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Archive for the ‘Historic Preservation’ Category

Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece  / Princeton Architectural Press

Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece / Princeton Architectural Press

Recently restored to much ado through a six-year process, Mellon Square in Pittsburgh was the first Modernist space in the nation built over a subterranean parking garage. Considered a precursor to today’s green roof movement, Mellon Square is a showcase for urban revitalization through historic preservation, with a contemporary sensibility and the latest technologies. In the foreword of Susan Rademacher’s Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece, series editor Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, head of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) says the result of the restoration is “a renewed, enhanced, and revitalized Mellon Square that carefully balances the highest historic preservation standards with clearly articulated performance benchmarks and sustainability standards.”

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Henri Marcus Moran, “View of Mellon Square – Looking North,” ca. 1955, Gouache on board / Princeton Architectural Press

As Rademacher, parks curator at Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, tells the history of the civic space itself, she reflects Pittsburgh’s ups and downs throughout much of the twentieth century – from booming steel town to post-WWII slump, when it was nicknamed the “Smoky City” due to its heavy blankets of regular smog. Mellon Square was a key player ushering in Pittsburgh’s first renaissance, drawing innovation, entrepreneurs, and civic life to the downtown “Golden Triangle.” But the square also succumbed to the decline characterizing Pittsburgh through the 1960s to 90s. As Rademacher tells it, Mellon Square is a proxy for the status and reputation of the entire city of Pittsburgh.

Mayor David Lawrence with R.K. Mellon, in Life magazine, May 1956 / Margaret Bourke-White, Princeton Architectural Press

Mayor David Lawrence with R.K. Mellon, in Life magazine, May 1956 / Margaret Bourke-White, Princeton Architectural Press

Also woven into the narrative are personal histories of key players such as project architects James Mitchell and Dahlen Ritchey, and landscape architects John Simonds and Philip Simonds. Students and practitioners of landscape architecture will recognize the former Simonds as author of seminal text Landscape Architecture, still widely used as a foundational textbook for landscape architecture courses. We learn about his life and entry into the profession in the 1930s, and find fascinating glimpses of a highly tenuous time for the field. In a 1999 letter, Simonds recounts asking Walter Gropius, his mentor at the Harvard, about the future role for landscape architecture in contemporary society. Gropius “looked at [him] long and thoughtfully without speaking. It was quite possibly one of the most eloquent statements ever never stated.” Simonds would go on to graduate as part of the “infamous 1939 ‘class of rebels,’” we learn from Landscape Architecture co-author Barry W. Starke, FASLA. In these records, the mythos of the profession is alive and well.

Iconic copper fountains elegently lit and choreographed early in Mellon Square's history / Princeton Architectural Press

Iconic copper fountains elegantly lit and choreographed early in Mellon Square’s history / Princeton Architectural Press

At the heart of the book, of course, is the history of Mellon Square itself. Readers looking for historical details will not be disappointed. Design notes, sketches, photographs, and planting details are generously interspersed throughout the text. Just about every planting choice considered, implemented, and replaced is included, with nuggets, such as the “early use of the new thornless form of the honey locust tree,” now common and well-known to practitioners. And we learn that early design concepts discussed including “live animal displays within the pool, such as flamingos, penguins, and sea lions, which were favored for their comical movements and expressions.”

John Simonds' earliest known concept sketch / Princeton Architectural Press

John Simonds’ earliest known concept sketch / Princeton Architectural Press

Planting detail with circular platforms for sea lions are featured in an early concept sketch / Princeton Architectural Press

Planting detail with circular platforms for sea lions are featured in an early concept sketch / Princeton Architectural Press

Also noted is Simonds’ “elaborate and precise statement of design intent,” in which that the square must simultaneously act as a platform, structure, island, space, focal center, civic monument, gathering place, and oasis. “Simonds and his collaborators created a powerfully original landscape architecture and urban design solution . . . [placing] nature in high relief against the building-lined streets of downtown.”

Those hoping to gain insight for approaching a historic restoration in other cities will also find much to learn from. Mellon Square, which also features essays by Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, Heritage Landscapes, lead landscape architect on the restoration effort, and Richard Bell, FASLA, champions the efforts of all involved. Rademacher is careful to give credit to all involved parties, from the first glimmers of an idea through the recent full restoration. As important as reconstructing the historic details of the copper fountains and rustic terrazzo paving was the building and maintaining of partnerships across disciplines. Though Mellon Square underwent a partial restoration in the 1980s, funding issues – along with design modifications largely reversed to better align with the original design – led to a lack of proper maintenance. Key to the future success of the square will be an ongoing $4 million maintenance fund devoted to perpetual stewardship of Mellon Square.

Editorial cartoon, Cy Hungerford, 1955 / Princeton Architectural Press

Editorial cartoon, Cy Hungerford, 1955 / Princeton Architectural Press

One of few Modernist landscapes fully preserved and restored, proponents hope Mellon Square will be not an anomaly but a model for other locations. Up next: how about designation as a National Historic Landmark?, suggests Birnbaum.

Read the book.

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is founder and lead designer-educator at Mitsui Design, focusing on landscape experience and connection to place. He was the ASLA summer 2014 communications intern.

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Larry Weaner in Meadow 1 at Dumbarton Oaks Park / Jared Green

“We are at the volatile beginning period when all the plants are fighting it out. We have to help the newly planted grasses dominate,” said Larry Weaner, Larry Weaner Landscape Associates, at the kick-off of the restoration of the 9-acre meadow at Dumbarton Oaks Park in Washington, D.C. The first two meadows in a five-meadow necklace have already been seeded with warm season grasses, embedded in a protective layer of grasses that will later die back. In a carefully-sequenced succession, the new warm season grasses will slowly take over, restoring the original vision of landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, who designed the park in the 1920s and 30s, and creating rich wildlife habitat in the process.

Liza Gilbert, ASLA, one of the leaders of the restoration process at Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy and the latest landscape designer to be appointed to the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, said Farrand meant the 27-acre landscape to be a “wild garden” distinct from the formal gardens of Dumbarton Oaks just up the hill. “There is a progression of spaces, with narrow paths leading to grand vistas. She was a master of creating spatial experiences, moving from dark to light.” The land had been used as a farm for decades; Farrand “created a paradise out of land that had been worked.”

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Meadow 1 at Dumbarton Oaks Park / Jared Green

Farrand believed “topography must dictate design. She was a master at reading curves, the sculptural quality of the land, and using plants to highlight those features.” As such, Farrand saw five meadows, divided into rooms by loose hedgerows, interconnected into a necklace. “That’s why we are inexplicably drawn to the next one and the next.” Meadow 5, the final one, is “a broad expanse where I always feel a little lost,” which is perhaps what she wanted us to feel. Weaner echoed these thoughts, adding that “Farrand was sensitive to letting the land express itself.” Like Farrand, “we must follow the place’s natural inclinations,” even with restoring the meadow. “It’s not about what I envision here.”

Since the 1950s, the park has been left to its own devices. The result was the total takeover of the historic design by invasive non-native plants, including Japanese stiltgrass, porcelain berry, wineberry, and others, until the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy started up in earnest a few years ago. Over literally thousands of hours of volunteer labor, the mighty team at the conservancy has turned the tide, enabling Farrand’s design to reappear in many key places. The next phase is recreating the five meadows, all of which had all been overrun except for one.

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Existing native meadow after mowing / Jared Green

Meadows are incredibly complex ecosystems and designing them is as much art as science. In a lecture hosted by the George Washington University landscape design program, Weaner said warm season grasses, which are native, are more desirable than cool season grasses, which were imported from Europe, because they sustain the local ecosystem. Cool season grasses mat when they grow, whereas warm season grasses allow for little pockets of life to more easily live amid individual plants. Warm season grasses are natural homes for solitary, non-hive bees and other insects that birds eat. As Doug Tallamy, one of the world’s foremost wildlife ecologists has explained, birds are “insect specific.” Native birds want to eat native bugs, which feed on native plants. If meadows disappear, so do the insects and then the birds. Restoring the native meadows at Dumbarton Oaks Park is then vital to creating the “little rest stops birds need” on their journeys.

Once you’ve intervened in a landscape and you are trying to turn it into a native meadow, you have to work with existing natural processes. Weaner described a meadow as a “system with early and late stage players.” Succession, which is “the changing nature of plants in a place,” is happening at all times. “If we bulldoze a place, we’ll first see small herbaceous grasses, then pioneer shrubs and trees, and then more mature trees.” Trees will eventually push out most of the ground cover, unless they are stopped. But Weaner explained that a sort of micro-succession also occurs within the meadow stage of succession as well. Given some grasses are annual, others are biannual and still others are perennial, “in a one year time period, the dominant species will completely change.”

In a warm season native meadow, perennial plants dominate. “The problem is they establish themselves slowly. They put their energy into root growth as a long-term investment. Perennials are conservative whereas annuals crash and burn. It’s a relay over time.” Given some perennials take up to 7-10 years to flower, and therefore only then create seeds that can restore the ground’s seed bank, “the first 1-3 years are volatile.” Cool season grasses found in meadows 1 and 2 will continue to co-exist alongside new warm season perennials planted in July — Purple Top, Beaked Panicgrass, Side Oats Gamma, and Little Blue Stem — giving the perennials time to get situated and eventually dominate. The idea is the warm season grasses, if supported with mowing each spring, will eventually take over, as the cool season grasses will not be given the opportunity to grow and will eventually die.

Weaner said the conservancy team will need to keep a close watch over the nascent native meadows as any disturbance can easily “push a meadow back to its early stage of succession. Succession can also go backwards.” Invasive plants are a constant threat; they are a “permanent disturbance.” But if invasive can no longer produce new seeds and add to the seed bank, they can be held at bay indefinitely.

Dumbarton Oaks Park, working with nature’s processes, is like a perennial itself, making a long-term investment in the future. More meadows in the necklace will soon be planted with warm season grasses and shepharded. The results of their labors won’t be seen for many years, but the seeds have been planted.

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Downspout leads to a rain garden at Mary Myer’s house / Rob Cardillo. The New York Times

One Woman’s Pipe Dream The New York Times, 10/9/14
“Mary E. Myers, a landscape architect and associate professor at Temple University, had more than absorbing storm water in mind when she created a 200-square-foot rain garden beside her sloping lawn in this shady suburb north of downtown Philadelphia.”

London Mulls Plans for a £600m Floating Bike Path BBC News, 10/13/14
“In an inspired burst of think-outside-the-street strategy, a London consortium is floating an audacious plan to turn part of the River Thames into a nearly eight-mile-long, bikes-only pathway.”

Hermann Park Marks Centennial with Opening of GardensHouston Chronicle, 10/13/14
“Since its establishment in 1914, Hermann Park has served the Houston community as a place to relax, play, engage and learn. To celebrate the Park’s 100th year, the McGovern Centennial Gardens, a new park, will have its grand opening Saturday, Oct. 18.”

Creative Parks Cost Money, and They’re Worth it: HumeToronto Star, 10/13/14
“A city park can be innovative, imaginative, and carry cultural weight. In Toronto, we’re only starting to try.”

A Plan to Turn a Queens Railway Into a ParkThe New York Times, 10/14/14
“‘The advantage of leaving the site vacant for so long is that we’ve got some very large oaks, maple and walnut trees,’ said Susannah C. Drake, the principal of DlandStudio, a landscape architecture firm. ‘On the viaduct, some smaller things have sprouted up like wild roses, sumac and cedars.’”

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Russell Page Garden at the Frick Collection / Danielle Rollins via Pinterest

For more LA in the News, check out LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at info@asla.org.

The Green Lawn: American Staple or Water Waster?The San Francisco Chronicle, 6/17/14
“As California faces its worst drought in decades, residents are being asked to make sacrifices to save water: take shorter showers, launder less and forgo the occasional flush. For some, though, the biggest hardship has been surrendering the vigor of a bright green lawn.”

Motor City’s First Buffered Bike Lanes Planned for MidtownThe Architect’s Newspaper, 6/18/14
“Given the severity and number of challenges facing Detroit, streetscape improvements might not seem like a very high priority. But in the Motor City’s Midtown, one of the city’s relatively resurgent neighborhoods, a local planning non-profit is betting that encouraging more bicyclists and pedestrians will be a boon for the area. As a result, Detroit may soon get its first buffered bike lanes. Between Temple Street and Warren Avenue, Midtown’s 2nd Avenue is the target of a substantial road diet, as first reported by ModeShift.”

Long-Forgotten Landscape Architect Helped Save the Indiana DunesWBEZ 91.5, 6/19/14
“As the temperature rises, thousands will be flocking to the Indiana Dunes this summer. But if it weren’t for a little-known landscape architect, the miles of beaches along southern Lake Michigan might not exist today.”

A Playful Pop-Up at Spruce Street Harbor ParkThe Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/28/14
“Last summer, landscape architect David Fierabend was tasked with turning a vacant lot on Broad Street into a peaceful pop-up garden for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The best indication that his woodland garden – shaded by a copse of graceful honey locusts – had succeeded? How little visitors noticed his handiwork.”

Here’s What’s Missing in the Debate over the Frick Collection’s Proposed ExpansionThe Huffington Post, 6/30/14
“The announcement that the Frick Collection on New York’s Upper East Side plans to build an addition has generated some buzz and concern – and if implemented, it would forever destroy an important part of the collection – an exquisite garden by the world famous British landscape architect Russell Page (1906-85).”

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1950s postcard of Mellon Square / Collections of Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh

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Mellon Square restoration aerial / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

The Modernist design of Mellon Square is a product of the Pittsburgh’s first renaissance, beginning in the late 1940s. The plaza was a focal point in the re-imagining of what was a gritty city. Positioned above streets, storefronts, and a subterranean parking garage, the space ascended above the hustle and bustle, forming an oasis.

I gathered a wealth of documentation, observing use, studying context, and investigating details. All of this led to an analysis of the plaza’s original design and built character.

What emerged was a clear picture of the original design team’s masterful manipulation of the urban fabric to revitalize this area of the central business district. Although this was a Mitchell & Ritchey and Simonds & Simonds collaboration, documents pointed to John Simonds as the author of sketches that embodied the design concepts. These studies drew on diverse historical and contemporary sources, such as the grace of ancient Roman villa cascades, the exuberance of colorful Latin American estates, the geometries of modern French gardens, and the clarity of Japanese Zen compositions. This urban green space crystallized multiple ideas in a Modernist character. The companion elements were the new U.S. Steel and Alcoa towers flanking two corners of the plaza. This adjacency brought the views from above to the foreground of design considerations.

The intensive, compact Mellon Square design was layered, with three-dimensionally nested planes unfolding to a serene interior of skydome, sunlight, shimmering water, and native forest plants. As Simonds espoused, it served as a platform, civic monument, and oasis — both within and separate from the surrounding city. The plaza invited access from the street, fostered leisure, and supported lively events. Mellon Square was an integral part of re-imagining Pittsburgh as a place of commerce and innovation and remains an ascendant urban space today.

However, by 2008, Mellon Square had lost the clarity and grace of its original layered composition. Missing were the graceful reflective central basin, the pastel brightness of the cascade, the continuous filigree of canopy foliage, the complete green perimeter edge, the crisp geometry of harlequin paving, and the overall evidence of polish and care. With the revelation of original design concepts in hand, the effort turned to finding ways to restore the masterwork while addressing contemporary issues.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s emphasis on balancing historic integrity, current uses and functions, and operations and maintenance provided an effective framework for addressing preservation interventions at Mellon Square. To reinstate the richness and intricacy of its multi-faceted, dense and compelling design, the integrity of the Modernist composition had to be re-established.

Approaching the work of a master requires both insight and humility. The original design intent and execution must remain the paramount guide, even as multiple factors are addressed. The conservancy and Heritage Landscapes team chose to restore 85 percent of the plaza, while re-imagining the large planter above Smithfield Street as a terrace and overlook with an adjacent green roof. The project brief — addressing authenticity, use, function, durability and ongoing management — led to designing anew this vestigial planter that had twice failed.

Mellon Square’s transcendent character is palpable once again. It has been our challenge and pleasure to collaborate with the conservancy to contribute to this third renaissance of Mellon Square in the great city of Pittsburgh.

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Mellon Square fountain / Heritage Landscapes

This guest post by Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, is a complement to the coverage of the renewal of Mellon Square. O’Donnell is founder and principal of Heritage Landscapes LLC, Preservation Landscape Architect & Planners

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Mellon Square restoration aerial / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Pittsburgh’s Mellon Square, an icon of mid-century Modern design, has been finally restored after a six-year process. A precursor to today’s trendy green roof movement, the plaza was the first in the nation built over a subterranean parking garage. Today, Mellon Square is a showcase for urban revitalization through historic preservation, with a contemporary sensibility and the latest technologies.

Upon its initial completion in 1955, Mellon Square unified Pittsburgh’s central business district and “typified the spirit” of the city, post World War II. Locally-based architects Mitchell & Ritchey brought in landscape architect John Ormsbee Simonds, Simonds & Simonds and author of the seminal textbook, Landscape Architecture, to collaborate on the public space. The square features a majestic central fountain comprised of nine cast-bronze basins; a distinctive triangle-patterned “Rustic Venetian Terrazzo” paving, inspired by Sarah Mellon Scaife’s travels to Europe; elegant evening lighting; lush plantings; and a second multi-leveled fountain cascading down to street-level. Simonds described the square as “an oasis in an asphalt desert.”

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1950s postcard of Mellon Square / Collections of Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh

Some more thoughts on the original design: Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, Heritage Landscapes LLC, lead for the park’s restoration, notes the original design team’s “masterful manipulation of urban fabric . . . layered with three-dimensionally-nested planes unfolding to a serene interior of skydome, sunlight, shimmering water, and native forest plants.” In The Post-Gazette, Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, calls Mellon Square “a fine example of mid-century Modern design, but not in the sense of so many results of that time, when urban renewal was really a harsh New Brutalism. Here you had a real attempt to still use decoration and refined design in a clean-lined modernistic statement.” And, The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) tells us that, as viewed from the buildings, “the harlequin patterned terrazzo of the sizeable plaza played against the tiles and jets of the fountain and with the diamond patterned façade of the Alcoa headquarters building by architects Harrison & Abramovitz.”

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Original artist’s sketch from early 1950s / Simonds & Simonds and Mitchell & Riley from the Heinz collections

Despite a restoration project in the 1980s, years of little maintenance resulted in cracked paving, drainage issues, broken fountains, and dying trees and shrubs. But even with these issues, the park was named one of the 2008 Great Public Spaces by the American Planning Association (APA), who noted the “striking example of Modernism with its triangular-patterned paving and asymmetrical order of planters, bronze fountains, and granite benches.”

In 2009, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and a team headed by Heritage Landscapes developed a comprehensive restoration plan. In addition to the two year, $10 million restoration process, the funders established a $4 million fund for ongoing maintenance to ensure the park would not fall into disrepair again.

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Proposed design restoration rendering / Heritage Landscapes LLC

Post-restoration, the park’s bronze basins have been re-patinated. The paving has been restored. The cascade fountain was recreated and is flowing again; the water choreography was re-established. O’Donnell tells us: “the cascade and main fountains were both completely reconstructed using modern best practices and technologies.”

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Bronze fountains restored / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

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Cascade fountain restored / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Other contemporary updates include an elevated terrace overlooking Smithfield Street (inspired by early design sketches discovered in the Heinz collections), energy-efficient lighting, and a new plant palette of hardy trees, flowers, grasses and shrubs which will “provide a year-round display of textures, forms, and colors,” writes Susan Rademacher, parks curator at Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, in a recent article for Docomomo US.

Now that the plaza has been restored, attention will turn to its perimeter. Along retail shops on Smithfield Street, a permanent display will highlight Mellon Square’s “history and national significance, its relationship to the Mellon family and its important role in Pittsburgh’s Renaissance,” writes Rademacher. “Garage entrances will be upgraded in keeping with the modernist aesthetic, while new site furnishings, banners, and planters will bring the four street edges into harmony with Mellon Square.” Already, the park’s reemergence has contributed to the revitalization of the surrounding business district as millions of dollars fund new restoration and development projects.

Check out a detailed history and description of the restoration process in this upbeat video from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy:

The 2009 Mellon Square Preservation, Interpretation & Management Plan Team was led by Heritage Landscapes LLC: Preservation Landscape Architects & Planners, with contributions by Environmental Planning & Design,MTR Landscape Architects, LaQuatra Bonci Associates, and The Cultural Landscape Foundation. The 2011 Restoration Project Team included Heritage Landscapes with Pfaffmann + Associates Architects.

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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Wild Bergamot in a Prairie / Prairie State Outdoors

At a conference on sound and scent in the garden at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. landscape historians delved into spaces of the past in an attempt to unearth historic sensory experiences. A question that ran through all the lectures was: can we ever get a true sense of what it felt like to be in a place that no longer exists?

Barbara Burlison Mooney, University of Iowa, gave us a deeper sense of what the great Illinois prairies sounded and smelled like. She said tall grass prairies are not a designed landscape — “they are really the antithesis of Versaille” — but they were still managed. Native Americans set fire to the grasslands so as to sprout the small green shoots that would bring bison. Today, just small parcels of the original American grasslands remain. What’s left has inspired landscape architects such as Jens Jensen and James van Sweden, who have attempted to replicate the beauty of these grass landscapes everywhere.

Mooney said the first time settlers in the early 1800s saw the prairie they were totally overwhelmed by its “breathtaking magnitude.” Settlers traveling west would be in dense forest up until Ohio, when they started to experience meadows. Then, as they hit Indiana, the trees would disappear and the grasslands would open up for countless miles. Mooney said scholarship has “looked at the sight of the prairie, and artistic interpretations of it, but the auditory and olfactory experience is a more complex experience to relate.”

Mooney read from first-hand accounts of settlers who recorded their experiences crossing the prairie, including some of the first American naturalists. She played recordings of a range of birds, including wild fowl, songbirds, and turkeys; insects; dangerous animals like wolves, snakes, cougars; and less dangerous ones, like bullfrogs.

She described how scent, “our most memorable sense,” defined the prairie, too. “Prairie rose, bergamot, and sassafras all have sweet scents.” For the settlers, foul odors also foretold disaster. As an example, some of these settlers feared the smell of “bad water” and were overwhelmed by rotting vegetation.

“Early Illinois settlers understood the sensory experience of the prairie.” Unfortunately, their recounting is “unstable, limited, biased in describing ephemeral experiential cues.” The result may be we can get just a hint of what the prairie was like from these early accounts and modern sound recordings.

Mark Laird at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) described Strawberry Hill, a Gothic revival villa created by Horace Walpole, a politician, writer, and artist, in the late 1700s. Using letters Walpole wrote over five decades, Laird discovered some aspects of the historic sounds and smells, which helped guide recent restoration efforts.

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Strawberry Hill by Paul Sandby / Wikipedia

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Strawberry Hill today / Wikipedia

Restoring the sound and smell of a place is challenging, as nature changes. Laird said the sound of field crickets were mentioned in Walpole’s letters, but today, “they no longer exist in the UK,” except for three small managed populations. Similarly, the Landrail (or Corn Crake), which was once widespread, is now confined to small parcels of Scotland. There are just about 1,200 males left.

What Halpole yearned for most, Laird said from the letters, was the smell of the “lilac tide” and the sound of nightingales in late spring. Through intensive research, Laird discovered where the lilacs, roses, and lavender was planted, but, again, a changing world has robbed us of having a similar experience, as there are just 6,700 male nightingales left in the UK. Furthermore, “it’s a secretive bird that hides in bushes.”

So more historic sensory experiences don’t go extinct, Laird and John Beardsley, head of the landscape studies program at Dumbarton Oaks, discussed efforts to create a “world heritage of sound.”

For Anatole Tchikine, a post-doctoral student at Dumbarton Oaks, sensory experiences found in Italian gardens are all political. In the early 20th century, American writers such as Vernon Lee and Edith Wharton visited Italy many times. Wharton even wrote a book, Italian Villas and Their Gardens, which argued that Italian gardens can be defined simply by their use of “stone work, evergreens, and water.” Anything like flowers were extraneous to the sensory experience of the forms in the Italian garden.

The fascists picked up on this very limited definition of an Italian garden and used it for nationalistic purposes. Before, there was no singular Italian garden, but many local vernacular gardens. The fascists chose the Tuscan garden, making it the “national language, the trans-regional and trans-temporal garden. It became part of the national agenda, helping to create a shared national identity.”

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Orti Oricellari in Tuscany / Wikipedia

Italian-style was then reclaimed from France, the UK, and elsewhere where it had been misappropriated. In 1931, during the Florence garden festival honoring Italian traditions, the Italian garden was presented as “rational, ordered, geometrical, with the emphasis of mind over body, conquest and domination over the expression of natural genius.” Tchikine said under the fascists, “Italian gardens became about intellect over experience, with an exception for sight, which was needed to experience form. Flowers were just an expression of form; they were not to be smelled.”

The sensory experience of water then became political, too. “Water has a volatile nature — it can be hot, cold, hard or soft. Water can be temporarily restrained but it can’t be subjugated.” Water was then threatening. Different themed fountains showed either militaristic installations or the trickster-nature of water, as “playful, bizarre, and unpredictable.”

The end result is Italian gardens became an “impoverished experience, filled with contradictory cliches. They became simple repositories of art works.”

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American beech grove, Dumbarton Oaks Park / Jim Osen Photography

Unlike the 16 acres of formal gardens at Washington, D.C.’s Dumbarton Oaks, there are no remaining plans for Dumbarton Oaks Park, the wild garden that is its complement. Perhaps Beatrix Farrand, one of the most prominent landscape architects of the 20th century, laid out most of the design in response to the larger scale of the landscape and wilder conditions of the lower 27-acre parcel? But how does one know? And how does one restore and rehabilitate a landscape without the plan of the original designer?

One must read the traces that remain. As the cultural landscape report written by the National Park Service in 1999 describes, what remains at Dumbarton Oaks Park is rich enough to suggest the journey Farrand created.

There is a manipulated watercourse with 18 weirs, which harness the water flow through the park as well as create a rich sensory experience.

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Dumbarton Oaks Park / Jared Green

There is a path system that meanders the visitor though forest, stream, and meadow, creating a circuit of experience.

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Dumbarton Oaks Park path / Jared Green

There are the remains of stone-garden follies, which once provided shade and a moment to reflect on the land, the past, and the future.

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Dumbarton Oaks Park / Jared Green

In one circuit through the park, a visitor can experience all of these landscape moments. It’s a living work of art that provides a different journey for each visitor. Dumbarton Oaks Park is a living canvas upon which the light can change many times in one day.

Farrand designed landscapes and gardens with the deep understanding that they were not static but living, breathing, changing environments. She was capable of reading a site and creating a design that evolved from that understanding.

She was a self-taught master of proportion, texture, and horticultural form. At Princeton University, where she worked for 28 years, she mastered the simple elegance of a quadrangle with the use of vertical plant material, and panels of grass to keep the space open and defined by the edges of the buildings meeting the ground plane.

Dumbarton Oaks Park is a treasure because of this landscape architect’s vision. Farrand, though she was a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), was overlooked for many of the public park commissions in the first part of the century because she was a woman. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Jens Jensen, and others were selected instead. But it is our great fortune that her only remaining wild garden now belongs to us all.

And so it is with great respect of Farrand’s mastery that we work to reveal the design of this urban wilderness garden. We work within a framework of design that exists, while balancing the current site conditions, such as soil erosion and compaction and invasive plants.

In our signature project area, the removals of invasive trees, shrubs, and vines has opened up the sweeping views a visitor now experiences once he or she walks through the entrance gates. Here we see the beech grove stone wall after we enter…

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American beech grove wall, before restoration / Ann Aldrich, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy

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American beech grove wall, during restoration / Ann Aldrich, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy

…and, then, through the American Beech Grove…

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American beech grove, before restoration / Ann Aldrich, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy

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American beech grove, after restoration / Ann Aldrich, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy

…and up to the Northern Woodland in the distance.

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Bridge hollow, before restoration / Ann Aldrich, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy

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Bridge hollow, during restoration / Ann Aldrich, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy

From bridge to bridge, one can now see the stream course running towards its wild neighbor, Rock Creek. The breathtaking scale of this silver-trunked grove of trees is made evident.

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Dumbarton Oaks Park Signature Project / Jim Osen Photography

Our efforts on a small scale are no less important. The recent replanting of a Black Gum tree in an existing tree pit notched into the Dumbarton Oaks wall will once again mark the entrance with its commanding trunk.

Farrand’s use of human-scale landscape markers to suggest a path, an intersection, or a view was highly attuned. They are still in evidence. From the human-scaled path — edged with stone and drifts of herbaceous planting or from under the cover of a wood arbor — Farrand developed views out to the larger landscapes beyond, such as the meadow and woods. Farrand carefully orchestrated the experience as one moved through the park.

To be successful in the restoration of this wild garden we must keep in the forefront of our minds the landscape scale and the human scale simultaneously. Farrand left us this legacy as a guide.

This guest post is by Liza Gilbert, ASLA, chair of the Signature Committee, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy.

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Marion Pressley, FASLA, is principal at Pressley Associates. In addition to her practice, Pressley has taught for the past 40 years landscape history at the Landscape Institute of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, and now at the Landscape Institute at Boston Architectural College. Marion received the 2004 BSA Women in Design Award of Excellence and the 2002 Massachusetts Horticultural Society Gold Medal Award.

This interview was conducted at the ASLA 2013 Annual Meeting in Boston.

For almost 30 years, you have restored and updated Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, his famed system of parks. What has this project taught you about Olmsted? What do you think he did best? What do you think he should’ve done differently?

We started on it in 1984, and, actually, I worked on some parts of the system back in the mid-seventies. It has been a long time. It was part of an important statewide-Olmsted initiative that included 12 park sites.

What it really taught me is the man had the ability to not worry about politics. This system is owned by two municipalities and the parkway is under state jurisdiction. You have Brookline, with a small amount of the Emerald Necklace, and Boston, with the majority of the Necklace. When he designed it, he really didn’t care who owned it. In Olmsted Park along Riverdale Parkway, the system for pedestrians was sometimes on the Boston side and sometimes on the Brookline side. For him, this was one landscape. He reset the boundaries between the municipalities. That’s really one the most important things I learned about what he was doing.

I haven’t really looked to see if there’s other park systems he worked on that have been owned by different entities. I don’t know of one. Buffalo, the first system of parks he designed, was owned by Buffalo.

What he did best is bring all the parties together as he did the design. So that’s the attitude we took with the rehabilitation: This was one park and all groups met together. It didn’t matter whether you were municipal or state; everything was done that way. That’s possibly the best thing he accomplished when he created this system of parks and parkways.

What would he have done differently? One thing he never really thought about is the maintenance of these parks. The maintenance could be uneven because one town could have more money than the other. One might have a different aesthetic than the other, even though Olmsted designed it as one place. He also didn’t foresee as much active recreation coming into any flat space it possibly could, although I think it was late enough for him to recognize it would happen. He didn’t really provide a lot of space for active recreation. His Emerald Necklace was really a passive, linear system. You would pass through it in a linear way. That’s one of the things he might have done differently.

In his writings, there was one thing about Central Park that struck me: if his landscape was still intact 50 years or 100 years from now, he would know he’s been successful. The best thing he’s achieved is that this system has held itself together. The individual parks have had some changes. Some of the changes came with the dam going in, and changing saltwater to fresh at the Fens, but he created a system that was able to sustain itself.

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With your deep understanding of Frederick Law Olmsted’s designs, what do you think he would make of Boston today? What would he approve of? What developments would dismay him?

He would very much approve of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy and Brookline, Boston, and the state, getting together and recognizing it as one park. He would be amazed that it happened, in some ways. He would be really pleased with the fact that the park system has maintained itself. Different ownerships really could have allowed it to split. He would be most pleased that his vision continues today.

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One of the things that would dismay him is the fact that most of the understory areas in critical places, like the Riverway and Olmsted Park, were wiped out over time. But this happened in all parks. It happened in universities. It happened everywhere where people all of a sudden felt unsafe, so the shrub and herbaceous layer had to be wiped out. That’s something that he wouldn’t have foreseen.

All of his plantings were very dense — if you look at photos in 1906, a few years after it was finished in 1895, and then, the 1920s, you see it as he envisioned. He was trying to use the density of the planting to achieve the picturesque. To see these plants totally wiped out would have upset him, because he was trying to create and control views with the plants. He was creating this vegetation with openings in it, so you could see the water. There was a very definite sequence of open and closed and open and closed, as you went down through. The fact now that some areas that are just totally open or totally closed off would really disturb him.

Beyond Olmsted, you’ve worked on other important historic landscapes, too. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston recently got a Norman Foster design addition. His new building sits right on top of a courtyard created by landscape architect Arthur Shurtleff, a site you had updated in the 1990s. I understand you were brought back in after the Foster additions. How did you reconcile the remnants of the old Shurtleff design with the new Foster one?

We were frustrated when it happened because there’s not a lot of Arthur Shurtleff’s work in existence that you can go and see. The 1928 courtyard had been closed and went into benign neglect. They literally just closed the door and left it like that for many, many years. The trees were still extant. All four were growing beautifully. The Shurtleff landscape was extant. So the reopening and rehabilitation was a fairly easy thing. It was frustrating, given it was such a perfect example of his work, to see them take it out. But the new building is beautiful.

We were brought in by one of the major donors from the museum, who was very concerned the landscape hadn’t achieved what they had hoped it was going to achieve. So we were called in to look at it. It was mostly vegetation that they were concerned about; they wanted a native woodland theme. Interestingly, Foster kept a part of the Shurtleff design, because the building was placed within a sunken area in the middle of the courtyard.

In the Shurtleff design there was a pool with a fountain, four major deciduous trees, and plantings. There were these outer areas that were lower in elevation that were like long slots containing garden quality sculpture, paving, and plantings. Those edges are what remained as four small courtyards, when Foster’s building addition was constructed within the courtyard.

What Foster did was a very unique thing. If you haven’t had a chance to see it, you should go into the museum. As you’re walking through the new building you see into the four courtyards or what are now called slot gardens. It’s quite beautiful, actually. As you’re walking through the museum, and everything’s always so enclosed, all of a sudden, you get this little vignette of woodland planting and sculpture. This just happens all the way around, and it’s a very nice thing.

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You also have worked on the landscape surrounding Philip Johnson’s Glass House and the other buildings in that compound so they are more accessible. What was it like to work with Johnson’s vision of this place and update this historic landscape?

We were asked by the National Trust to make it possible for people to get into the Glass House, and the brick house, its counterpoint, and other structures: the sculpture studio, the painting studio, the Monster, etc. What were most concerned about was the main core area. We were asked to do this to meet current codes without destroying it.

Putting ramps all over the place would’ve been a disaster, so we looked very closely at the grading and met the 5-percent rule. We just regraded paths slightly in order to achieve the right pitch. We had an idea, which we’ve used at one of our Harvard projects many years ago: a temporary ramp that is brought out, put down, and allows you to not have these ramps all over the place. The temporary ramp allows you to provide access for a person in the wheelchair or with a cane and then take it away.

This is all possible because every visitor has to check in at the historical society before they are taken to the site. They society knows before anybody comes if there’s a need for universal access so when they put them on the bus and bring them there, they’re all set for it. It has been working beautifully because we didn’t have to totally change the landscape. We were able to regrade pathways, including his little eyebrow bridge. We were able to work with the local municipality so we did not have to put handrails.

In short, we were able to make it like when you go in for a haircut and you come out and don’t want anybody to know you had your haircut.

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Among your contemporary projects, you have done some wonderful work in Boston. You have transformed some brownfields into real community assets. In East Boston, you turned an old pier that was a brownfield into a park. A 600-foot long promenade takes visitors out into the water, where they get some of the best views of Boston. What was the experience of that project working with the community? And what do you think the legacy of that project is in East Boston?

A park was a very important thing for the community of East Boston. I don’t know how much you know about this Boston community, but these were the same women who had been out at the Boston airport runways with their baby carriages, telling Massport that they couldn’t put in more runways. You had a group of people who absolutely wanted a park. They had also lost an Olmsted park, which now sits under an airport runway. This was absolutely the most important thing to this community. They wanted it to be a community park for everyone. They wanted it to be the best park it could possibly be. They worked very, very hard to get it. They were absolutely great fun to work with, actually.

The site was a brownfield. It has three foot of cover. There’s the layer so you know when you hit it. The whole park had to be raised because of flooding. If we knew what we know today, we probably would’ve raised it higher. But at that time, three feet was enough.

The pier was the only solid piece. It was an area where grain and other goods were delivered. There were larger wooden boardwalks on either side. But there was this core of soil and, basically, riprap on the sides. We were able to save that as this 600-foot linear pier.

It’s a very popular place for wedding pictures. The park is heavily used. It has playgrounds, spray pools, an amphitheater, an exercise area. It has everything these people wanted.

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Plus the pier promenade, which gives them the view of the city. They have one of the absolutely best views of Boston.

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You also transformed a landfill into a park. With the Pope John Paul II Park, your firm built natural land forms, brought back native plants, created meadows set within wetlands. What were the challenges in making all that a reality?

Another very important brownfield, but, of course, brownfields always so much depend on the engineers, as it did with the East Boston piers. The engineers made it possible to have these things happen. In this particular case, we were able to do more with the site.

We had a garbage dump and we had a drive-in theater. The dump was used for trash for years. That’s why there’s this rolling landscape, which we kept and accentuated.

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All of the area had completely become overgrown with invasive plants. The landscape was a complete urban wild. But it was still an important park to these people, even in that condition because everybody walked their dog there. There were paths people had cut through themselves. Nobody had made it into a park. It was a community asset, as far as they were concerned, for certain things.

Again, we had a very active community. We worked with a state agency. At that time, it was the Metropolitan District Commission.

We were able to create wetland areas. Because this area is tidal, just like Piers Park, there’s a nine-foot tidal change of water here.

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We were able to what they wanted: A place where they could walk or wander through. There were plantings and an area of community gardens. There were shade structures that looked out over the water.

We took the brownfields area that was the drive-in theater, which was really one of the more contaminated areas, and turned into a series of fields now mostly used for soccer. That was very popular. A playground with a shelter structure was also added. This became a totally new park with both active and passive uses. The community invested in its design.

Lastly, looking over your multi-decade career, what advice do you have for young people who want to get into landscape architecture today? What special advice do you have to those who want to focus on historic preservation and design?

One of the hard parts about going into preservation is that most of our academic institutions don’t really teach you enough landscape architectural history to make you an authority on even American landscapes. Forget about European or Asian or any place else. Most of us who are in this field at my age, and who started in the early seventies, are self-taught in many ways. What it really means is you need to build up a base of understanding of history. If you’re going to do preservation, you need to understand the theories and how things were done at particular times. You need to obtain this knowledge by either supplementing it with additional courses or you need to teach yourself.

There are some programs who are trying very much to add to this. There are four or five programs now doing this. Georgia is definitely one. I know ESF has a program. Education is an important piece and hopefully they will expand it, but no matter how much they expand it, you really have to know your history to know when you walk into a design what you’re looking at. You have to know what its context is. There’s so much you have to know to do these cultural landscape reports. It’s a process of self-education.

For example, with Steepletop, which was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s house, you have to look at other writers and artists who had similar landscapes during the period of significance. The homes of Edith Wharton, Robert Frost, or Theodore Dreiser are examples. There’s a whole series of these people, who were writers who created their own landscapes. You have to have that context in order to know what you’re preserving or bringing back. You have to know what’s important and what has integrity.

I would advise young landscape architects entering this field that they have to realize there’s going to be a lot of work they have to do before they get to this point. They should join a firm that’s doing that kind of work because that’s how they’ll learn to do it.

Most people who go into landscape architecture and stay with landscape architecture absolutely love their jobs. There’s a great deal of love in the profession. That’s one of the reason landscape architects keep working to such an old age. They just can’t give it up.

Image credits: (1) Marion Pressley / Pressley Associates, (2) Olmsted Park restoration by Pressley Associates / Marion Pressley, (3) Olmsted Park pathways by Pressley Associates / Marion Pressley, (4) Museum of Fine Arts Boston / Nigel Young, (5-6) East Boston Piers Park / Kaki Martin, (7-8) Pope John Paul Park II / Kathry O’Kane

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For more LA in the News, check out LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at info@asla.org.

What Your Street Grid Reveals About Your CityThe Atlantic Cities, 12/2/13
“New York, of course, is not the only city built on a grid. Similar schemes could be found as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. But Manhattan’s design was the exemplar for what became the default pattern of American cities.”

Landscape Architecture Students Bring New Eyes, Ideas to Pittsburgh NeighborhoodPenn State News, 12/2/13
“Aaron Ramos, a fourth year landscape architecture student, has a vision for a patch of grass and asphalt in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Hazelwood. It’s near the building that will soon house the Hazelwood branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. He’s designed an interactive landscape that he hopes will serve as more than just a library but also as a gathering place for the community.”

2013’s Notable Developments in Landscape ArchitectureThe Huffington Post Blog, 12/4/13
“In surveying the year in landscape architecture, ‘aptness,’ a word favored by the great Modernist landscape architect Dan Kiley seems, well, appropriate. For Kiley aptness meant reading a landscape and understanding what existed at a particular site before one intervenes. This raises issues of understanding a designed landscape’s evolution, balancing stewardship objectives, and communicating how we measure success.”

A Successful Push to Restore Europe’s Long-Abused Rivers Yale Environment 360, 12/10/13
“From the industrial cities of Britain to the forests of Sweden, from the plains of Spain to the shores of the Black Sea, Europe is restoring its rivers to their natural glory. The most densely populated continent on earth is finding space for nature to return along its river banks.”

Red Square RoundedThe Architect’s Newspaper, 12/10/13
“Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Hargreaves are designing a new park and cultural center just off Red Square in Moscow. The team was selected from a pool of six international teams to create the park, which will include a new City of
Moscow Museum and the site of a future concert hall.”

Thomas Balsley Reaches Destination with Landscape FormsThe Architect’s Newspaper Blog, 12/13/13
“Landscape architect Thomas Balsley has been shaping public spaces in urban settings for more than 35 years, from the Bronx to Dallas to Portland. Even at large scales his work underscores attention to detail, all the way down to the furniture that adorns his sites. As a resident of New York since the 1970s, Balsley is all too aware of the way public benches and seating function in densely populated cities.”

These articles were compiled by Phil Stamper, ASLA PR and Communications Coordinator.

Image credit: Red Square Park, Moscow / Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Hargreaves Associates

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