Frederick Law Olmsted and Minneapolis Parks

How many Minneapolis parks did Frederick Law Olmsted design? How about his sons, Junior and JC? I believe the grand total is zero.

Some people have a mistaken notion that Olmsted, the godfather of American parks, played a role in the creation of Minneapolis parks. The impression was created in part by a letter Olmsted wrote to the Minneapolis park board in 1886 and by claims that Olmsted designed the grounds around William Washburn’s mansion Fair Oaks, which later became Washburn Fair Oaks Park.

A city claiming that Olmsted designed a park is akin to an inn declaring “George Washington slept here.” A quick way to impress. The difference is that exhaustive records and correspondence document what Olmsted actually did, while there is little proof of where George laid his wooden teeth on any given night.

Confusion over Olmsted’s role in Minneapolis parks is not limited to promoters of our park system. Earlier this year MPRB staff received a request from producers of a documentary film on Olmsted for photos of Lyndale Park, evidently assuming that Olmsted was involved in the design of that park. There is no indication that he was, although an Olmsted protégé, Warren Manning, worked on designs for Lyndale Park in 1904. (In a future post I’ll tell about another Minneapolis park for which Manning created the initial plans, even though his client at the time was not the park board.)

The insertion of Olmsted’s name into Minneapolis park history is partly the responsibility of famous Minneapolis park superintendent Theodore Wirth. In his memoir/history of Minneapolis parks, published in 1945, Wirth reprinted a letter Olmsted wrote to the Minneapolis park board after passing through Minneapolis on his way to California in 1886. At a glance it appears that Olmsted was therefore involved in the design of Minneapolis parks. In reality the letter doesn’t even address the brief tour Olmsted was given of the new Minneapolis park system. Instead of commenting on what he saw of Minneapolis parks, he wrote about the responsibilities of park commissions. Dry stuff, insightful as it may be.

Horace Cleveland proposed this system of parks and parkways in 1883; Frederick Law Olmsted did not.

Olmsted made the effort as a courtesy to his friend Horace W. S. Cleveland, who actually did provide a blueprint for the Minneapolis park system and also designed individual parks in the city.  Olmsted was hosted on his stopover en route to Stanford University by Charles Loring, president of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners and widely acclaimed “Father of Minneapolis Parks.” Afterward Cleveland expressed dismay that Loring took Olmsted only on a tour of the lake parks in the southern part of the city and not the Mississippi River gorge, which Cleveland called the “jewel” of the region. A few months after his visit, Olmsted sent his views on park commission responsibilities in a letter to Cleveland. Cleveland passed the letter on to Loring and the park board. Cleveland wrote to his friend William Folwell of Loring’s disappointment that Olmsted made no comment on the park system Loring had already devoted years of his life to creating.

The issue of Washburn Fair Oaks is not as clear. Claims that Olmsted designed the grounds of Washburn’s estate—complete with pond, fountain, bridge and greenhouses—have been repeated many places, including a 1975 publication by the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission, “Washburn Fair Oaks: A Study for Preservation.”

Did Frederick Law Olmsted design the Fair Oaks estate?

The only reference I can find to the subject is in the Olmsted Research Guide Online (ORGO) at olmsted.org the website of the National Association of Olmsted Parks. ORGO provides a guide to Olmsted’s personal papers and papers of Olmsted and Associates at the Library of Congress and Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Mass. (While researching City of Parks, I spent a day at the Library of Congress reading Olmsted’s correspondence with Cleveland and correspondence between Olmsted’s sons and various Minneapolis officials. No collaboration ever resulted.)

The ORGO database lists one letter to Olmsted, and his reply, that refer to plans for “W.D. Washburn” on June 2 and June 4, 1881 respectively. The correspondence does not have a job number, suggesting that it was not a formal project. The letter also predated the 1882-1883 construction of Fair Oaks. Curiously the letter was not from E. Townsend Mix, the Milwaukee architect who designed Fair Oaks and later moved to Minneapolis. (Mix also designed the Metropolitan Building in downtown Minneapolis. He holds the distinction of designing perhaps the two most famous razed buildings in Minneapolis history.) Instead the letter was from the famous New York architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White. Heard of them? Perhaps, because 34 years later McKim, Mead, and White designed the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which was built across the street from the Fair Oaks estate.

Unfortunately I have not seen the contents of the letter from the McKim firm or Olmsted’s reply on the “Washburn plan.” If anyone knows what was in that letter, please let me know. Otherwise, the next time I’m in Washington I’ll look it up.

Andrea Weber, a landscape architect at MPRB, who has worked on development of a new Chinese garden at Washburn Fair Oaks and researched the history of the park extensively doubts that Olmsted designed the grounds of the Washburn estate. Absent proof to the contrary she calls it a “persistent rumor.”

In a biography of William D. Washburn, Prairie Lightning, published in July 2010, author Kerck Kelsey implies that the grounds of Fair Oaks were designed by Horace Cleveland. I have not seen that claim before and I do not recall it being mentioned in any of Horace Cleveland’s correspondence.

If anyone has a source for attributing the design of the Washburn Fair Oaks grounds to Frederick Law Olmsted, Horace William Shaler Cleveland, or anyone else, please share that info.

David C. Smith

Postscript, June 14, 2013: Read Part 2 and Part 3.

© David C. Smith

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2 comments so far

  1. […] you want to know more about the landscaping of the Washburn Fair Oaks grounds, you can begin here. Of course, the story features H.W.S. […]

  2. […] One of my first posts on this blog nearly three years ago examined the likelihood that Frederick Law Olmsted, the most prominent landscape architect in U.S. history, had designed any part of the Minneapolis park system. I wrote then that I didn’t think he had, not even the grounds of William D. Washburn’s Fair Oaks estate/mansion/castle, which later became Washburn Fair Oaks Park. […]


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