Greenscapes: Olmsted’s Pacific Northwest

The Olmsted name is synonymous with landscape architecture and planned green spaces. Frederick Law Olmsted Sr was largely responsible for the development of the profession of landscape architecture in the latter half of the nineteenth century; his son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr, and stepson, John Charles Olmsted, continued their father’s work as the premier landscape design practice in America, well into the first half of the twentieth century. The firm’s list of projects is legion; nationally, their work is well known. Less recognized, even to those in the Pacific Northwest, is the great number of projects the firm designed locally, and the vast influence that John Charles Olmsted had on the region’s planned landscapes.

In Greenscapes: Olmsted’s Pacific Northwest, Joan Hockaday has assembled a thoughtful accounting of the Olmsted firm’s early work in the region under the direction of John Charles Olmsted. Greenscapes offers a detailed description of many landscapes that we take for granted, while introducing us to many more that we might not have realized were Olmsted designs. Beginning in 1903 and continuing intensively until 1911, John Charles Olmsted was responsible for the design of over 200 projects and plans for municipalities, private clients, college and institutional campuses, and expositions in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and southwestern British Columbia.

Many leading figures of the time recognized the need for well-planned public spaces as the region moved beyond its pioneer phase. The cities of Seattle, Portland, and Spokane owe much of their park and boulevard systems to the work of the Olmsted firm under John Charles. He designed the grounds for both the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland and the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific (AYP) Exposition in Seattle. The campuses of the University of Washington, Oregon State University, the University of Idaho, Whitman College, Linfield College, and others were either designed or greatly influenced by Olmsted.

Utilizing the prolific correspondence between John Charles Olmsted and his wife, his associates, and his clients, and marrying this to other primary sources from the period, Hockaday has produced a rich and personal glimpse into the ideas and considerations that went into Olmsted’s designs. Olmsted’s design philosophy, learned through thirty years in close professional practice with his famous father, comes clearly through in his letters. While not attempting to describe each of the firm’s local projects, Greenscapes does provide an invaluable look at many of their notable designs, how the projects evolved, and who the players were.

Greenscapes illuminates how John Charles brought out the attributes of each site in his designs by working in harmony with the existing landscape. Long before the use of native plants was acceptable or fashionable, he advocated for their protection and inclusion. He always took into account the inherent attributes of a particular place, including its relationship to nearby natural amenities. For example, he oriented the main axis of the 1909 AYP Exposition grounds toward a view of distant Mt Rainier, when the site initially offered few clues of anything other than a broken landscape covered with ragged stands of timber. He shaped the remnant stands of Douglas-fir to frame the view, and kept much of the native flora as a backdrop, to give the exposition grounds a sense of place. Today, that designed view seems so natural as to be obvious, but it was a novel approach in 1909.

Greenscapes is a wonderful look at the Olmsted legacy in the Pacific Northwest. Though historically overshadowed by his more famous father and brother, John Charles Olmsted is revealed as an impressive designer in his own right, and one whose design philosophy is evident in a surprisingly large number of our region’s best-loved parks and green spaces.

Raymond J Larson, horticulturist
Seattle, Washington