Betsy’s Corner: Frederick Law Olmsted and The Olmsted Brothers

Editor’s Note: This is Part II in a series about Longmeadow Neighborhoods and Parks. Part I may be found here.

A fourth Olmsted contribution in Longmeadow has been long overlooked. I recently discovered a forgotten third neighborhood location while researching Olmsted at the Longmeadow Historical Society.

“Laurel Manor” consists of Dover Road, Chatham Road and Harwich Road north of Converse Street and east of Laurel Street. This area was designed in 1926 by F.L. Olmsted’s sons, about a decade after the Converse Street School opened. Most of the homes were built within a five-year period in a Colonial or Tudor style from 1926-1931.

There is one Spanish style home with a tiled roof and a British Cottage style example. This new neighborhood of charming single-family homes with garages, in a cohesive landscaped setting was perfect for families who wanted to live near the public school.

John Charles Olmsted and F. L. Olmsted Jr. had just designed Colony Hills on the north end of town towards Forest Park. John Olmsted was one of the original park commissioners. His father had been involved in the design of Forest Park in 1884, possibly with the help of a local landscape gardener named Justin Sacket of Springfield. This 735-acre park is huge by most city standards. Orick Herman Greenleaf and Everett Hosmer Barney, both wealthy business owners and philanthropists donated land to create the Forest Park area.

Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons, who carried out his vision, always believed that a common green space should be available for all citizens. Historically, many New England towns had a town green at their center. As American cities grew, this bit of nature became of the utmost importance.

Bliss and Laurel Parks are each a slice of nature that have experienced neglect over the decades. Since 1934 they have been unofficial parkland. The land was never built on because of the location of Cooley Brook that originates in the east end of Bliss Park. Due to the terrain, it was not the best option for building homes. As part of the Connecticut River watershed, and the past location of Longmeadow’s water tower, this area provides green areas and a natural habitat for plants and animals. Olmsted and Sons plan for a Longmeadow Park was never completed but the parkland is used and appreciated by local residents and visitors of all ages and stages of life.

The influence of Olmsted is far reaching. He was born in Hartford, planned on attending Yale but life took him in a unique direction. He became a traveler, author and during the Civil War he worked as Executive Secretary of the U. S. Sanitary Commission, a precursor of the Red Cross in Washington, D.C. This experience taught him about health and healing and how to manage difficult situations. He had already designed Central Park in Manhattan with Calvert Vaux and had worked on plans for Prospect Park in Brooklyn. In the nearby “Dingle Heights” section of Springfield, there is a road called Olmsted Avenue. There is also an Olmsted Avenue in Scarsdale, NY and a place called Olmsted Falls in Ohio. He had his finger on the pulse of landscape design and was known as the father of landscape architecture. I would call him a genius!

When he died at age 81 in 1903 his friend and colleague Daniel Burnham spoke of him in words that showed a deep connection and appreciation of his unique vision. He was “As an artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views.”

We are lucky that the Olmsted firm was involved during the period when this area was turned from farmland into a suburb. Many would call us a “streetcar suburb” as the trolley provided a way to commute to work before cars were commonplace. It is now our duty to take care of what we were given and appreciate these parklands and neighborhoods.

– By Betsy Huber Port