Story by Jim Auchmutey. Photos by Jenni Girtman.
The first time I visited the Olmsted Linear Park, that rolling ribbon of green alongside Ponce de Leon Avenue, I had never heard of its creator, the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Why would I have? I was a kid from Decatur, and the only Fred who had made an impression on me at that age was named Flintstone.
But I experienced Olmsted’s pastoral stagecraft, even though I didn’t realize it. When my mother would take us to our doctor in Midtown, we’d stop on the way home at a playground in the park and get on one of those horseless merry-go-rounds where the object was to spin as fast as you could in order to achieve a dizzy weightlessness. Once, when we had just eaten chili dogs at the Varsity, things didn’t turn out well. Good times.
In retrospect, I was seeing Olmsted’s Atlanta handiwork at a low point. It was the 1960s, and the park was the poorly overseen stepchild of a grand old neighborhood in decline, Druid Hills, which Olmsted and his successors had also designed.
“The park was in bad shape,” says Jennifer Richardson, who grew up in Druid Hills and has lived a block away from the green space for almost five decades. “There was trash and glass and dog feces. People pulled off the roads and parked their cars on the grass.”
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Today the Olmsted Linear Park is one of the most lovingly tended places in the metropolitan area. Its reclamation stands as one of the happiest preservation stories in modern Atlanta, as remarkable in its way as the much better-known saving of the Fox Theatre. But that’s only part of Olmsted’s legacy in our city; his influence is more profound than a single park and neighborhood.
For many years, it was a legacy that was hidden in plain sight.
The patriarch of parks
In 1983, during a fight over a proposed highway that threatened Druid Hills and the parkland along Ponce de Leon, the City of Atlanta declared Frederick Law Olmsted Day. Celestine Sibley, the beloved Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist, figured that some readers might be puzzled, so she explained the occasion’s significance:
“There may be a few of us around who have heard his name but aren’t quite sure if he wrote a Broadway musical or eradicated mosquitoes. But we know his works, all right. And for those of us who value woods and running streams, trees and flowers and a view of the sky, Frederick Law Olmsted’s contribution to his country is as valuable as any since the signing of the Declaration of Independence.”
In the early ’80s, most Atlantans simply didn’t know that Olmsted, the man behind New York’s Central Park and the father of American landscape architecture, had designed one of his last major works in their city.
“It had been largely forgotten,” says Sandy Kruger, executive director of the Olmsted Linear Park Alliance, the conservancy that has raised $10 million to rehabilitate the park in partnership with the city, DeKalb County and the Fernbank Museum of Natural History.
The Olmsted Linear Park consists of six strip parks that run for two miles along Ponce de Leon between Atlanta and Decatur. All together, they take up only 45 acres, or less than a fourth the space of Piedmont Park.
“If you look at them from side to side, they don’t seem like much,” says landscape architect Spencer Tunnell, who has worked for two decades to return the parks to their original conception. “But that’s not the way to look at them. You have to look at them from end to end. It’s like the BeltLine that way.”
Olmsted came to Atlanta in 1890 at the request of Joel Hurt, the businessman who had pioneered the city’s streetcar system and had developed one of its first suburbs, Inman Park. He and his partners had purchased 1,500 acres of forest and farmland on the eastern edge of the city and wanted to build “an ideal suburb” that would appeal to the upper crust. Olmsted, who had designed one of America’s definitive planned suburbs, Riverside in Chicago, was the biggest name in the field.
Olmsted was a Connecticut Yankee who had begun his career as a journalist, traveling extensively through the South during the 1850s and writing about the corrosive effects of slavery. He had also traveled to England and fallen in love with pastoral scenery. After his work on Central Park, he went on to design scores of landscapes across the United States, including Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the Emerald Necklace of parks in Boston, the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, Yosemite and Stanford University in California.
When Atlanta beckoned, Olmsted was busy designing the fairgrounds at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the landscape at the Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C. He accepted the Atlanta invitation because he thought the South was underserved with parks and could provide more work for his firm.
At first, Hurt wanted a straight thoroughfare to his new development — something like Edgewood Avenue, which shot like an arrow from Five Points to Inman Park. But Olmsted didn’t do straight; he specialized in curves that followed the topography of the terrain.
He persuaded Hurt to focus the development on Ponce de Leon, a gracefully serpentine parkway lined with spacious estates facing a string of parks named for natural features (Springdale, Oak Grove, Dellwood, Shadyside, Deepdene), with one exception, Virgilee, named in memory of Hurt’s daughter.
The result was a national treasure. “Druid Hills,” historian Darlene Roth argued in an essay for the National Association of Olmsted Parks, “represents the fullest realization of Olmsted’s ideal suburban development.”
“Democracy in dirt”
On a chilly morning in December, Jennifer Richardson met me at the park to illustrate some of the finer points of Olmsted’s imagining, things that are easy to miss if you’re speeding down Ponce. Among the many hats she wears — psychotherapist, musician, historian — Richardson also leads tours for the park alliance.
“Olmsted called this democracy in dirt,” she said, as we strolled into Dellwood Park, across from the conservancy’s offices. “He believed everyone should have access to a park.”
The first thing to know about Olmsted is that he was an artist. While he respected the contours of the land, he sculpted it to suit his purposes. He was interested in creating effects, vistas that would screen out distractions and allow city dwellers to restore their souls in the presence of carefully curated nature.
Richardson led me to a rise, where we could see down a gently sloping pasture that looked almost like a fairway at Augusta National (except the grass isn’t a monoculture; it’s planted with a seed mixture that includes clover and other weeds like they used in the 19th century). She pointed to a stand of oaks on one side, a bank of shrubbery on the other, and in the distance, down the bend of a pedestrian path, a meadow clearing.
“Olmsted wanted to draw your eye to that clearing,” she said. “To me, this is like a painting.”
Every tree of a certain size has a numbered tag on its trunk, allowing the conservancy to track its age and condition. A few of the statelier oaks have been around since Olmsted surveyed the property.
Richardson pointed to a couple of elders. “I call those the Twins. It looks like they’re having a conversation, doesn’t it?”
In her tours, Richardson spends as much time talking about the estates that look over the park as she does about the landscape. Some of that is because the history is just so juicy. It involves Coca-Cola magnates, snake-oil salesmen, the Ku Klux Klan, murder mysteries and ghosts — not to mention the Hare Krishna temple that occupies one of the old houses on South Ponce.
But the other reason for dealing with the estates is that they were an important part of Olmsted’s vision for Druid Hills. He wanted to set a tone for the neighborhood with mansions and impressive yards adjoining the parks, while smaller houses and plots could occupy the side streets.
Some of those estates have already been torn down or redeveloped into condominiums, and more projects are being proposed. That’s why the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation listed “Olmsted Linear Park Properties” on its statewide list of Places in Peril last year.
“I worry about some of these houses,” Richardson said, “because changing them changes the character of this place, too.”
Nature in the city
Olmsted did not live to see Druid Hills completed. His health soon failed and he retired and left the business to his two sons, who continued for many years as Olmsted Brothers. They later planned the redevelopment of Piedmont Park, which their father had consulted on when it was the site of the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition, and although they were not hired for the job, much of their advice was followed. The sons also worked with the city on Grant Park and other green spaces.
But Druid Hills remains the only Atlanta project personally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Its natural setting and gently curving streets inspired many of the garden suburbs to come, such as Ansley Park, Avondale Estates and Garden Hills.
Not long after the landscape architect died in 1903, Hurt and his partners sold the Druid Hills property to a consortium of Atlanta businessmen that included the founder of the Coca-Cola Co., Asa G. Candler. They were the ones who finally built the neighborhood, working with Olmsted Brothers to flesh out their father’s plans.
Interestingly, the sons didn’t know quite what to call the linear park that’s now the centerpiece of Olmsted’s Atlanta legacy.
“The word park is perhaps too pretentious for these ornamental strips,” the firm wrote in a 1904 letter, “with perhaps the exception of the one between Second Peavine Creek and the railroad, which has a considerable area and some notable landscape features. We should be glad if the word ‘park’ could be avoided in names for the other ornamental strips.”
Fortunately, they didn’t get their way — the “Olmsted Linear Ornamental Strip” doesn’t have quite the same ring.
The notable landscape referred to in the letter is Deepdene, a thickly forested preserve on the Decatur side, which is nothing like the tree-fringed meadows of the parks on the western end. “When I was growing up, this place was totally inaccessible,” Richardson said, as we resumed our ramble. “It was choked with undergrowth and invasive plants. There were homeless people living down here. When the workers started cleaning it out, they found car parts and all sorts of junk.”
The most intriguing discovery was a section of rail buried two feet under the soil, a remnant of the trolley line that ran along Ponce de Leon until the 1940s. It’s displayed in the park along with a restored shed where riders waited for the trolley, near the intersection of Ponce and East Lake Road, one of the few surviving vestiges of Atlanta’s first streetcar system.
Richardson led me down an unpaved trail, pointing out unwanted plants along the way (“honeysuckle — now that’s a bad actor”). She took me into a ravine, where a stone bridge handsome enough to be on the Blue Ridge Parkway crossed a stream winding through the woods. Another bridge was closed for repair, bashed by one of several trees that had toppled during the storms spawned by Hurricane Irma in September.
“We just clear the paths and rebuild the bridges and leave the trees where they are,” she said. “Or we make them into benches.”
I noticed one up the trail, a rustic wooden slab with the words “Olmsted Linear Park” carved into the back, as if to make sure Atlanta would never again forget.
As I read the inscription, it occurred to me that I could hear the passing traffic on Ponce de Leon, but I couldn’t see the street for the trees. We were in a pocket forest, in a city, experiencing nature in the middle of civilization — exactly as Olmsted intended.
The Druid Hills Civic Association will hold its 50th anniversary tour of homes and gardens on April 20-22, 2018. The neighborhood will showcase five houses and six gardens at the peak of their springtime glory. druidhillstour.org
The Olmsted Plein Air Invitational is a public painting competition in which 30 artists paint landscapes in scenic places across Georgia. It culminates with a festival open to all painters on April 29 in the Olmsted Linear Park. olmstedpleinair.com
Learn more: A guide to Olmsted’s Atlanta landscape designs
JIM AUCHMUTEY was a longtime reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is the author of a forthcoming book about the history of barbecue. Jim Auchmutey’s web site