It was a perfect evening for a leisurely walk. Hosted a mere stone’s throw away from our humble abode in Old Louisville, The Olmsted Parks Conservancy’s Meet Justin Martin event provided an excellent opportunity for my handsome date and myself to enjoy a stroll through the neighborhood. I’d imagine Olmsted would be pleased; his ideas of calming scenery, urban beauty and reflection through nature converged perfectly for our slow-paced, two block amble. Mature trees drape their heavy heads over the sidewalks; a riot of foliage carpets our path. Respite from the teeming world of industry and machine indeed. Perhaps it is because our lives have suddenly become so entwined through Justin Martin’s narrative, or maybe my proximity to Olmsted’s living, breathing design is responsible, but whatever the reason, my outlook on Louisville, leisure and “the park” has forever been changed.
The intimate quarters of 610 Magnolia did not disappoint my mounting curiosity. Decorated with subtle rustic touches (such as a sculpted, natural wood bar – nice), and glowing with serene circles of ambient light, the low ceilings and dark, womb-like atmosphere of 610 Magnolia proved a perfect backdrop for an evening of Olmsted. For the 40+ attendees, the closeness provided just the right amount of “shoulder to shoulder” feel, allowing for a relaxed flow of conversation sans claustrophobia. Contrasting the shadowy interior, the event also opened into the garden. Normally tabled for al fresco diners, the patio was arranged for wine service with a couple small islands for relaxed sitting and chatting. Large, cream-colored boards depicting Louisville’s various Olmsted parks – including Cherokee, Shawnee and Iroquois – framed the fence line and provided interesting conversation points. Nibbles for the night included small dishes of bite-sized crab cakes, various cheeses paired with artisan bread and bruschetta topped with tomatoes, garlic and onion.
Beginning at 6pm, the first hour allowed guests ample occasion to mix, mingle and purchase copies of Justin Martin’s biography, Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted. Carol Besse, an owner and founder of my favorite bookstore, Carmichael’s, was on hand with a healthy supply of Mr. Martin’s book. The easygoing Mr. Martin himself sipped coffee, penned signatures and conversed freely with guests. Talking with Director of Development, Meredith Erickson, I took the opportunity to learn a little more about the Olmsted Parks Conservancy and their role in protecting and improving the designs Olmsted contributed to the face of Louisville.
Founded in 1989, the Olmsted Parks Conservancy works in conjunction with Metro Parks to maintain the 18 parks and 6 parkways that Olmsted – and later the Olmsted Brothers firm (his sons) – created in the 1890s and into the early 20th century. Along with an annual fundraiser, the Conservancy uses funds from small events like Meet Justin Martin to benefit various upkeep projects that retain the health and beauty of the Olmsted parks that visitors love and enjoy. The proceeds from last night’s 65 dollar ticket will support improvements to Central Park’s shelter, home of The Old Louisville Information Center.
Adding to interest, Mr. Martin supplied the intriguing background story of Central Park’s formation at the turn of the last century. Following the cocktail hour, Mr. Martin’s speech, “Accidental Renaissance Man,” treated guests to an overview of Olmsted’s life, work and roots, his vision in the Louisville park system and the creation of historic Central Park in Old Louisville. Olmsted’s life story is really a menagerie of experiences and trial-and-error; Olmsted’s various jobs as surveyor, clerk, sailor, farmer and writer all contributed to a rich life that culminated in the creation of a new frontier – landscape architecture. Our Louisville would be the last park system that Olmsted would design, and, as Mr. Martin said, “he was able to bring all his experience to create something spectacular.”
Instead of a single swatch of land, the idea behind the city “park system” was to create urban beauty on several different parcels, in different neighborhoods, and allow the city to grow up and around the landscape. To connect the parks, Olmsted designed – and coined – the “parkway”: wide, tree-lined thoroughfares curving gracefully, as evidenced by examples Eastern Parkway, Southern Parkway and Algonquin Parkway. The three major parks of our system, Cherokee, Shawnee and Iroquois, were created to enhance the natural beauty of the land and were each designed with distinctive personalities. Cherokee is reflective and calm with winding pathways and wooded stretches; Shawnee is gregarious, a place designed for activities such as parades and boating; and Iroquois is the city’s great vista, a massive hill providing a pinnacle to view the community.
In addition to this grand design, smaller plots – some only a few acres – were created to dot the cityscape. Among these, the star of the night, Central Park. Formally private acreage belonging to the illustrious DuPont family, Central Park began life as part of the vast lawn of the DuPont mansion. An unofficial playground for citizens, estate owner Biderman DuPont used his land to host many exciting events for public merrymaking, such as concerts, fireworks and balloon launches. This impromptu park realized its full potential under the design of Olmsted and became the existing landmark under the direction of Olmsted’s sons. This familiar neighborhood landmark I like to call my own, boasts a history that quite literally astounded me. The innocence of the landscape betrays nothing of its raucous past – all part of the ingenious subtly Olmsted so skillfully crafted; his hand is powerful but virtually invisible.
Following Mr. Martin’s talk, a Q&A was opened, with topics ranging from Olmsted’s meticulous, idiosyncratic work-style, to the rather tumultuous working relationship between Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux. As a life-long resident currently raising a small family in the shadow of Olmsted’s design, my thoughts could only focus on the anonymous role Olmsted has played in my life – a sentiment shared with me by Liz Dehart, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Conservancy.
As darkness fell over the little patio and the evening wound to a gentle close, Ms. Dehart and I marveled over the impact of Olmsted’s legacy, incredulous at the profound effect Olmsted’s work plays in a city where so few know his name. “People who come [to Louisville] from the outside know far more about [Olmsted’s] designs here than people who have lived here their entire lives.” Ms. Dehart hit that proverbial nail on its head. As one of only four cities in the world to enjoy to the legacy of Olmsted’s “park system” ideal, Louisville is home to some of the most breathtaking public green spaces in the nation – and I had no clue until last Tuesday. Olmsted’s vision transformed our city and translated the natural beauty of our place in the valley into an uncompromisingly precious community asset.
Although my legs were aching and my (now signed) book was growing heavy, the walk home along the silhouette of Olmsted’s genius would prove one of my most pensive.
For more information on Louisville’s Olmsted Park System and how you can become involved protecting Olmsted’s genius, visit The Olmsted Parks Conservancy website
Photo: Courtesy of the Meet Justin Martin press release