FREDERICK LAW OLMSTED PARK
With the colors of Fall foliage a recent and vivid memory, we focus on NMAI’s Frederick Law Olmsted Park (FLOP). The Park was founded by Judy and Laurence Cutler in 1998. It comprises three acres, formerly known as the 'Stoneacre' estate, opposite NMAI's Main Gates on Victoria Avenue. The F.L. Olmsted Park is one city block wide and fronts directly on famed Bellevue Avenue, acknowleged as "America's most beautiful street."
It was originally designed by Olmsted as a "parklike setting" for its owner, John W. Ellis, a Cincinnati banker and director of the Northern Pacific Railroad. On Olmsted's naturalistically sculpted grounds stood a Gilded Age Shingle Style mansion 'Stoneacre,' designed for Mr. Ellis
by architect William Potter. In 1883, Potter recommended Olmsted (1822-1903) to plan a naturalistic landscape as a setting for Stoneacre. Completed in 1884, this was Olmsted’s first commission after naming the profession ‘Landscape Architecture,’ arguably the first Landscape Architectural project! In 1998, NMAI's founders purchased Stoneacre when acquiring Vernon Court, as a glorious adjunct to the Museum. Their vision was to create a memorial park designed by Olmsted to honor him - America’s first and most noted landscape architect. There is no other such memorial to Olmsted or any other landscape architect.
Subsequent to the demolition of the Stoneacre mansion in 1962, its site fell into a decrepit and unkempt state. Used as a neighborhood dump for decades, it had rusting autos, junk of all types, debris dumped by neighboring estate gardeners, and was a major eyesore and nuisance location harboring varmints including deer, racoons, rats, skunks, and rabbits.
In 1998, after excavating through 36 years of dumping, the site was discovered to have asphalt covering more than 1/3 of the property. It had apparently served as a parking lot for over 100 automobiles for the faculty and administrative staff of Vernon Court Junior College until its bankruptcy in 1973. The situation necessitated an even more extensive clean-up and major landscaping to revitalize the grounds to appear as they had when Olmsted’s plans were first realized, more than a century earlier. Those
original plans were located amongst the archival records at Fairsted, Olmsted's home and office on Warren Street in Brookline, MA, now the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site (Job #01015 - 40 drawings prepared between 1883-1886).
Today, it is pristine, with each tree identified with both Latin and English species nomenclature. The Olmsted Park is monitored by a full-time caretaker assisted by licensed arborists, botanists, and gardeners. It boasts the largest and oldest known Japanese Zelkovas, Yeddo Spruce, and Japanese Maple in the USA, and other unique specimens personally planted by FL Olmsted. He created a tasteful, domestic setting, and to make the site parklike without the use of extravagant materials.
The art of the garden reached its height at the fin de siecle, when American tastes turned towards naturalistic plans as well as to its antithesis - historical revivalism (Renaissance Revival). At Stoneacre, Olmsted contoured the topography from absolutely flat to small swales, creating a rolling perspective, a more naturalistic appearance than Mother Nature intended. Olmsted conceived of a “parklike setting” with a
variety of foreign and native trees, including: Purple Beech, Japanese Maple, European Linden, Tulip Trees, Silver Maple, and Sweet Gum.
Lucius D. Davis opined on Stoneacre in Gardens and Gardening (Dec. 1895), “The design was almost wholly for park effects and it was pretty thoroughly carried into execution.” In 1980, Richard Champlin commented in Newport History, “To surround his Bellevue Avenue villa, John Ellis aimed at creating a park furnished with trees both native and exotic...a notable specimen of Cucumber Tree stands near Bellevue Avenue...”
Olmsted was able to take advantage of the recent introduction of many species of trees previously only found in Japan that had been brought to the United States by a Bristol, RI physician-turned-businessman and horticulturalist: Dr. George Rogers Hall. Dr. Hall had spent the early 1860s in Yokohama Japan, assembling a collection of flora in his garden that he shipped to Boston, and later brought with him upon his return to the United States. Consequently, for the first time ever in tNorth America, many of these species were planted in landscape projects throughout the country, Olmsted’s Stoneacre among them. Olmsted sought Dr. Hall out at his North Farm estate in nearby Bristol, and was overjoyed at the prospect of being among the first to plant some of the rare gems collected by the
noted Dr. Hall.
The Japanese Zelkovas are the largest and oldest in the United States and were recently declared ‘Champion Trees of America.’ The Japanese Yeddo Spruce is likewise the largest in the nation, and the Cucumber Tree is a rarity for its huge size. The grounds have been re-contoured to Olmsted’s original plan.
On July 4, 2003, a replica of a ‘Gilded Age’ four-faced Seth Thomas street clock was dedicated on the corner of Victoria and Bellevue Avenues. This clock was gifted to the NMAI for the park by the late Giulio Cesare Carani. The clock faces are lighted at night, provided accurate time-keeping via satellite for those in its vicinity day and night. The only such street clock on Bellevue Avenue, it is also a convenient landmark for Museum visitors looking for the entrance.
Olmsted was internationally renowned for having designed the nation's most beloved parks and grounds including New York City’s Central Park, United States Capitol, Winterthur Museum, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, and Newport’s Master Plan as well as 16 other Newport estates. The Olmsted firm completed over 6,000 projects between 1857-1979, across the USA and Canada. With the restoration of Stoneacre complete, Olmsted’s legacy is now honored by this small private park in his memory. The Frederick Law Olmsted Park is a member of the National Association for Olmsted Parks.