Archive for the ‘William D. Washburn’ Tag
Another of my favorite recent photo finds is a good intro to my next speaking engagement on Minneapolis park history this Saturday.
I recently found this photo of the Washburn Fair Oaks mansion built by William Washburn in 1883.
Compare it to this photo taken two Sundays ago from about the same vantage point across Third Avenue South.
Now turn about 90 degrees left and you get this image of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
I’ll be talking about both parks and arts, and how many of the same people created Minneapolis’s parks and its art institutions at the Washburn Library on Lyndale Avenue, Saturday, November 21 at 10 a.m. My presentation is being hosted by the Minnesota Independent Scholars’ Forum, but the event is free and open to the public.
For more information visit here. Hope to see you Saturday.
If 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. Cleveland.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
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 minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© 2013 David C. Smith
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.”
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.
A much lusher version of a pond and fountain on the estate were featured on a postcard in about 1910.
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
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.