Impromptu tour of Olmsted-influenced Roland Park gives new appreciation for master plan

When opportunity knocks, I try to grasp it.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, my friend, a landscape architect and Olmsted devotee, and I planned to work on a program. We are giving a talk and walking tour in April. Our subject is the Olmsted influence in Roland Park, particularly in Plat 2, where the Olmsted firm was first involved in Roland Park.

My friend knows all about the father of landscape architecture, his son and his nephew. I know a certain amount about Plat 2.

As I worked early Tuesday morning, the phone rang. It was a man who is involved at Ladew Topiary Gardens and works on its program committee. He apologized for the last-minute invitation to dinner at Petit Louisthat night.

When I heard the reason for the dinner, I was even more disappointed I could not attend. He was hosting Justin Martin author of the critically acclaimed biography, "Genius of Place, The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted." Martin was in town to speak at Ladew. He is also coming April 17 to speak at the Central library of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Because of a class and an introduction to another talk I have to give, I knew I could not hear Martin either time. Dinner on Tuesday would have been perfect.

The man asked if I might instead be free in the afternoon. Justin Martin was wanted to see Roland Park. I knew my friend and I would finish our work by 3 p.m. That time turned out to be the time he would pick up Martin at Cross Keys. If my friend were free, I suggested she might go too. She has long been active in The Friends of Maryland's Olmsted Parks & Landscapes.

A little before 3 p.m. the man picked us up. At Cross Keys, Justin Martin looked just as he does on the dust jacket of the Olmsted biography: colorful tee shirt under a plaid shirt, boyish face with a beard and glasses.

We started the tour at Wyman Park, 16 acres of public park and one of the few Baltimore parks conceived and designed by the Olmsted Brothers. Their 1904 comprehensive plan for Baltimore parks sadly was not implemented.

We entered Roland Park through the graceful curve of its central boulevard, University Parkway, and the adjacent steep wooded slope, dell and park. The Olmsted legacy was immediately apparent, taking advantage of the unique characteristics of the site and designing passages of scenery with liberal use of plantings, even in the most active areas.

We turned onto Ridgewood Road, where the Olmsted principle of following the natural topography to lay out streets began in Roland Park. Another Olmsted hallmark — a unified composition that avoids decorative treatment of plantings and structures, so the overall experience feels organic — is still alive in Roland Park. Trees, hillsides and green spaces today are as important to the overall design as they were when the Olmsteds first became involved in 1897. Most front gardens are un-decorative and unadorned.

The Olmsted design of hierarchical roadways, which further a sense of community, is too. Greenways, boulevards, residential streets, service lanes and footpaths connect to public green spaces: Centennial Park on University Park, Stony Run on the east side and various remaining islands of green on the west side.

Olmsted stressed that the design should allow for long-term maintenance and should conserve the natural features of the site to the greatest extent possible. As we drove around Roland Park, I again was struck by the enduring beauty of the Olmsted vision, and I also saw how commercialization and poor design have sometimes eroded it. I returned home further resolved to seize the opportunity of working with the Greater Roland Park Master Plan to preserve and restore it.

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