Brooklyn Botanic Garden in Brooklyn, NY

Arboreta and gardens constitute a relatively minor category for the Olmsted firm, with about twenty projects, about fifteen of which produced design plans. It represents, however, a project type associated with a handful of major arboreta completed in association with park systems in Boston, Louisville and Seattle, as well as important arboreta/botanic gardens in cities such as Brooklyn, New York. The earliest of these projects and the one most closely associated with Frederick Law Olmsted is the Arnold Arboretum (1879-1897). It is located in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston between Franklin Park and Jamaica Pond along the Arborway, and forms a significant piece of the Emerald Necklace park system. Created as one of the first successful American arboreta open to the public, the Arnold Arboretum serves as a prototype, with dual functions as a scientific study collection of hardy trees and as a scenic pleasure ground that provides shelter and respite from the city. While the Arboretum’s first director, Charles Sprague Sargent, sought to create a museum for the display of living specimens, Olmsted brought his park experience, noting his design intent:

We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day’s work is done, and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets, where they shall, in effect, find the city put far away from them…. What we want most is a simple, broad, open space of clean greensward, with sufficient play of surface and a sufficient number of trees about it to supply a variety of light and shade…. We want depth of wood enough about it not only for comfort in hot weather, but to completely shut out the city from our landscapes.

After several years of negotiations between Harvard University and the City of Boston and a long series of design studies, Olmsted and Sargent created a plan for the Arnold Arboretum in which trees were grouped by family and genus following their phylogenetic order, with a curvilinear road system that negotiated the site’s undulating topography so that visitors would experience the tree collection in a strictly logical order. This dual function of scientific museum and aesthetic pleasure ground is still intact more than a century after the Arnold Arboretum’s creation.

The firm was consulted as early as 1893 on the future of the Missouri Botanical Garden, which was in a period of transition following the death of its founder, Henry Shaw, in 1889. Shaw had been instrumental in founding both the botanic garden and later a School of Botany at Washington University in Saint Louis, and was involved in negotiations regarding the role the university would play in the care and upkeep of the botanic garden. Unlike the Arnold Arboretum, the Missouri Botanic Garden was established as a not for profit institution rather than a direct affiliate or extension of the university. The Board of Trustees asked the Olmsted firm to submit a plan to both evaluate the current condition of Shaw’s garden and make plans for its future. Although the Olmsted master plan was adopted by the Trustees, only a portion was implemented. Listed in the Master List in both the parks and arboreta categories, the Missouri Botanical Garden is, like the Arnold Arboretum, a scientific botanical garden that is open to the public and serves as a pleasure ground.

Much of the Olmsted firm’s arboreta/botanic garden work occurred in the mid-1930s, with several projects completed concurrently with work by the WPA. The Olmsted firm created plans for the Seattle Arboretum (1884, 1903-1906, 1934-1939), Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia (1909-1933), listed as Chestnut Hill, Bernheim Arboretum in Louisville, Kentucky, (1929-1957) and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (1907-1919). Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and James Frederick Dawson are largely credited with the implementation of the plans for the Seattle Arboretum at Washington Park, which opened in 1934, and with the Olmsted firm’s plans for the Bernheim Arboretum, implemented the following year. While the Master List indicates sixteen plans prepared for the Hartford Arboretum between 1934 and 1936, it is difficult to ascertain the full extent of the firm’s design work there. In addition to the large public arboreta, between 1933 and 1935 the Olmsted Brothers completed more than fifty design plans for the interior courtyard, fountain and front planting at the Frick Museum (Collection) in New York City. The Master List includes other lesser-known botanic gardens that progressed into design in Birmingham and Kellyton, Alabama, and Sebring, Florida.

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