The first family of American landscape architecture essentially shaped the design of Rock Creek Park.
Many of Washington's natural wonders — including its largest park — owe much of their appearance and existence to the work of two men named Frederick Law Olmsted.
The senior Olmsted practically invented the field of American landscape architecture beginning with his plan for New York's Central Park in the 1850s. He championed the idea of the public park as a common green space accessible to all. In an urbanizing America, parkland was to serve both the body and the spirit. In design, all parts of the landscape were to be in harmony, with no detail standing out.
The junior Olmsted followed in his father's footsteps and philosophy. Along the way, he created the first comprehensive plan for Rock Creek Park some 28 years after it was established.
Mr. Olmsted Comes To Washington
In DC, the elder Frederick Law Olmsted is most celebrated for designing the Capitol grounds between 1874 and 1892. He also supported plans to create Rock Creek Park, warning in 1886 that "the charmingly wooded glen of Rock Creek" was "in private hands, subject any day to be laid waste." He turned his attention to one slice of the valley in 1890. Working in partnership with his adopted son (and nephew) John Charles Olmsted, he designed the National Zoological Park, whose main thoroughfare is named Olmsted Walk in their honor.
As failing health forced Olmsted to retire in 1895, he brought into the firm his 25-year-old son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. The young man, known familiarly as "Rick," quickly proved himself. In 1898 the company was renamed Olmsted Brothers, with Rick and John Charles as partners.
The McMillan Report
Olmsted Jr. became a leading advocate for one of his father's causes: to re-establish and extend L'Enfant's plan for the nation's capital. He took what would have been his father's place on a Senate panel known as the McMillan Commission. Their 1902 report set out to restore the Mall, which had become cluttered with a market, a railway station and a series of Victorian parks. But Olmsted also encouraged the commission to endorse the acquisition of land for new public parks and scenic drives throughout the city — including the preservation of the entire Rock Creek valley.
Olmsted remained a steward of the commission's recommendations, first as part of an unpaid but influential group of consultants and then as a charter member of two federal oversight boards, the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Park and Planning Commission. His battles at the CFA, especially to resist relocating the Botanic Garden in Rock Creek Park, convinced Olmsted that the park needed a far-reaching plan — and that Olmsted Brothers should prepare it.
The result was a 1918 report whose guiding principle mandated that the "interesting, varied, natural scenery must be saved intact insofar as possible," though it could be "restored or perfected by intelligent, appreciative landscape development."
Another fundamental consideration was access to and through the park. Yet all roads and paths — as well as bridges, benches and other structures — "should fit into the landscape as harmonious and subordinate parts of the scenery."
One Park, Six Settings
The 1918 report divided Rock Creek Park into six types of naturalistic landscapes that remain familiar today. The area along the banks of Rock Creek and its tributaries was described as "topographically and psychologically the backbone...of the Park." This "Valley Section" was to be preserved in its natural state, with the addition of little more than a few picnic spots.
The hills and plateaus west of Rock Creek and south of Military Road were termed Woodland for Intensive Use. The report recommended the installation of hiking paths, a roadway along the ridgeline and numerous picnic groves. In contrast, much of the forest north of Military Road was designated "Wilder Woodland" and was to be "preserved to the highest degree."
Old farm fields north of Military Road made up the "Open Hillside Section." Its grassy slopes were to be maintained and adorned with occasional shade trees and overlooks to create "a sense of freedom, breadth, and outlook found nowhere else in the Park."
At the northern tip, the "Meadow Park" — a section of flat meadow surrounded by forest — was to be preserved as another unique landscape.
Finally, the report recognized the area along 16th Street and Colorado Avenue as being "separated topographically from the rest of the Park." Instead of being kept wild, this "Plateau Recreation Ground" was to be adapted for recreational activities from sports to band concerts. At the time, the plateau was already the site of playing fields, tennis courts and horse shows.
Following his work on the Rock Creek report, Rick Olmsted continued to influence the design of Washington landmarks from the White House grounds and the Jefferson Memorial to Theodore Roosevelt Island and the gardens of the National Cathedral. When he died in 1957, landscape architects with the name Frederick Law Olmsted had been working for a full 100 years to bring parkland to the people.
Today we see the Olmsteds' legacy in the varied landscapes of Rock Creek Park, in the green vistas that soothe our spirits and in the roads and paths that provide such easy access into nature.