A Sense of Place: Frederick Law Olmsted’s Legendary Landscapes
By Janet Moore
See Designer’s Vision Blossom in Asheville
He designed New York’s Central Park and Prospect Park; the city of Pinehurst, North Carolina, the landscape surrounding the U.S. Capitol. He pioneered not only landscape architecture but also conservation in America, and there are few places where the genius of Frederick Law Olmsted is better preserved than at Biltmore in Asheville. His design for the Estate, which is still owned by the heirs of its creator George Vanderbilt, came at the end of Olmsted’s life. In 1895, he was losing his memory but not his love of natural beauty.
Preserving Olmsted’s Landscape Design
“We are constantly working to ensure that Olmsted’s original design intentions are respected across the entire estate,” said Parker Andes, Director of Horticulture at Biltmore. A good example is the Azalea Garden or what Olmsted called The Glen.
The Azalea Garden, which connects the formal English Walled Garden to the Bass Pond, is home to one of the nation’s most outstanding collections of native azaleas. In 1901, Olmsted’s son added to his father’s original design and wove paths across the Glen’s stream.
“While this change in the design made it easier to enjoy the garden, the design greatly increased the number and complexity of plantings. More than a century later, the stream is cutting into its banks and undermining the walks in some areas,” said Andes. “Using what we now know about storm water management and stream dynamics, we are restoring the banks and saving the original path locations, so guests can literally walk in George Vanderbilt’s footsteps.”
Living the Legacy at The North Carolina Arboretum
While Andes is focused on preserving Olmsted’s creation, just miles away Director George Briggs and his staff at the N.C. Arboretum are honoring Olmsted’s design philosophy and his dream of an arboretum in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. “Olmsted envisioned an arboretum that was literally an extension of Biltmore. As a landscape architect, he saw this as one of the most important parts of the Estate,” Briggs said. “Unfortunately, it was the one project he never completed.”
There is considerable documentation and even a road (Arboretum Road) in adjoining Biltmore Forest that indicates what Olmsted had in mind. “His plan was for a linear arboretum along a 9-mile pleasure road for Vanderbilt and his guests. On either side would be specimen plants suitable for the region that could be used for horticultural and forestry research,” Briggs said.
To help him with this venture, he consulted the director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. “Both men were struggling with the same problem – how to build a self-sustaining research arboretum,” Briggs said. In the end, time, money and age made it impossible for Olmsted to complete his dream project in the 19th century. Nearly a century later, the N.C. General Assembly established the Arboretum as an affiliate of the University of North Carolina in 1986, and the essence of Olmsted’s dream became reality.
In 2016, Olmsted’s significant national contributions to landscape architecture and his dream of a superb arboretum in western N.C. was recognized with the placement of a sculpture near the Arboretum’s Quilt Garden. “Olmsted was interested in aesthetics and the environment, but he was also interested in social wellness and economic sustainability. He was a man far ahead of his time,” Briggs said. “It is in this spirit that we have just chartered the Olmsted Landscape Institute at the Arboretum. It’s one of the many ways we can continue to honor Olmsted’s national landscape legacy.”
Frederick Law Olmsted painting photo and Biltmore garden photo courtesy of The Biltmore Company. Statue image courtesy of the NC Arboretum and taken by Rachel McIntosh.