Rhode Island Historical Society

2022 is a big year for Olmsted landscapes! The year not only marks Olmsted’s bicentennial but the 200th anniversary of the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS), as well. The organization has been collecting, preserving, and sharing Rhode Island’s stories since 1822, and it remains committed to expanding access to its collections and programs and broadening the scope of stories it tells. To recognize and celebrate this milestone, RIHS is launching its “Putting Down Roots” project. 

“Putting Down Roots” is a multifaceted program designed to stabilize the exterior infrastructure (a historic retaining wall and fence), implement a landscape plan that highlights the original Olmsted design of the early 1900s (Job No. 02397), and increase ADA accessibility to both the greenspace and the John Brown House Museum, the organization’s flagship property and a National Historic landmark. After more than four years of planning, the project is underway. 

Embarking on this project was an easy choice for RIHS to make. The landscape surrounding the John Brown House Museum is central to the organization’s identity, and in the last decade, as the ancient elms have fallen victim to old age and Dutch Elm disease, the landscape has been in the public eye and press more than ever. 

Input was received from seventeen community stakeholders from Brown University to the Rhode Island School of Design and the City Parks Department— all of whom are dedicated to the green infrastructure of the community. The research done by this group was used to prepare a new vision for the site. 

Among other things, the plan sparked a desire to provide safer access to the property. RIHS is ensuring accessibility by making ADA-approved upgrades and adding lights and cameras to the parking areas and pathways. 

As they enter their third century, the RIHS is dedicated to sustainability for itself and the community it serves. The organization is particularly sensitive to its environmental footprint and has added a geothermal system at the house to minimize energy consumption. However, the landscape has required more finesse. As a non-profit, RIHS must reconcile the desire to restore the original Olmsted Brothers plan with the realities of money and staffing. Steps have been taken to ensure the landscape remains manageable, such as picking hardier trees with less likelihood of disease and selecting ground plantings that do not require substantial watering schedules. The diverse planting plan aims to avoid the monoculture problem presented by the blighted Elm trees. 

Changes will also be made to the Great Lawn. As one of the rare green oases in a densely-packed historic landscape, the Great Lawn of the John Brown House provides respite and refuge for neighbors and visitors alike. The Great Lawn faces historic Benefit Street, one of the first and best-preserved streetscapes in America, so it’s not simply a yard— it’s a jewel in a magnificent setting. The lawn serves as an extension of RIHS’s interpretive space, and upcoming changes will allow RIHS to share a piece of Providence’s history that has yet to be told in a cohesive and meaningful way. 

To learn more about the property, RIHS, and the “Putting Down Roots” project, please visit the organization’s website: https://www.rihs.org/putting-down-roots/ 

Morgan Grefe is the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Historical Society.