Olmsted group maintains the vision of city's shapers Tours, activism laud work of landscape architects

April 29, 1996|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

There's a distinct signature behind Roland Park's hillside curving lanes, the picturesque Herring Run Valley and Dundalk's town square. That name, often hidden from much public recognition and understanding, is Olmsted.

The senior Frederick Law Olmsted -- and his sons after him -- were visionary landscape architects who shaped much of the geography of pre-1950 Baltimore.

Though these designers of hillside, parkland and garden suburb are long dead, their ideals are being kept fresh by a local group "dedicated to the protection, enhancement and appreciation of historic landscapes and green spaces statewide."

This group of fewer than 200 active members calls itself the Friends of Maryland's Olmsted Parks & Landscapes. And this spring it has been sponsoring sold-out walking tours of city parks (Clifton, Wyman, Carroll, Venable and Patterson) whose shape and feel were influenced decades ago by masterful park-smiths based in Brookline, Mass.

"We dig in and find the information, then bring it to the attention of the decision-makers. There is a rich, rich heritage that is there," said Marianne "Flip" Kreitner, a Windsor Hills resident whose Talbot Road home faces the Gwynns Falls-Leakin Park Valley. She is also president of the group.

For 75 years, Baltimore, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Roland Park Co., the Johns Hopkins University and private individuals sought the Olmsted group's advice on how to establish parks and boulevards, site cathedrals and seminaries, lay out suburbs, create an academic campus and landscape estates.

In response, the Olmsted architects suggested progressive, imaginative and eloquent designs.

"The Olmsteds were very democratic. They saw the public space in parks as a place where people of all classes could gather, even if they didn't in their schools, churches or neighborhoods," Mrs. Kreitner said.

The local Olmsted Friends have championed the much-trafficked 33rd Street boulevard that stretches between Lake Montebello-Clifton Park and Hopkins' Homewood campus. The group has worked with nature advocacy groups in the Herring Run and Gwynns Falls valleys, those twisting watersheds that meander through Baltimore.

"Many of our members live in Olmsted-planned neighborhoods," said Mrs. Kreitner. These include Roland Park, Guilford, Homeland, Gibson Island, Sudbrook Park and nearly 900 homes and a town square in Dundalk.

Baltimore's connections with Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. (the group's members call him "Flo") go back to 1876, when his advice was sought for a redesign of Mount Vernon Place at the Washington Monument. Even though the senior Olmsted was recognized as a genius who created New York City's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park, his innovative recommendations were not applauded by some of the financiers and grandees whose homes faced Mount Vernon Place.

The senior Olmsted returned here nearly a decade later to lay out Sudbrook Park, the lush colony of summer homes (now converted to year-round use) west of Pikesville and once linked to downtown Baltimore via the Western Maryland Railway.

His sons, Frederick Jr. (often called Rick) and John, were retained by the Municipal Arts Society, a private organization of deep-pocketed, civic-spirited Baltimoreans who brought the landscape architects here to prepare a master plan for city parks. It was drawn up in 1903 and published the next year.

One of the first agendas of the local friends group was to reprint that plan. It carries the cumbersome name of "Report Upon the Development of Public Grounds for Baltimore," but its influence was anything but unwieldy. For 50 years, it ruled park acquisition and development.

"We are also digging into the Olmsted papers and finding out the names of the designers who worked for them in Baltimore," said H. Edward Shull, a landscape historian and a group official who led a tour this month in Northeast Baltimore.

As part of that trip, he took participants along Norman Avenue, a graceful curving street in Mayfield that was planned by the Olmsteds about 1910 to connect Clifton and Herring Run parks. Norman Avenue is one of those little gems that the Olmsteds left to Baltimore.

Research also has brought to light the architects' work at St. Mary's Seminary in Roland Park, where they devised the site plan and suggested the limestone entrance gates on Roland Avenue and Northern Parkway.

The annual meeting of the Friends of Maryland's Olmsted Parks and Landscapes is scheduled for 7: 30 p.m. May 8 at Second Presbyterian Church, 4200 St. Paul St. Landscape architect Roma Campanile and 1st District City Councilman John L. Cain will speak on "Patterson Park: Breathing Space." Mary Roby, of the Friends of Patterson Park, will discuss, "The Pagoda and Beyond."

Pub Date: 4/29/96

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