Frederick Law Olmsted and Minneapolis Parks: Part 2

One question is answered, but more are raised.

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.

Frederick Law Olmsted (www.olmsted.org)

Frederick Law Olmsted (www.olmsted.org)

Many writers have attributed the landscape of Fair Oaks to Olmsted, but I have never found evidence to support that claim. As noted in my earlier post, an authoritative online resource guide to Olmsted’s projects, correspondence and plans listed an 1881 letter from the New York architectural firm McKim, Mead & White to Olmsted about the estate of W. D. Washburn. ORGO also listed a reply from Olmsted to that letter. I asked then if anyone knew the content of those letters.

To the rescue comes Dr. Gregory Kaliss, co-editor of Vol. 9 of Frederick Law Olmsted’s letters, which is scheduled for publication in 2015. After an exchange of emails with Greg about correspondence between Olmsted and H. W. S. Cleveland, I mentioned my curiosity about the contents of Olmsted’s communication with McKim et al. This week, Greg graciously sent scans of those letters, which are part of the Frederick Law Olmsted Papers at the Library of Congress. Thanks, Greg.

What I learned doesn’t exactly answer the question of Olmsted’s involvement with the landscape at Washburn Fair Oaks, but it does suggest a story about the design of Fair Oaks itself. There is a good mystery here for someone to solve.

Why did William Washburn part company with McKim, Mead & White and hire E. Townsend Mix?

The letter from McKim to Olmsted, dated June 2, 1881 — signed only “McKim, Mead & White”, so I’ll refer to it as the McKim letter — gives the impression that the job of designing Washburn’s mansion is a done deal.

Charles Follen McKim, William Rutherford Mead, Stanford White

Charles Follen McKim, William Rutherford Mead, Stanford White

“We have made plans for a large house for Hon. W. D. Washburn of Minneapolis,” the letter begins, “and he has asked us to advise him as to the laying out of the grounds, and we have suggested he consult with you.” The letter offers Olmsted the option of submitting a proposal through McKim or corresponding directly with Washburn.

The letter continues, “Our house is a large one and the grounds comprise, we believe, 10 acres in the heart of the city. The house will be rather severe in character — 15th Century Renaissance  — and we should think a more or less formal treatment of the grounds immediately around it would be in character.” Enclosed with the letter were notes from Washburn, the nature of which was not divulged.

Olmsted responded two days later. He wrote that because he had just moved to his Brookline, Massachusetts home for the summer, he didn’t want to travel “so far away as Minneapolis,” but added, “I can do so later if required.”

Olmsted continued,

“As the house is large and in the midst of town and of the architectural character you state, it is probable that the design of the grounds would be ruled by considerations of convenience and of suitability and support of the motives of the house rather by those of local topography and distant prospects. In this case, if Mr. Washburn will provide, as he suggests, a good topographical map of the property and a map of the city from which its neighborhood relations can be understood, I could probably agree, in consultation with you, upon what should be arrived at and advise as to site, aspects, entrances and approaches. For such consultation and advice my charge would be $100.”

He added, “I cannot well estimate the charges which I should incur for further planning without knowing more of the circumstances,” including the “degree of detail” that would be required of him.

Olmsted concludes his letter with comments that reveal his close relationship with the principals of the firm. “I need not say,” he writes, “that it would give me great pleasure to cooperate with you.” Olmsted then “warmly” congratulates “Mr. White” (Stanford White) on the “extraordinary success” of the monument he designed to honor Admiral David Farragut, which had been unveiled to critical acclaim the week before in New York’s Madison Square. (That project was the first collaboration between White and the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who created the sculpture of Farragut for the monument.) Olmsted called White’s monument a “distinct advance of our public monumental standards.”

Olmsted had a personal interest in the success of the young architects. Charles McKim’s father, James Miller McKim, had been, along with Olmsted, one of the principals in founding the magazine, The Nation. Olmsted was also a friend of White’s father, Richard Grant White, who had written for The Nation. (One common thread is that they were all staunch abolitionists; they were joined by Saint-Gaudens father as well.) Mossette Broderick writes in The Triumvirate: McKim, Mead and White that Olmsted provided counsel to Richard White on a professional path for Stanford and introduced the sixteen-year-old to his friend, famous architect Henry Hobson Richardson, who gave Stanford his first job, setting him on a path to fame and fortune as an architect who never finished high school.

Finally, in his response to the McKim letter, Olmsted added that he was returning Mr. Washburn’s notes. The paper trail linking Olmsted to Washburn ends as abruptly as it began.

William Drew Washburn

William Drew Washburn. Everyone had impressive whiskers!

There appears to be no evidence in Olmsted’s voluminous papers that he carried on any further correspondence on the project with McKim, Washburn — or with another architect, E. Townsend Mix. Mix matters, because he is the architect credited with the design of Fair Oaks in 1883. Mix was a highly regarded architect in Milwaukee who had done little or no work in Minneapolis before that year. How did Washburn meet Mix? And why did he have Mix design his grandiose residence instead of using plans already prepared by McKim, Mead and White who were on their way to becoming the most prestigious architects in the nation? Perhaps there is further evidence in the papers of Charles Follen McKim in the Library of Congress. Another item on the list of things to look up the next time I’m in Washington, D. C. I may have to move there!

Could Washburn have been dissatisfied with the “large…severe…15th Century Renaissance” house that McKim and company had designed for him? Instead he got from Mix a house that Larry Millet, in Once There Were Castles, describes as a “melange of Queen Ann, Tudor, Romanesque, and Gothic elements.”

Fair Oaks, about 1886. (Minnesota Historical Society)

Fair Oaks, looking southeast from E. 22nd Street and Stevens Avenue, about 1886. (Minnesota Historical Society)

In the past, some writers have presumed — mistakenly — from a letter Olmsted wrote to the Minneapolis park board in 1886 — after he had passed through town on his way to California — that he was somehow responsible for Minneapolis’s system of parks. So it’s possible that others could have made the leap from the exchange of letters with McKim to the conclusion that Olmsted does proceed to design the grounds of Fair Oaks. But does he? Dr. Gregory Kaliss : “Whether he actually does or not, I have no idea.”

It is hard to prove a negative — that he did not — but consider these factors.

From all I can learn about Olmsted’s visit to Minneapolis in 1886 on his way to California, he had not been to the city before, another argument against his active participation in the detailed layout of the Fair Oaks estate.

H. W. S. Cleveland never gives a hint in his letters to Olmsted (or others) that Olmsted had ever visited Minneapolis other than the brief stop in 1886. And Cleveland was upset with park board president Charles Loring on that occasion for taking Olmsted only to see Minneapolis’s lakes and not the Mississippi River gorge, which Cleveland considered to be the “jewel” of the city. If Olmsted had spent any time in Minneapolis to work at Fair Oaks he almost certainly would have seen both the lakes and the river gorge before 1886. And if he had designed Fair Oaks landscape from afar, you’d think he would have wanted to see his work, but the newspaper account of his visit (Minneapolis Tribune, August 24, 1886) gives no indication that he visited Fair Oaks.

I don’t know how often Olmsted designed landscapes — to any “degree of detail” — without visiting them first, but his reply to the McKim letter suggests that he was not offering to design a 10-acre landscape anyway. He seems to be offering his advice on the location and situation of the house on the property — “site, aspects, entrances, approaches” — rather than the design of the whole 10 acres. Moreover, I can’t imagine Olmsted doing much more than a cursory mansion site plan for a hundred bucks. That was considerably below the going rate at the time for planning a 10-acre estate.

For a landscape architect to design a pond, stream, bridge, extensive plantings, greenhouse, stables and the rest of 10 acres without visiting the site would have required extensive correspondence with someone and that correspondence doesn’t seem to exist. And there is ample evidence (reel after reel of microfilm at the Library of Congress) that Olmsted saved just about every scrap of paper that crossed his desk.

Olmsted also makes clear by his reference to arriving at a plan “in consultation” with McKim that he would prefer to “cooperate” with McKim rather than work directly with Washburn. His return of Washburn’s notes with his letter confirms that intent.

The pond, stream and bridge that later became well-known appear in an 1890-ish photo of Fair Oaks taken from 3rd Avenue. This is the section of the park that people want to attribute to Olmsted — even though the pond ceased to exist nearly 100 years ago.

Washburn Fair Oaks from 3rd Avenue about 1890 (Hennepin County Library, Minneapolis Collection)

Washburn Fair Oaks from 3rd Avenue, facing west, about 1890 (Hennepin County Library, Minneapolis Collection)

A much lusher version of a pond and fountain on the estate were featured on a postcard in about 1910.

"Washburn Park", meaning the grounds at Fair Oaks, about 1910 (Minnesota Historical Society)

“W. D. Washburn’s Park”, meaning the grounds at Fair Oaks, looking like a tropical garden — and with a different bridge — about 1910 (Minnesota Historical Society)

Now that I’ve had a chance to see the correspondence between McKim and Olmsted, I’m more convinced that Olmsted did not design the landscape of Fair Oaks.

I’d still appreciate hearing from anyone who can make a case for Olmsted on these 10 acres. I’d also like to know more about why Washburn switched architects after McKim, Mead and White had already drawn up a plan for the house. If you know anything, we’d love to hear it.

Thanks again to Dr. Gregory Kaliss for sending copies of the letters cited here. I look forward to seeing his project in print.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com

Postscript 6/14/2013: Thanks to an email from Andrew Caddock who was directed to a source by Kerck Kelsey, author of Prairie Lightning, a biography of William D. Washburn, we find this passage in The Northwestern Miller, (1884-1885 Holiday Number, “A Miller’s Palatial Home,” p. 82.) about Washburn’s estate: “The grounds are splendid specimens of landscape gardening from plans by Cleveland who stands at the head of the list of American specialists in this line of work. Broad winding drives and walks lead up to the front and side entrances and end at a large and handsome stable in the rear at the southwest corner of the block.” The reference is almost certainly to H. W. S. Cleveland. This is the only reference I’ve seen to Cleveland designing a private estate in Minneapolis. Thanks, Andrew.

© 2013 David C. Smith

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6 comments so far

  1. […] it took a long chain of events to help me find it. You can catch up to those events by reading my post and post script from […]

    • Tom Balcom on

      Great research and information, Dave

      I checked Larry Millett’s book on Lost Twin Cities for E. Townsend Mix’s works here. The one Larry didn’t include was the Washburn Memorial Orphan Asylum (1886-1929) at 50th and Nicollet, where Ramsey Junior High School is today. I assume Mix was a friend of the Washburn family. Maybe he did some architecture work for other Washburn brothers in the East and the Midwest.

      • David C. Smith on

        Good info, Tom. That’s an important piece in Mpls. Thanks. I had looked at Mix’s other projects before Fair Oaks and the farthest west I recall was Dousman’s Villa Louis at Prairie du Chien. Maybe there was some connection through Cadwallader Washburn in SW Wisconsin. He created the original design for the Kansas state capitol, but it was significantly altered.

      • Tom Balcom on

        That’s what I was thinking, Dave. Also, possibly Elihu Washburn from Illinois. Kerck Kelsey is working on a book about him right now I believe. I’ll give Kerck a call and see if he knows more about E. Townsend Mix.

        Also, I’m working on a brief Fuller School history booklet for the neighborhood plaque dedication that’s going to happen later this year, so I’d like to stay in touch with you and Ginger on that.

      • David C. Smith on

        Great, Tom. If you learn anything about Mix from Mr. Kelsey, we’d enjoy hearing about it.

  2. […] Postscript, June 14, 2013: Read Part 2. […]


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