Frederick Law Olmsted and Minneapolis Parks: Part 3, The Smoking Gun?

I have more circumstantial evidence that Frederick Law Olmsted didn’t design the grounds around Fair Oaks, the mansion of William D. Washburn in Minneapolis — and that H. W. S. Cleveland did.

I found it among my own files of stuff, but 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 yesterday.

Where we left the issue was that Kerck Kelsey in researching his book, Prairie Lightning, on the life of William Drew Washburn, had found a reference in a 1884 magazine to “Cleveland” having been the landscape architect at Fair Oaks. I had expressed surprise at that claim in an earlier post, because I had never seen it before.

But I can now offer evidence that supports the claim. For the first time in a few years, I returned to the detailed notes I took from the letters of Horace Cleveland to William Watts Folwell, which I read at the Minnesota Historical Society when I was researching, City of Parks, the history of the Minneapolis park system. In those notes I found a passage that connected Washburn and Cleveland. Why wasn’t that detail more “sticky” for me? Why didn’t I remember it before now?

Cleveland’s letter from Chicago to Minneapolis was dated March 18, 1883. and two very important events had occurred just prior to that date that occupied my attention. Only a couple weeks before Cleveland wrote, the Minnesota Legislature had passed legislation creating an independent Board of Park Commissioners for the city of Minneapolis. (The exact date of the legislation was February 27 — which is coincidentally the birthday of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and me.) The often-dashed hopes of park advocates in Minneapolis were on the verge of coming true; only a public referendum in Minneapolis remained as an obstacle.

I thought that subject would be addressed by Cleveland in his letter, but it wasn’t. Minneapolis voters did approve the creation of the park board on April 3, 1883 and on April 24 the new board hired Cleveland to make his now-famous “suggestions” for the type of parks Minneapolis should develop. In other words, I was looking for big, important stuff. Something earthshaking: Cleveland writing with trembling hand about soon meeting his destiny.

But life ain’t like that — because another recent event had more immediate consequences: Cleveland had just learned that his friend, William Watts Folwell, the first and only president of the University of Minnesota, had resigned his post as the leader of a university he had practically created. Cleveland knew well the battles Folwell had fought, and had tired of, at the University, and he expressed his happiness upon hearing the news of Folwell’s action. In Minneapolis park history terms this was huge news, too, because Folwell’s return to the classroom and the library enabled him to devote considerable energy to parks as a future Minneapolis park commissioner and extremely influential president of the park board throughout the 1890s.

Park board creation, resignation from a prestigious job: no wonder I overlooked two sentences that had nothing to do with Minneapolis parks at the time.

“I am beginning to hear whispers,” Cleveland wrote, “of coming work in various quarters and am glad that Minneapolis is one of them, though I confess that I shrink from the thought of renewed journeys and protracted absences from home. Gen. Washburn writes me that he will be in Minneapolis about the middle of April and will want to see me there soon after.” (Emphasis added)

What could General William Drew Washburn (not yet a U. S. Senator) have wanted to see Cleveland about if not for designing the grounds of his new mansion, for which ground was probably about to be broken?

One tiny bit of historical evidence that Sam Waterston would scoff at. And I needed help from Dr. Gregory Kaliss, Kerck Kelsey, Andrew Caddock and Dave Stevens to find it. But for a few minutes this morning, I was the only person in the world who knew it. The thrill of discovery and the satisfaction of sharing it: Big reasons we keep reading old letters — and writing new ones.

David C. Smith

© 2013 David C. Smith

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1 comment so far

  1. […] Postscript, June 14, 2013: Read Part 2 and Part 3. […]


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