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Olmsted's Parks Display Genius Of His Design

ArchitectureCircusesThe Institute of LivingFrederick Law OlmstedWorld War I (1914-1918)Long Island SoundCentral Park

Few of us can follow the trail of a genius. But if that genius is Frederick Law Olmsted, father of American landscape architecture and co-designer of New York's Central Park, the possibility is literally true and near at hand. Born in Hartford in 1822, he learned surveying in the Collinsville section of Canton and enjoyed wide exposure to his home state's rural countryside as a boy. He became a virtuoso at designing landscapes creating a sense of expansive space within urban street grids heavily developed with housing and factories.

Olmsted re-created slices of bucolic Connecticut for parks, cemeteries and institutions in Boston, Buffalo, San Francisco, Montreal, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Chicago and elsewhere. After viewing the online Olmsted Legacy Trail established by the Connecticut Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects ( http://www.olmstedLegacyTrail.com), I decided to see whether the master's designs still guided 21st-century eyes by revisiting his four of his Connecticut creations.

Bridgeport's Seaside Park is a graceful crescent of grass and trees along Long Island Sound. Developed in the mid-1880s at the urging of P.T. Barnum and other city power brokers, the eastern portion still largely follows the original plan of Olmsted and architect partner Calvert Vaux. Their trademark curving roads and paths wind through greenery where light-filled vistas across the water provide an illusion of infinitude.

I saw lovers walking hand-in-hand on the well-trimmed lawns while families picnicked. A few elderly men and a boy fished. A neat baseball diamond awaited its next game. The park was in vastly better shape than in my 1960s childhood when the air was often fouled by a nearby fat rendering plant and the adjacent dump always seemed to catch fire on muggy days.

Rolling countryside stretching along the Pequonnock River and Bunnell's Pond define Bridgeport's Beardsley Park, a peaceful island of greenery in a sea of commercial and residential development. Though the quiet was compromised by Route 25's construction along the pond's western shore when I was young, I let the whoosh of traffic fade to background like wind rushing through the trees. The pond sparkled for fishermen, and young people sunned themselves on blankets along the sloping ground. The city beyond seemed to disappear as the road wound through copses and open meadows that felt like outdoor rooms. The park's zoo, not something Olmsted envisioned, but a legacy from Barnum's wintering circus animals here, was inviting and elicited squeals of joy from children.

Slowly traversing Olmsted's and Vaux's winding roads through open greenswards punctuated with trees that rise steeply from flatlands to a prominent lookout in New Britain's Walnut Hill Park, I felt my eyes guided from focal point to focal point by the great landscape architect. Though the high spot where Olmsted imagined a scenic overlook is dominated by a handsome 90-foot limestone column and plaza memorializing World War I veterans and the large meadow contains several unanticipated ballfields, they seemed only to emphasize the resilience of this carefully articulated landscape that appeared so natural. With my wife, Mary, I sat at the toe of the slope beneath a large oak watching a game of cricket on the sun-washed lawn.

Although parking lots and a few buildings have infringed on the original 1860s plan, Olmsted's and Vaux's Institute of Living design remains a quiet respite from the bustle Hartford's surrounding streets. The broad lawn crisscrossed with paths is dappled with leafy shade where, according to the Connecticut Botanical Society's Ed Richardson, there "is perhaps the greatest concentration of historic trees" in the state. Many have dramatic spreading crowns and rise about 100 feet tall, including a sweet gum, ginkgo and pecan. Anyone who doubts the power of such a landscape to calm a troubled soul has never walked the grounds after spending time with a loved one at the Institute.

Were Olmsted alive today, he might want to tidy up a bit, but overall he'd likely be pleased at how his work has survived. Couples still promenade, kids frolic on lawns, picnickers enjoy deep green shade and ballplayers exercise skills that city pavement and structures don't abide. What further proof of success would he need?

David K. Leff is a poet and essayist. His most recent book, "Finding the Last Hungry Heart," is a novel in verse. His work is available at http://www.davidkleff.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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