Justin Martin, Author of “Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted”, in town

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With a crammed spring schedule, I missed hearing author Justin Martin speak at the Enoch Pratt Free Library  Tuesday. He had been there to talk about his recent biography, Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Olmsted.  I had only met him when someone affiliated with Ladew Topiary Gardens asked me to give him a tour of Roland Park a few weeks ago. Then, I did most of the talking.

On Wednesday, I seized a free morning and accepted an invitation to join him downtown and hear more about his book. Over coffee I listened to him talk about the life and work of the pioneer of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted. I’ve lived in an Olmsted community most of my life, but I knew little about the family’s personal life. Roland Park was designed not by Frederick Law Olmsted but by his son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., who, with his cousin, carried on his father’s work throughout the United States. As I listened about the father — a sailor turned farmer, journalist, Civil War medic and gold mine supervisor — I marveled at all this man brought to Central Park, his first (yes, FIRST) landscape project.

His timeless design principles applied there still apply today, as needed and valued as they were over a century ago. Those principles include: emphasis on rustic, natural beauty and strategic preservation of green space, the graceful curvilinear roadways and conservation of natural features of a site, a thoughtful design that fosters a sense of community with user-friendly features (like footpaths) to move people in an orderly fashion from one feature to the next.  These cohesive principles Martin said he could still see on his recent tour of Roland Park.

He spoke of other places where the Olmsted design is still a drawing card: Central Park, Boston, Louisville, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, his own community of Forest Hills Gardens in New York City. He said that many communities now emphasize and showcase their Olmsted characteristics for enhanced real estate values.

He also mentioned a development disaster, where a federal highway interchange cut into Front Park in Buffalo and where concrete and buildings have filled in planned green pockets elsewhere.  He told, however, of what Stanford University is doing: tearing down some later buildings that had filled in the original greens. At Stanford the Olmsted intention had been to foster a cross-pollination of ideas from various academic disciplines in these green areas. The current university is re-establishing that tradition.

I thought naturally of Baltimore schools that had moved, one by one, to the leafy, Roland Park area after it was developed and then preserved areas of green within their own campuses: Gilman, Bryn Mawr, Friends, Boys’ Latin, Girls’ Latin, Calvert and Cathedral schools. Roland Park Country School had its beginnings in Roland Park. Mr. Todd’s Academy, on Roland Avenue became, at a more northerly location, what we know as Roland Park Elementary/Middle School. From Calvert Street, Loyola College moved out near The College of Notre Dame, which had been in the lush countryside since 1870.

The value of vibrant community living around carefully preserved parks and greens seems even greater today. So does the genius of Frederick Law Olmsted.

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