Charles Eliot

An early leader of the environmental movement.

By E. Lynn


Summer scientific expeditions to Mt. Desert Island off the coast of Maine sparked Charles Eliot’s early interest in environmental management. Later, Eliot would become known for his natural-systems approach to landscape architecture.

Eliot (185997) was born in Cambridge, MA, where his father was president of Harvard University. On graduation from Harvard in 1882, he pursued special horticultural courses at Bussey Institute to prepare himself for the profession of landscape architecture. In 1883, he became an apprentice for Frederick Law Olmsted and Company, where he worked on designs for Franklin Park (1884), the Arnold Arboretum (1885) and the Fens (1883) in Boston, and Belle Isle Park (1884) in Detroit. On Olmsted’s advice, Eliot traveled to Europe in 1885 to observe natural scenery as well as the landscape designs of Capability Brown, Humphry Repton, Joseph Paxton and Prince Pückler-Muskau. Eliot’s travel diaries provide one of the best visual assessments of European landscapes in the late 19th century.

Returning to Boston in 1886, Eliot opened his own office and was immediately involved with work of considerable importance, not only in the Boston area but also throughout the East. Noteworthy are White Park (1888) in Concord, NH; Youngstown Gorge (1891), now called Mill Creek Park, in Youngstown, OH; and the plan (1890) for a new town in Salt Lake City.


Writings on Landscape Architecture

In addition to his practice, Eliot became a regular contributor of professional articles to Garden and Forest Magazine. In February 1890 he wrote a landmark article entitled “Waverly Oaks” to defend a stand of virgin trees in Belmont, MA. He made a plea for preservation of the oaks and outlined a strategy for conserving other areas of scenic beauty in the same way that the Boston Public Library held books and the Museum of Fine Arts pictures. The Waverly Oaks article resulted in an 1890 conference held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on preservation of scenic beauty and the enactment of state legislation creating The Trustees of Public Reservations in 1891 — the first organization established to “acquire, hold, protect and administer, for the benefit of the public, beautiful and historical places.” Within two years, Eliot’s concept was used to establish Britain’s National Trust. Eliot’s work with The Trustees led to legislation in 1893 creating the Boston Metropolitan Parks System, one of the first such systems in the world.

Following the untimely death of their partner Henry Sargent Codman, Frederick Law Olmsted and John Charles Olmsted pleaded with Eliot to join their firm. In March 1893 Eliot agreed, and the name was changed to Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot. Within a few months, because of the elder Olmsted’s failing health, Eliot assumed the leadership role in the partnership. The firm was appointed landscape architect for the Boston Metropolitan Park Commission. In 1896, Eliot prepared a study, Vegetation and Forest Scenery for the Reservation, setting forth his concept of “landscape forestry” for rehabilitating the reservations to be included in the metropolitan park system. In preparing this seminal work, Eliot developed a methodology that moved the profession of landscape architecture from the era of intuitive design to a scientific, natural-systems approach.


Untimely Death

Eliot died in 1897 of spinal meningitis at the threshold of a brilliant career. His death was an irreparable loss to the field of landscape architecture and the “American environmental movement.” Although eulogies proclaimed Eliot as the father of the Boston Metropolitan Park System, the most fitting memorial to his greatness as a landscape architect came in 1900 when the first university course of professional training in landscape architecture was established at Harvard.



*Taken from: American Landscape Architecture: Designers and Places edited by William H. Tishler for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Society of Landscape Architects.