Louisville Magazine

NOV 2016

Louisville Magazine is Louisville's city magazine, covering Louisville people, lifestyles, politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment and homes. Includes a monthly calendar of events.

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138 LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 11.16 THE ARTS Olmsted's Genius By Eric Burnette e entrance stands at the end of a road, across the street from a few blocks of stately Craftsman and Colonial Revival houses. Judging from the wrought-iron stumps sticking out of the limestone, the actual gate part has been gone a long time. Only the columns remain. ere is nothing now left to keep you out. ere are many entrances to Cherokee Park, and this one, at the end of Alta Avenue, is nowhere near the most obvious. It is an afterthought. Frederick Law Olmsted, who started designing Cherokee Park in 1891 with his Boston-area firm, had a genius for these kinds of afterthoughts: tossed-off en- trances, sudden passages to other worlds, gates you wouldn't notice. ere will be a gate, then some trees, then a field, then some trees, and then limestone canyons, limestone springs, light skipping under limestone ledges. e sound of water in the creek. We must have evolved to love that sound — for two million years, it was one of the happiest sounds you could hope to hear. It meant you would live. A chorus of birdsong. Robins and car- dinals, chickadees and goldfinches, indigo buntings and yellow-rumped warblers. Beech trees that, in the fall, shine with the light of a hundred million copper leaves. Olmsted was a Mozart of landscape — each plant, each hill, each line a note in a living symphony. He could look at a topographical map or a representation of a tree and put himself there. On the ground. He could imagine what it would actually feel like. He knew the ambient impact of a beech versus a maple versus an oak. He understood how the light would play on the leaves and which leaves and which light. He could use plants as perfume to create the right smell for the occasion. Louisville came to Olmsted in the brilliant sunset of his career. At age 68, he had never been busier. And his work, which had included Central Park in New York, had never been more import- ant. In 1890, one of Olmsted's biggest un- dertakings was the World's Colombian Ex- position in Chicago, planned for 1893. In fact, the Exposition, also called the World's Fair, was one of the most ambitious tem- porary undertakings of any American city, ever. e host city wanted to outdo Paris' already famous 1889 Exposition, which had awed attendees and bequeathed the city the Eiffel Tower. Architect Daniel Burnham, whose firm designed downtown Louisville's Starks Building, led the project. Burnham wanted a scale of grandeur reminiscent of a Renaissance city-state. And so he brought on Olmsted. For more than three decades, Olmsted had been the dominant landscape architect in the United States. He literally invented the term "landscape architecture." Olmsted could see things other people couldn't. His eyes were the gray-blue color of Lake Michigan, which to his mind was Chicago's only natural beauty. And when Olmsted looked out over its endless water, he saw more water. He saw a series of la- goons. And on these lagoons, Olmsted saw boats, silent electric boats gliding on the water next to the lake, little quiet launches gracefully cutting the still water into a thousand flashes of the sun. at's what Olmsted wanted. Silent boats gliding with "poetic mystery." But even Olmsted's young partner, Harry Codman, couldn't quite see the appeal of Jackson Park, Olmsted's preferred site on the south side of Chicago. What Codman saw was 600 acres of barren swamp. Never mind. Olmsted marched forward. ey could dredge the marsh, dig the lagoons, build at a higher elevation on the excavated sand and leave, in the middle Louisville's brush with the brilliant landscape architect.

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