The right landscape means everything

Fredrick Law Olmstead, often called the father of landscape architecture, probably was responsible for the city beautification movement that began in the 1850s and still continues today. He felt that if a city were beautiful, more people would like to live there and the happier they'd be. Here in the valley, we'd probably nod our heads in agreement because so many parts of our area have mini-gardens amid a large backdrop of mountains and water. I recently had seven girlfriends from college visit and they were in awe of our lavender fields, hanging baskets, landscaping around businesses and the innate beauty of our area.

Olmstead created many of our most enduring parks - New York's Central Park, Brooklyn's Prospect Park, the grounds of Stanford, Cornell and Yale, the Biltmore estate, the Vanderbilt estate in North Carolina, the U.S. Capitol grounds and Niagara Falls.

He was approached in the early 1890s to be the Chicago World's Fair landscape architect and hesitantly accepted because of a limited timeline, yet he did agree because he wanted to give voice - and thus reputation - to landscape architecture, hoping it would be recognized as an extension of the fine arts, such as sculpture and painting, rather than as horticultural gardening. He stared at a daunting task, which is recorded in a book, "The Devil in the White City," I just finished.

The most famous architects from the United States gathered to begin the process of designing the buildings and Olmstead was integral to the group. On their own, each would incorporate a neoclassical design with a 60-foot long cornice, the criterion that would unite all the fair's buildings. Months later, they again gathered to unveil their individual drawings. An awed silence filled the room. They realized that their work as a team was much more than any of them could have done independently. They pondered the choice of colors for the buildings. They decided on a creamy white. This was to be the background for Olmstead's landscaping. He focused on the whole of the setting and imagined how discrete elements would add to that total impact. He said, "I design with a view to a passage of quietly composed, soft, subdued pensive character, shape the ground, screen out discordant elements and get suitable vegetation growing."

Within that single sentence, we can learn a great deal. He liked a natural look, so I think he would have lauded using native plants. He shaped the land, dredging to create ponds, raising areas for berms and forming pathways with easy curves and gentle grade so little attention was on movement but rather on an experience in a pastoral setting. He screened out intrusions, such as highways or other buildings or even noise, by thickly planted borders. Then he'd mass plant, with scattered growth of trees and foliage and flowers. Around ponds he used bulrushes, flag, iris and sedges, all natural plantings that screened the water itself, adding mystery and shadow.

How did he decide on suitable plantings? He argued that flowers should not be used where each blossom's traits showed themselves; rather every flower, tree or shrub was to be used with an eye of how each would act on the imagination. He did this "through the mingling intricately together of many forms of foliage, the alternation and complicated crossing of salient leaves and stalks of varying green tints in high lights with other leaves and stalks, behind and under them, and therefore less defined and more shaded, yet partly illumined by light reflected (from the water.)" Further, he said, "Anything approaching a gorgeous, garish or gaudy display of flowers should be avoided."

I think that Olmstead teaches us yet another lesson. It is to consider that everything our eyes see is part of the landscape. That means our neighbors' house, even the color of it, becomes important as we design our home's gardens. If we see water or mountains, we can then replicate their shapes in the garden. We have mountains all around us, so flat seems rather boring. Add berms or create various heights, through plantings or through hardscape. So, too, with trees. Without trees, a landscape seems stark in the Pacific Northwest.

The Chicago fair, called the World's Columbian Exposition, 1893, changed America forever. People, especially New Yorkers who battled Chicago to be host of the fair, wondered if we could surpass the previous world's Paris Exposition of 1889, where the Eiffel Tower symbolized its grandeur and where daily attendance once hit 200,000. We did. We had our White City, a neoclassic composition of buildings and canals, landscaped in a "poetic expression." On the midway, a Ferris wheel rose 264 feet with its 28,416 pounds of bolts used in its construction. Its 36 cars, each weighing 13 tons, for a total weight of more than a million tons, including the passengers, tested the delicate structure of the steel wheel. The first Ferris wheel, named for its creator, was our newfound symbol of movement and beauty. Attendance once peaked at 475,000 for the day. Clarence Darrow, Frank Lloyd Wright, Theodore Dreiser, Walt Disney, Eugene Debs and Samuel Gompers all found new voice and opportunities.

And, in our valley, we still are beautifying our landscape.

Bev Hoffman's Sequim Gazette column appears the first Wednesday of each month. She can be reached via e-mail at

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