects located throughout the region – college and university campuses, institutional and exhibition grounds, parkways and boulevards, suburban subdivisions, and country estates – that further highlight his superb craftsmanship. In Oak Bay, a suburban municipality in Greater Victoria, British Columbia’s capital city region, John Olmsted’s residential masterpiece, the Uplands, has influenced a century of subdivision design. Through its artistry and practicality, not least the indelible Olmstedian signature of gracefully curving roads, the Uplands has been widely imitated (for example, at Capilano Estates in the British Properties of West Vancouver). Remarkably, John Olmsted’s Pacific Northwest landscapes were conceived in a relatively short period, from 1903 to the eve of the First World War. During this period, John Olmsted was often on the road for months at a time, crisscrossing North America, carrying in his battered trunks the plans for as many as fifty different jobs. 

Joan Hockaday, the author of Greenscapes, was a leading contributor to the centenary celebrations, held in Seattle during 2003, that paid particular homage to John Olmsted’s Seattle park system. In this way, and with the consummate skills of the investigative journalist that she is, Hockaday became aware of Olmsted’s much broader, regional repertoire of design projects. To relate this wider “greenscape” story, she scoured regional archives and, more important, culled the vast collection of letters between John and his wife, Fidie. Numbering several thousand, this source was blended with archival records held at Fairstead in Brookline, the one-time Olmsted home and office, now a national historic site and archive that holds the plans and drawings for any project undertaken by the Olmsted firm. Other information was gathered from the Olmsted “Job Reports” held at the Library of Congress in Washington. The result is a splendid narrative, a comprehensive journey across untold Pacific Northwest landscapes as related through the “eyes” and letter-writing of the master designer and, sometimes, of clients. Hockaday is skilled at extracting a telling word or sentence that describes the essential character and importance of an Olmsted landscape. 

Greenscapes: Olmsted’s Pacific Northwest lays out the varied contributions of John Olmsted in the Pacific Northwest. Besides standing on its own merits, the book should encourage further scholarship about this masterful designer. It is to be hoped that such research will elaborate on John Olmsted’s design philosophy or probe individual projects to reveal the many ways in which he influenced not only landscape design but also other features of the region’s urban and suburban development.

Greenscapes: Olmsted’s Pacific Northwest
By Joan Hockaday
Pullman: Washington State University Press 2009.  xii, 162 pp. $29.95 US