The legacy of a famous landscape architect lives on in Saranac Lake
(NCPR) — Parks across the country are celebrating the bicentennial birthday this year of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park, the very first public greenspace in America. Today, Olmsted’s legacy can be seen in parks around the US, including in Saranac Lake.
On a warm, summer evening in a downtown park, 7-year-old Violet Moran steps up to a makeshift baseball plate.
“Are you ready Miss Violet? Get her ready grandma," says Randy Hill, Violet's grandpa.
Hill throws an underhand pitch, and Violet swings with everything she’s got. “Woohoo! Homerun derby,” shouts Hill.
Violent drops the bat and takes off running. This moment, a family playing in a downtown public park, was the kind of thing dreamt up by Frederick Law Olmsted.
He was born 200 years ago and designed dozens of parks across the country. “Our idea of what a public park looks like is, in large part, a function of Olmsted," says Sara Zewde, a landscape architect who teaches at Harvard and is writing a book about Olmsted.
The legacy and ideals of Olmsted
He’s best known for his designs like Central Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn as well as park systems in Buffalo, Boston and Milwaukee, massive greenspaces feel both pastoral and wild.
Zewde says Olmsted was driven by a kind of democratic ideal. “Something that he fought for from the beginning was to keep landscapes from being designed for specific programs,” like tennis courts or ball fields, "which he himself thought was kind of an approach to segregation, in a sense," says Zewde.
If you leave a park open, without adding a bunch of buildings or barriers, more people can use however they like. That kind of design still pays off today. She lives in New York City, where people flooded to the parks during the pandemic.
“I witnessed Central Park become a field hospital, it became a mental health facility. It is so important to stormwater management– all of these kinds of performances that this landscape offers.”
The widespread work of the Olmsted Firm
Olmsted’s legacy isn’t just in massive urban parks. His landscape firm eventually designed a long list of green spaces, from university campuses to residential neighborhoods in places like Seattle and Los Angeles. They pitched their designs even to small, remote communities, including Saranac Lake.
Down in the basement of the Saranac Lake Free Library, Mary Hotaling unfolds a big blue map of the village from 1909. Hotaling is a former director of Historic Saranac Lake.
The map in front of her is part of what the Olmsted Firm proposed for the village.
“So all along here there were buildings," Hotaling says, as she points to the area of the map around Lake Flower. "See the outlines of them? And the plan was to acquire that property and tear down those buildings, which the village did, ultimately.”
That work took decades. According to Hotaling, the village originally passed on the Olmsted proposal because it was too expensive.
The founding of the Village Improvement Society
In 1911, a group of women got together and formed a local Village Improvement Society to turn the Olmsted plan into reality, with a few tweaks.
Hotaling, who was once part of the VIS, says because of the contemporary landscape, Saranac Lake will never look exactly like the Olmsted firm envisioned.
“Some things will never be done. This is built up along here," says Hotaling, pointing to the western edge of Lake Flower. "There are houses there, that’s not going to become parks–parkland."
"All plans change," says Hotaling. "You do what you can and watch and see what becomes of it.”
Back at the park downtown, Violet Moran's brother Murphy steps up to the pitcher’s mound. “Okay, here we go, see if we can do it again," says their grandpa. "Oh, strike one.”
Murphy throws a pitch to Violet and the yellow bat makes contact with the ball. Her family cheers her on. "There we go!" shouts Hill, "practice makes perfect, good job.”
On a patch of public land inspired by one man’s vision of a greener America, Violet smiles as she runs around the park and heads for home plate.
Copyright 2022 North Country Public Radio.