2 at 200

May 13, 2022

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Branch Brook Park was designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted. Photo credit Stacey Kliesch

2 At 200

By Jerome Leslie Eben, FAIA
Member of the AIA New Jersey Public Awareness Committee

For most of the past year, as I’ve been home recuperating, I have enjoyed reading biographical history. Today, I’d like to share those of two great Americans: Ulysses S. Grant and Fredrick Law Olmsted.

Ulysses S. Grant and Fredrick Law Olmsted were born just a day apart with Fredrick on April 26 and Ulysses on April 27, both in 1822. The AIA New Jersey Public Awareness Committee likes to recognize historical events tied to our profession, so it seemed fitting to share their history for the 200th anniversary of their birthdays.

General Grant was an accomplished draftsman and used his talent during the Civil War to plan battles that showed his strategic leadership that led to saving our country. Grant continued his progressive work while serving as President, making sure Reconstruction came to a successful end and laid the foundation of freedom and justice for recently freed slaves. He also made sure that the KKK would be disbanded. While he struggled with many of life’s issues, he was able to conquer many with the help of his life partner, Julia, and longtime friends from his four years at West Point and through the Mexican and Civil Wars. I discovered all this and more by reading ‘Grant’, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography written by Ron Chernow.

In ‘Park Maker’ – which had been sitting on my bookshelf for many years, author Elizabeth Stevenson details Mr. Olmsted’s life as one of the founding fathers of the profession of Landscape Architecture. Mr. Olmsted used his talent as a park maker, believing these spaces should be free for the public and an oasis to calm the rush of what was becoming urban living. My late mother loved going to the parks in her native Germany prior to the advent of Adolf Hitler. When she arrived in America in 1939, she could again visit parks, most of them in Newark, New Jersey where she landed, designed by either Mr. Olmsted or his sons, who took over the practice later on. She loved walking up the ‘first mountain’ on South Orange Avenue, to the Essex County Reservation. It was there that she found love of nature and fell in love with a young soldier who became my father.

According to Elisabeth Ginsburg, writer for the New York Times, “The Olmsted parks in New York and New Jersey all contain signature combinations of rolling landscapes, curving drives, great lawns, dedicated recreation areas, and a variety of water features, like lakes and streams. But there is another, less tangible, thread that connects them. Kevin Moore, project director for the Weequahic Park Association, said all of Olmsted’s parks were designed to foster a single ideal — the democratic use of open space.

That ideal is especially strong in Essex County, where there are 20 Olmsted parks, including two of the largest, Branch Brook and Weequahic in Newark. Others are sprinkled throughout the state. Warinanco Park, in Roselle, is a later example of the firm’s work, and Cadwalader Park in Trenton is the only New Jersey park designed by Mr. Olmsted himself. All four continue to provide the urban oases envisioned by the designers while evolving to meet the needs of surrounding communities.”

I would highly recommend these books and figures to our members if they are interested in American history. Both are good readings for the summer.

A third book entitled ‘A Second Reckoning’ by Scott D. Seligman is the story of John Snowden and ‘The Jim Crow South’. He had been convicted of a murder in 1917. He refused to confess even after undergoing torture. Not unlike Leo Frank, Snowden was hanged for the crime that he did not commit. Nearly a century after the crime was committed, friends and family who believe that he was a victim of a “legal lynching,” worked to secure a pardon, from the governor of Maryland. Mr. Seligman argues that repeal of racist laws and policies not unlike those during Grant’s time be augmented by reckoning with America’s judicial past, especially in places where prejudice may have tainted the procedures.

If any of you have suggestions for reading about Architecture and American history, please share them on our Facebook Discussion group.

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