Shelburne Farms, Marshall Webb

“We have an interesting private work in a great stock farm for Dr. Webb near Burlington, Vt. with a magnificent view over Champlain to the Adirondacks. I propose a perfectly simple park, or pasture field, a mile long on the lake half a mile deep, the house looking down upon and over it.” – Frederick Law Olmsted to Charles Eliot, July 20, 1886 (Manuscript Division, Library of Congress Collection)

Shelburne Farms is an education nonprofit working to inspire and cultivate learning for a sustainable future. Our campus, a 1,400-acre working farm and National Historic Landmark designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., makes that work a lot easier. The themes and beliefs that run through all of Olmsted’s projects: that nature is a balm for the human spirit, and that access to nature is essential for all, are evident at Shelburne Farms, and the landscape he inspired here is fundamental to our educational mission.

Shelburne Farms’ campus was once the agricultural estate of Lila Vanderbilt and Dr. William Seward Webb. Between 1886 and 1902, the couple bought 32 farms on Shelburne Point, amassing 3,800-acres framed by the blue waters of Lake Champlain, the tumble of the Adirondacks, and the rolling Green Mountains of Vermont. It was an ideal canvas for Olmsted. 

Olmsted visited Shelburne Farms in June of 1886 and offered ideas on the function and design of the assembled property and its future buildings. Within a year of visiting, his original plan delineated a division of the property into farm, forest, and parklands (or park), a plan that was modified and carried out by Dr. Webb and Farm Manager Arthur Taylor.

Shelburne Farms, Sarah Webb

In addition to this organizing concept, Olmsted borrowed design principles from the English naturalist landscape tradition of the early 18th century, whereby parks were built around three elements: broad meadows, diverse woodlands, and water reflecting the sky. All of these features were–and remain–abundant at Shelburne Farms.

To highlight the features, roads were laid out through the natural topography of hills and hollows to alternately obscure and reveal vistas, creating mystery and surprise in the landscape, and framing the magnificent buildings designed by Robert H. Robertson. As the property was described in New England Magazine in 1901, “… fine macadam roads now stretch for miles in every direction, making graceful sweeps around the gentle hills, and with the constant turns new vistas are presented which delight and surprise one. The roads pass through magnificent avenues of tall pines, whose rich foliage meeting overhead gives a cool and refreshing protection from the sun.”

While Olmsted’s involvement at Shelburne Farms was brief, his imprint here is unmistakable, and his vision and ideals even more relevant in today’s world. How fortuitous that when the education nonprofit was formed in 1972, this landscape became its campus for learning, as a way to connect educators, students, and visitors to the natural world, just as Olmsted intended. And since the pandemic began nearly two years ago, this place, designed so intentionally to offer solace in nature, has provided that for countless visitors.