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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LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 11.16 139 THE ARTS of the largest lagoon, a wooded island — an artificial wilderness surrounded by civilization, tranquility in the midst of chaos, a perfect microcosm of what Olmsted did best. After some persuasion, Burnham and the Exposition board agreed with Olm- sted on the site. ey always did. As his son John later wrote, "It was one of the greatest advantages that Father had that his employers usually grew to have such faith in him that they often were prepared to accept his recommendations without attempting to understand them." Really, it was hard to say how many people did understand Olmsted's work. He could draw, but he was not a draftsman. Nor was he an architect, either by training or inclination. Nor was he a horticultural- ist — he would later tell his youngest son, Frederick Law Jr., who went by "Rick," that he regretted his lack of botanical and arboricultural knowledge more than anything in his career. In fact, not everyone recognized Ol- msted's work as something that required planning. Some people thought his parks just happened. Where Olmsted's artistry had created meadows, people, he wrote in an 1891 letter, saw vacant space "in which anything of public interest could be dumped." Andrew Cowan was not one of those people. Cowan, a New York transplant to Louisville, appreciated Olmsted's peerless ability. And so, when Cowan was elected to the newly created Board of Park Commissioners — created as the result of years of his own lobbying, for the purpose of implementing his own ideas for an Olmsted-like park system in Louisville — he wanted Olmsted. ere was no second choice. On Jan. 3, 1891, sitting in his leath- er-merchant office on West Main Street, Cowan wrote a letter to the Olmsted firm, which was then in the midst of the busiest part of the Exposition work. Without quite offering Olmsted the Louisville job — which Cowan couldn't do, being just one of six park commissioners — he informed Olmsted of Louisville's need for a landscape architect and asked for his ad- vice on the best course of action. He also wanted to know how soon Olmsted could come down to Louisville. Unknown to Cowan, Olmsted had only a few years left before senility. Details had begun to escape him. He couldn't remem- ber whom he'd met with. He was over- whelmed with the workload of his firm and the demands on his time and energy. He was almost always in poor health. But his work was still of such striking beauty and simple power, he could not nearly be written off. ree months later, Olmsted rode with Codman across the interminable flat of In- diana on a clattering train bound for Lou- isville. He spent a lot of time on trains like this, and it was wearing on him. He was constantly visiting cities in the Northeast, the Midwest and now the South. Why? Why at his age, with his miserable health, was he doing this? Because, as he told his old friend Fred Kingsley, it was "the part of the work of our practice that I can least turn over to my partners." Apparently, he couldn't teach that part of the job. Olmsted also made the trips because the firm was running out of Northern cities to work for. e South and the West — they were the firm's future. Writing from Louisville, he told John, "I want you to be making way in the sub-tropical and the arid cities before I go. I want the firm to have an established 'good will' at the South." Olmsted constantly worried about what would happen to the firm when he was gone. Setting his sons up to succeed him was really the only thing he could think to do for either of them. (Both became landscape architects in their own right, with projects ranging from Grant Park in Atlanta to the National Mall in Washing- ton, D.C.) When Olmsted got to Louisville and Cowan showed him the newly ac- quired woods along the Beargrass valley that would become Cherokee Park, Olmsted was astounded. "I never saw a park in my life which has as many natural advantages as the property just purchased," he said. He could not get over these woods. "If we had such trees about Boston every one of them would be famous," he said. "(ey) are of a splendid quality and beautifully grouped; there is a magnificent supply of fine spring water; the rocks and shrubs are perfect and all in all it is a lovely place naturally." To welcome Olmsted, Cowan threw a dinner party for 24 distinguished guests, including a majority of the Board of Park Commissioners, at a gray lime- stone mansion owned by the Pendennis Club. is was the place that had hosted a banquet for President Chester Arthur when he came to open the Southern Exposition World Fair in 1883. e club (which still exists downtown on Muham- mad Ali Boulevard) had its own chef, well versed in haute cuisine, and a staff that kept the house stocked with Champagne and Old East India sherry. Not everyone was taken with Olmsted. Commission president omas Sherley and fellow commissioner John Breckin- ridge Castleman, who owned some land called Castlewood, which he hoped would be the Eastern Park rather than the woods along Beargrass Creek, voted against him. In the end, Olmsted charmed just enough members of the commission and was hired. Cherokee Park, Iroquois Park and Shawnee Park — these would become some of the last masterpieces of a fading genius. Louisville is the only city in the South with Frederick Law Olmsted parks. And it always will be. is story is adapted from Eric Burnette's book Parks for the People!. Olmsted was a Mozart of landscape — each plant, each hill, each line a note in a living symphony.

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