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More Local History | This area is dedicated to Peninsula Past columns and recent additions to the Local History collection.

The Lasting Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. Is Everywhere

Wed, Mar 18, 2009


Olmsted Place 1929

Olmsted Place 1929

Palos Verdes Estates and Miraleste residents these days may take their parks and green spaces for granted, because they do not know that each green sward was carefully laid out long ago by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. in a map he prepared in 1924. That map now hangs prominently in the Local History Room at Peninsula Center Library.

It is a visual testament to Olmsted’s commitment to open space as a vital rest and renewal destination for human beings. Carefully illustrated in shades of light green that define parks, open space, golf courses and school grounds, the map pays special attention to clusters of housing, school buildings and even a nursery, which Olmsted had located in Lunada Bay. (Pity it never materialized.)

Today, this landscaping philosophy that celebrates open space is unanimously invoked by environmentalists and planners throughout the country. And-if one pauses to observe and express gratitude–this philosophy is still visibly apparent throughout the Peninsula’s first city, because its virtue has been preserved by the Art Jury and the Homes Association.

In a much-belated tribute to this green-thumb genius, a small park at the corner of Palos Verdes Drive West and Via Corta in Malaga Cove was dedicated and named Olmsted Place on Feb. 8, 2000. (He had already identified and landscaped this spot of land next to the Gardner Building as a little postage-stamp park in 1925-but he hadn’t named it for himself. In fact, it had been nameless.)

About 100 people attended the 2000 dedication of the $16,000 project. The City pitched in $5,000 to get the dollar bills rolling. Palos Verdes Beautiful and private donations managed to complete the funding. Rancho de los Palos Verdes Historical Society had donated a plaque in 1991.

Members of the special committee that finally brought the mini-park plans to the City Council and won its glowing approval in late 1999 were these long-time residents: the now-deceased Jack Bauman; Ruth Gralow; Carolyn Schaeffer; Dorothy Flood, and the recently deceased Jeane Burke. The panel even endorsed the plan and tree selections Olmsted had made, some of which had existed since their original planting. Boulder benches were also recommended as “social spaces for people to come together,” according to Olmsted, who was a great fan of creating spaces where people can socialize.

As for Olmsted, he had completed his landscaping assignment for the Palos Verdes Project in 1931 and returned with his family to the firm’s headquarters and his East Coast home (one and the same) in Brookline, Mass.

After an active career in the East, Olmsted retired in 1950 and moved to Palo Alto with his wife to be near their daughter, who was their only child. He died on Christmas Day in 1957 while visiting friends in Malibu. He was 87.

Frederick Olmsted, Jr.: Taking the Lawn View in Landscaping

Thu, Aug 21, 2008


View South from La Venta Inn 1927

View South from La Venta Inn 1927

Subtle but pervasive, planned but insouciant, parks are the silent soothsayers of the soul.

Truly, in reading landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.’s biography, one feels a massive debt to this genius from Brookline, Mass., who introduced landscape architecture as a profession in 1857, and who went on to design the most memorable and recognizable parks in the nation, Central Park in New York City being one of his first successes. We on the Peninsula are also in debt to one of his sons.

An early coup in California was Stanford University, whose grounds the senior Olmsted laid out in 1886. Son Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (Rick was his nickname) was with him. Only 16, he often accompanied his father on assignments and absorbed everything he saw and heard.

And there was a lot to learn. Rick’s father designed much of what Washington, D.C. looks like today: Lafayette Park, the White House grounds, the Washington Monument gardens, the Jefferson Memorial, Washington Cathedral, Rock Creek Park, and the Washington Zoo.

The Olmsted Brothers had a nationwide practice in the early years of the 20th Century, so it was not unusual that in 1922, Rick got the assignment to landscape what today consists of Palos Verdes Estates and Miraleste. He and James (sometimes referred to as Fred) Dawson-who had originally consulted with Frank Vanderlip on the project in 1914– signed a contract that stipulated that both men live in the community until the project was complete. They did.

Despite an initial reluctance to leave his East Coast practice, Rick was seduced by the view from the top of the hill where La Venta Inn now stands. He is quoted as having said, “How often are men given such an almost untouched great area … May we who are now responsible place parks, open spaces, roads, not for racing, but to look at the beauty, and may the generations who follow keep this in their minds and plans.”

Rick even went so far as to build a home and live there with his family from 1922-1931. He named it Villa Felicia, and it still exists on the cliffs near St. Francis Episcopal Church. His was one of the few homes in the fledgling community, and he and his wife became very active in the social life of the community.

Even as early as 1927-when there were only a few trees around-the far-seeing Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. had this to say about rules and regulations needed to maintain his design “…the Homes Association may cut back trees or other planting which may, in its opinion, unreasonably obstruct views from other properties.”

His eyes were always looking forward; his commitment to open space unswerving. More on that in the next installment of Peninsula Past.


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