The landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons John Charles and Frederick Jr. changed the prevailing understanding of the view from the suburban home. Historically, such vistas reflected a sense of isolation in nature, an experience that the early suburban communities of the nineteenth century attempted to replicate. In contrast, the elder Olmsted, in his first suburban design, posited the need for the neighborhood to be visible and distinguishable from the houses; it would form the foreground of views into more distant landscapes. This article examines the lineage of this vista and how Frederick Law Olmsted’s sons, through their firm Olmsted Brothers, later came to replicate it systematically in their suburban projects. A comparison with possible antecedents of this particular view shows that the Olmsteds not only made it a fundamental design factor but also endowed it with ethical and aesthetic qualities.

Historically, the view from the house was fundamental to the design of Western domestic architecture. Regardless of stylistic principles, the Renaissance villa, the baroque palace, the English manor, and the bourgeois house all shared the ambition of linking house and landscape through the gaze.1 At the end of the eighteenth century, the view from the house was a factor for rupture with academic compositional principles, the origin of what John MacArthur calls a “point-of-view planning” of the manor.2 For him, this is exemplified perfectly in Luscombe Castle, designed by John Nash together with Humphry Repton, where the angular forms in certain parts of the plan were motivated solely by the views. The gaze of the inhabitants conditioned the composition and thus overrode other organizational considerations.

Not surprisingly, Repton also emphasized in his writings that “the views from the several apartments” constituted one of the governing principles for locating and arranging the house.3 His design mechanisms diagrammatically qualified the views to different orientations in relation to a virtual center, the house (Figure 1). Shortly thereafter, John Claudius Loudon, in his well-known The Suburban Gardener, and Villa Companion (1838), refined these mechanisms and proposed them as part of a standard procedure for studying different ways to position the house depending on the views.4 Some of his drawings show the property and the panorama obtained from it, the totality of which determined the placement of the house (Figure 2). When it came to applying the principles of these English authors to American homes, Andrew Jackson Downing defended similar principles to fix “from the house, a view beyond the ornamental lawn . . . pleasingly connected” with the surrounding landscape. According to him, this established “something of a unity of design or purpose.”5 Downing was not the only American architect of his generation who was preoccupied with this issue; it was also a concern of his contemporaries John Notman and Alexander Jackson Davis.

Figure 1

Humphry Repton, diagram for studying views from the house, 1816 (Humphry Repton, Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening [London: T. Bensley and Son, 1816], 111).

Figure 1

Humphry Repton, diagram for studying views from the house, 1816 (Humphry Repton, Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening [London: T. Bensley and Son, 1816], 111).

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Figure 2

John Claudius Loudon, example of joint property and panorama display, 1838 (John Claudius Loudon, The Suburban Gardener, and Villa Companion [London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1838], 455).

Figure 2

John Claudius Loudon, example of joint property and panorama display, 1838 (John Claudius Loudon, The Suburban Gardener, and Villa Companion [London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1838], 455).

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These considerations, however, were almost always directed at the isolated house and not at multiple dwellings integrated into a neighborhood community. In the first half of the nineteenth century, architects and landscape architects had little experience with the planning of entire residential enclaves.6 As a result, they did not give much thought to the view from a house when it was designed in conjunction with others. In addition, as John Archer explains, the first suburban communities sought to visually replicate the sense of seclusion typical of the isolated village. In notable cases such as John Britton’s Calverly Park (1832) and Davis’s Llewellyn Park (1857), despite the fact that the dwellings were planned as a group, the vistas “gave . . . a feeling of isolation in nature.”7 In this context, this article delves into how the Olmsted firm applied the compositional principles of traditional landscape gardening to achieve the views that would become characteristic of the houses in a suburban community. It also makes the argument that these principles strongly conditioned the way the Olmsteds planned suburban neighborhoods and sited the housing within them.

In this essay, “Olmsted firm” refers to the multiple firms of the famed landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903), which he operated either alone or with various partners, as well as to the Olmsted Brothers firm, which his sons John Charles Olmsted (1852–1920) and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (1870–1957) formed after their father’s retirement. Considering the Olmsted firm as a single entity allows for a cohesive overview of the work of these affiliated designers, who dominated landscape architecture and much of urban design for nearly a century.

The question of the view from the houses in a neighborhood community preoccupied Olmsted from an early stage in his career. Specifically, it came to light in his first attempt to design a suburban community, one that was to accompany the College of Berkeley in California (today’s University of California, Berkeley). In his report, he gave a great deal of attention to what the residents could see from their homes in relation to other factors. Olmsted made references to this domestic view throughout his career. Although he did not express his concerns about the view as explicitly in his reports for other projects, the view acquired a strong symbolic meaning in his more allegorical texts. The Olmsted Brothers firm had many commissions for suburban communities, and their working documents show that the view from the house was central to their design. Various plans and letters generated by the firm also demonstrate a connection from these design principles to the ideas that the elder Olmsted established in Berkeley decades earlier. Through a consideration of the firm’s sequential history of works, this article argues that the proliferation of suburban communities in the United States, and the role the Olmsteds played in their design, brought both aesthetic and ethical changes to the view from the house.

In what was arguably his first approach to American suburbia, the neighborhood in Berkeley, Olmsted addressed the particularities of the view from dwellings in a community. This project has attracted relatively little interest, especially in comparison to Olmsted’s best-known residential community, the Riverside neighborhood outside Chicago. For both its design and its historical value, Riverside has been called “the archetypal example of the curvilinear American planned suburb.”8 Noting its geometrically precise layout and lots, its combination of private property with tree-lined streets and numerous parks, and its incorporation of community services and the infrastructure necessary to facilitate connection with the city, leading experts have asserted that Riverside “arguably codified the suburban ideal in the second half of the nineteenth century”; it has even been crowned “the greatest American suburb.”9 The Berkeley project, in contrast, is usually relegated to the background as a sort of imperfect precursor to Riverside.10 City planners as relevant as Werner Hegemann, however, saw Olmsted’s report for Berkeley as a statement of principles for the design of urban peripheries. Hegemann asserted that Olmsted left behind “a marvelously written argument for the necessity of better planning in order to make ideal homes possible.” He rightly acknowledged, however, that this “confession of principles [was] still far from being sufficiently appreciated.”11

In 1864, the board of trustees of the College of California consulted Olmsted on what to do with a newly acquired tract of land in Oakland, later called Berkeley.12 The board wanted a traditional campus, but Olmsted suggested combining the functions of a college with those of a suburban community. The resulting project was not a college with a neighborhood attached, but a college within a neighborhood. Not much information remains about Olmsted’s design, and today we have only the general plan of the complex (Figure 3). In addition, there is the report that Olmsted prepared for the trustees in 1865 and published a year later.13 The design was never realized.14

Figure 3

Olmsted, Vaux & Company, “Study for Laying Out the Berkeley Neighborhood including the Grounds of the College of California,” 1866 (Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley).

Figure 3

Olmsted, Vaux & Company, “Study for Laying Out the Berkeley Neighborhood including the Grounds of the College of California,” 1866 (Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley).

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It included tree-lined paths that meandered along two branches of a creek that bounded the campus on the northwest and southeast. Olmsted defined a dominant central area reserved for college use and a series of vacant lots for residential development. The peripheral layout of some of this empty space was very particular: its polygonal form was unlike any other that Olmsted used earlier or later in his career. His reasoning was entirely practical. With such straight cutouts in the living areas, he intended to control the dimensions of the voids and give them “such a form that it could be easily subdivided by simple lines into lots.”15 If the plan left blank the places destined for residences, Olmsted devoted most of the report to explaining how those spaces would be filled. Although he did not precisely define the layout of the streets or the various lots, he went to great lengths to describe them formally, functionally, and aesthetically. In short, the report deals with neighborhoods from a general strategy perspective. It does not explain a specific project, but rather lays out the principles that should guide the design of any suburban community.

There is no doubt that the residential space Olmsted envisioned was to some extent idealized. His purpose was to create “a neighborhood of the best form of civilized homes.” He wanted it to be populated by middle-class families with hopes of prosperity and, above all, a way of life far removed from the rowdy behavior he had seen in the American West. To that end, his design needed both “domestic attractions” and “domestic influences.”16 Olmsted aimed to exert attraction and influence through his design by creating proper infrastructure and appropriate aesthetics. In fact, he saw the two as interrelated: if infrastructure is deficient, “whatever is beautiful in the neighborhood . . . becomes in a certain degree disagreeable”; in addition, the streets had to “secure the best practicable landscape effects from the largest number of points of view.”17 The perception of the whole as beautiful and functional drove the design. As a result, contemplating the neighborhood was expected to be one of the main activities for its inhabitants: the report declared the college buildings, the streets, the promenades, and the various common parks as spaces for visual enjoyment.

By far the most important view mentioned in the report was the view from the house. From their homes, families could perceive the neighborhood and its surroundings as “a well balanced and complete landscape.”18 To this end, Olmsted adapted the visual composition of planes of depth, typical of English landscape gardening, to the suburban community:

First, the home view or immediate foreground; second, the neighborhood view or middle distance, and third, the far outlook or background. Each one of these points should be so related to each other one as to enhance its distinctive beauty, and it will be fortunate if the whole should form a symmetrical, harmonious and complete landscape composition.19

The arrangement of visual planes into foreground, middle, and background was a characteristic of Olmsted’s work.20 Here, however, in applying this organization, he also considered the houses that formed the neighborhood. It is noteworthy that his arrangement of the visual planes coincided with the manner in which he listed the components of the suburb in the report. There he spoke first of the house, noting its “domestic seclusion,” which made it “the special belonging of a family.”21 This interior space was followed by “open air apartments,” defined as a series of gardens and open rooms associated with those of the house.22 Family life itself unfolded in this combination of home and garden, which seemed very appropriate to California because of its climate. The set of interior and exterior spaces of the house had to be enveloped by what Olmsted saw as favorable surrounding circumstances, or “neighborhood advantages,” consisting of the ordered set of other houses, the spaces for social relations, and the infrastructure of services and communication.23 Behind these was the surrounding landscape, exterior to the actual neighborhood.

At Berkeley, Olmsted explained the suburban community as a place constituted by a sequence that started from the house. And it was also from the house that said sequence of spaces was visually understood. Therefore, he insisted that the visual planes had to be “distinct and unmistakable.” Residents could not look from their house to the neighborhood “without seeing a well-defined line of separation between it and the family property.” A “marked distinction of character between the two” was required to clearly differentiate the exterior from “that which is interior and essential to the home itself.”24 Equal care had to be taken with the placement of the houses, since they were the main attraction of the middle plan: “The relative position of the houses erected . . . may be such that the best view from each site will remain not only uninterrupted, but rather improved by that below it.”25

Finally, it was also necessary to clearly mark the difference between “that which constitutes the neighborhood and that which is more distant.”26 Regarding this more distant plane, Olmsted recognized the impossibility of physically altering what lay beyond the site. What was possible, however, was to select the components that were most appropriate to form a vista. In other words, one could choose, and even form, the horizon that would be seen from the house. In the end, “the result will be peculiarly home-like and grateful in contrast to the ordinary aspect of the open country of California.”27

Olmsted’s insistence on the arrangement and definition of elements seems to go somewhat beyond a preference for a type of visual composition. The space had to be organized in a certain way so that the inhabitant could see something concrete: “A neighborhood being desirable, the existence of a neighborhood should be obvious, and for this reason the scenery which marks the neighborhood should be readily distinguishable.”28 Therefore, the view had to be sufficiently eloquent, as it had a didactic purpose. From their house, the inhabitants saw their property, the land that belonged to them and where their family could put down roots. Likewise, they saw other properties that belonged to other families like theirs. They also saw the space made up by all of them, each family adding its garden and its house to the whole, fitting into the same panorama, but without merging. Different owners participated in a common reality: “a neighborhood of refined and elegant homes.”29 Ultimately, from the house, the inhabitants had a purely domestic space to contemplate, what Olmsted would later define as “the harmonious association and co-operation of men in a community,” or, more eloquently, “the beauty of homes beautiful collectively.”30

After the Berkeley report, it is difficult to find in Olmsted’s writings such a complete description of what the view from the house should be in his suburban communities. However, the view from the house was a recurring theme when he wrote of the homestead itself. Shortly before he retired, he published several plans of model homes in Garden and Forest in which the position of the house, the layout of its rooms, and its orientation were determined by what could be seen from them.31 Because in these cases he was dealing with the individual house rather than the design of an entire neighborhood, he treated the view from the home in more traditional terms, without specifying whether a group of other houses had to be seen.

In contrast, when Olmsted considered residential communities, it was quite common for him to attach an active meaning to the domestic views. What was seen from the house was not there “to form pretty pictures from the windows” but to invite the users of the house to relate to the outdoors.32 Sometimes, he even attached an allegorical meaning to the community view as an expression of civilization. For him, the ideal development of a civilized settlement began with the house. It was, in short, the basis of the domestication of the environment. The result of the process, when viewed from the house, conveyed the sense of a well-developed place with fine residents: “The whole countryside allows that the way the house and . . . roads have been fixed up is splendid and it says that these are mighty forehanded and well-to-do folks.” To Olmsted, this vista had a deeper meaning: “If there is any truer, any higher landscape gardening than this, it is yet to be shown me.”33

As for Olmsted’s neighborhoods, the ideas in the Berkeley report are reflected most strongly in a resort community in Perry Park, Colorado, that he designed in the late 1880s.34 Here, as in Berkeley, he found the landscape to be “sublime in its vastness”; at the same time, its aridity produced “an aspect, in the immediate surroundings of a dwelling, out of keeping with cheerful and refined domestic life.”35 Thus the plan had to combine narrow lanes and streets with lots where dwellings were “well back from the road . . . planted all about with trees and shrubs.”36 In this way, the contribution of each family promoted the aesthetic transformation of the landscape “for the Benefit of the community.”37

Both Perry Park and Berkeley are paradigms of Olmsted’s neighborhoods: in each, aspects of the landscape that displeased him were concealed to create a kinder, more domestic character. At times, it even seemed as if the preexisting landscape was competing with what was supposed to be a civilized settlement. In certain parts of suburban New York, for example, Olmsted found some elements to be so unpleasant that they “neutralize the attractiveness of a suburban neighborhood no matter how nice its better parts may be.”38 The Chicago outskirts were also unappealing to him, and he found several flaws in the Riverside property, most notably its flatness and prairie landscape.39 Riverside ended up having the same transformative effect as the one intended at Berkeley. It was said that a casual visitor arriving there would not think himself surrounded by the “monotony of the western Chicago Region, . . . the stranger would doubtless believe that he was in a New England village.”40

Without being as specific as in the Berkeley report, Olmsted did on occasion critique the landscape based on the potential view from the house. One example is the commission for a neighborhood in Needham, Massachusetts, where he found that “the scene, especially from an imaginary domestic point of view, is dreary and even forbidding.”41 As a general rule, he recommended to his clients a “subdivision of the land as would give the greatest possible number of house sites, each in permanent command of the most agreeable prospect.”42

Throughout his career, Olmsted seemed to adhere to the principles he expounded in the Berkeley report. For him, the neighborhood served to make visible the degree of civilization possible in the United States, and being able to see that refinement from the house was an important goal. These ideas persisted in the work of Olmsted’s sons.

After the elder Olmsted’s retirement, his sons changed the name of the firm to Olmsted Brothers in 1898, a name that remained until 1961. They greatly expanded the capacity of the studio, which was much more ambitious in their time than it had been in the past. The firm grew primarily through private commissions, most of which were for suburban communities.43

These developments generally followed spatial schemes very similar to those designed by Olmsted although the sons sometimes made variations on the original models. Occasionally, they applied European-inspired urban design principles, and, most notably, they created enclaves that incorporated civic centers inspired by the City Beautiful movement.44 Their suburban communities show a clear tendency to adopt the classical curvilinear street pattern more systematically than their father did.

The firm also showed the same interest in what could be seen from the house, such as in the floor plan of a project commissioned by Hugh D. Auchincloss around 1910. Olmsted Brothers designed a series of gardens at one of the client’s properties, Hammersmith Farm in Newport, Rhode Island, that already had a large house. This was not a suburban residence, but a substantial dwelling used primarily for occasional family retreats. Yet the project, and especially the accompanying documentation, resonates strongly with the elder Olmsted’s aesthetic ideas.

In the general plan showing the planting study, several visual rays emerge from two exterior points of the house, accompanied by sketches of the view forming an arc of 180 degrees (Figure 4). Each ray indicates the position of a specific visual element, and together the rays make it possible to draw the horizon. In general, the plan bears a striking resemblance to the graphic approaches that Loudon proposed almost a century earlier (see Figure 2).

Figure 4

Olmsted Brothers, H. D. Auchincloss Homestead, Newport, Rhode Island, 1910, detail of general plan (Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

Figure 4

Olmsted Brothers, H. D. Auchincloss Homestead, Newport, Rhode Island, 1910, detail of general plan (Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

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A fragment of this drawing expresses in full the same domestic condition the elder Olmsted sought, albeit at a different scale: from the horizon toward the house, one sees tree-lined streets, the occasional field, other houses, and a golf club, all carefully named (Figure 5). The houses are not anonymous: as indicated, they are the homes of the Huntingtons, the Hofmans, the Busks, and the Rowsons. Thanks to the strategic distribution of the Olmsted Brothers’ planting scheme, the Auchinclosses, looking out from their house, saw others like themselves in a quiet atmosphere, without aesthetic discordances in the landscape.45

Figure 5

Olmsted Brothers, H. D. Auchincloss Homestead, Newport, Rhode Island, 1910, detail of Figure 4 (processed by the author; Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

Figure 5

Olmsted Brothers, H. D. Auchincloss Homestead, Newport, Rhode Island, 1910, detail of Figure 4 (processed by the author; Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

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This document embodies the ideal of the domestic scenery: a landscape visible from the house that shares its innermost domestic qualities. Interestingly, Olmsted Brothers applied similar design principles to the more modest dwellings of a suburban community. Although no extant writings describe the method, the firm’s documents allow some reconstruction of a fairly systematic approach. In the extensive Olmsted archives, there is one project that very well expresses the rationale for such a method: Moraine Park, an undeveloped neighborhood south of Dayton, Ohio, the work on which was coordinated by Percy Reginald Jones (1860–1941). Jones was one of Olmsted Brothers’ longest-serving employees, joining the firm as a draftsman at the age of twenty-six and remaining for the rest of his career.

In Moraine Park, one of Jones’s main concerns throughout the process was “establishing the house sites,” a task that was complicated by the need to maintain the relationship between each house and its view.46 The problem required control mechanisms in addition to those of defining the layout. A particularly important document labeled “Record of Views from House Sites” consists of a grid listing successive points from which arrows emerge (Figure 6). According to this document, it was P. R. Jones himself who carefully noted what could be seen and from where. For example, in plot 77 the panoramic view is defined by the axes “N. 10º W” and “S. 30º W,” between which two other arrows indicate prominent points (Figure 7). In other cases, the views are qualified, as in plot 51, which in “S. 40º E” offers a “pretty distant view,” and plot 53, which allows in “N. 30º W” the observation of the city. In plot 54, without arrows, there are “no particular views—pretty all around.” The system also distinguishes between panoramic views, marked with arcs, and views of single elements, marked with arrows. Project decisions are incorporated in the document as well, as in plot 20: “for view, cut out a few trees.”

Figure 6

Olmsted Brothers, Moraine Park subdivision, Dayton, Ohio, 1915, “Record of Views from House Sites” (Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

Figure 6

Olmsted Brothers, Moraine Park subdivision, Dayton, Ohio, 1915, “Record of Views from House Sites” (Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

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Figure 7

Olmsted Brothers, Moraine Park subdivision, Dayton, Ohio, 1915, details of “Record of Views from House Sites” (Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

Figure 7

Olmsted Brothers, Moraine Park subdivision, Dayton, Ohio, 1915, details of “Record of Views from House Sites” (Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

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The views referred to in the document are those from the houses themselves, not the lots. This is shown by the fact that some notes distinguish between the different floors of the future house: in plot 21, for example, “from 2nd storey there will be a distant view all around horizon.” For this reason, these notes were fundamental for the final design; one piece of correspondence refers to the contents of this document as “the views noted by Mr. Jones at the various house sites and on which the orientations of the house . . . where based.”47 This type of survey of views was done “in order to have the house sites permanently established”; after a house’s survey was completed, the perimeter of the house was marked with a fence and the viewpoint was indicated “by a cross in the center of the main block.”48 Each cross had a number corresponding to a lot, and by consulting the survey the firm could determine the regulations that controlled the position of the house.

Other projects show how this “view register” was transferred to the general plan. One lot at a time, each visual ray was associated with its corresponding house (Figure 8). In this way, the studio replicated the plans of large mansions, with their rays and horizons, but in the simpler dimensions of the suburban community. Although no such plan for Moraine Park has survived in the archives, plans of this type appear in the records of countless other Olmsted Brothers neighborhoods, regardless of the decade in which they were built.

Figure 8

Olmsted Brothers, Mountain Lake Corporation, Florida, 1915, detail of section of main road (Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

Figure 8

Olmsted Brothers, Mountain Lake Corporation, Florida, 1915, detail of section of main road (Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

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In some projects, the progress of the design seems to be effectively linked to the presence of these domestic visual rays. In a preliminary study for the Suffolk Improvement Company in West Meadows, New York, it is clear that the western zone (on the left) is much more defined than the eastern zone, precisely where the houses are already accompanied by their respective arrows (Figure 9). The system used in this subdivision, in which the houses are offset so as not to block their views, must have been applied frequently to solve the problem of the layout of houses in a medium-size suburb.

Figure 9

Olmsted Brothers, Suffolk subdivision, West Meadows, New York, 1929, detail of preliminary plan (Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

Figure 9

Olmsted Brothers, Suffolk subdivision, West Meadows, New York, 1929, detail of preliminary plan (Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

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The methodical nature of this system is evidenced by the fact that it was replicated by the studio’s staff. For example, Leon Henry Zach, a designer who worked for the Olmsteds for several years, used the same system.49 In one of his community designs, we can see that three of the houses were rotated in the direction of the view, and the distant views opened up between the next two buildings (Figure 10). The houses thus formed the community middle ground of the vista, as a domestic support for the more distant landscapes.

Figure 10

Leon H. Zach, study for subdivision in Swampscott, Massachusetts, 1926 (Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

Figure 10

Leon H. Zach, study for subdivision in Swampscott, Massachusetts, 1926 (Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

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In its projects for suburban communities, the Olmsted firm sought a particular kind of view from the houses, a view that featured the ensemble of dwellings in the neighborhood. Returning to Repton’s ideas about the view from the house, we can see that he had already thought about the aesthetic pleasure of seeing people inhabit a place. Toward the end of his career, in the last chapter of his Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1816), he explained that a change in taste was taking place and that some segments of the gentry were becoming inclined to “the sight of mankind [rather than] that of herds of cattle.”50 He described his own cottage in Hare Street, Essex, as an example of capturing such a view (Figure 11). Through a garden extension operation that allowed him to control the foreground, he claimed to “have obtained a frame to my Landscape . . . beyond which are seen the cheerful village, the high road, and that constant moving scene, which I would not exchange for any of the lonely parks, that I have improved for others.”51

Figure 11

Humphry Repton, “View from my own cottage in Essex” (before and after improvements), 1816 (Humphry Repton, Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening [London: T. Bensley and Son, 1816], 232–33).

Figure 11

Humphry Repton, “View from my own cottage in Essex” (before and after improvements), 1816 (Humphry Repton, Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening [London: T. Bensley and Son, 1816], 232–33).

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The design of the view from Repton’s own home has been interpreted as part of the drift of landscape gardening toward a rural picturesqueness, a style that Repton himself applied in the village of Livermere and in Blaise Hamlet (again, together with Nash). Some scholars have suggested that it may also have influenced the garden city movement, as well as “that idyll of semi-rural life which had degenerated by the 1930s into massive suburban sprawl.”52

The inclusion of dwellings within the view from the house also appears in Loudon’s treatises. In addition to the rugged landscape, the panorama might include the mansions, suburban homes, and small cottages of other owners (see Figure 2). Olmsted was certainly influenced by these predecessors. He knew and admired Repton’s passage, referring to it as “these last sacred words of his.”53 On one occasion, he even commissioned his associate Charles Eliot to locate and photograph Repton’s cottage.54 Landscape architects who followed Olmsted also seemed to appreciate this work, as evidenced by the fact that the engraving of the view that appeared in Repton’s Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening was used as the frontispiece to a 1907 collection of Repton’s writings that was published under the auspices of the American Society of Landscape Architects.55

Downing, however, seemed to deviate from this aesthetic preference. For him, the view from the house was always a fundamental factor in design decisions, but he preferred picturesque views of the Hudson, not views of other houses.56 In particular, he was critical of the new settlements that were proliferating in the United States and encouraged measures to naturalize them almost to the extreme. He proposed the creation of a central green space to which larger lots could be attached, with their gardens visually integrated into the whole, and recommended the same kind of integration for the tree-lined streets leading out from the center and the smaller lots they connected. Downing envisioned the end result as a large communal park rather than a neighborhood. Otherwise, he argued, the owner would be better off to “go by himself,” for then “he would buy land cheaper, and have a fresh landscape of fields and hills around him, instead of houses on all sides.”57 This is consistent with Archer’s assertion that for much of the nineteenth century, suburban neighborhoods attempted to replicate the sense of retreat that had been characteristic of the suburban villa for centuries.58

A little more than fifteen years after the publication of Downing’s words, Olmsted began to deal professionally with the problem of the American neighborhood. It is true that the spatial structure of many neighborhoods by Olmsted corresponded to what Downing had envisioned. But Olmsted’s determination to make the neighborhood visible from the houses without naturalistic camouflage was more in keeping with Repton’s aesthetic tastes. In fact, Olmsted went further: he saw the neighborhood as a kind of scenery in itself, scenery that should be readily distinguishable from the house.

This was the fundamental difference between Olmsted’s approach and those of the landscape designers who preceded him. It was not simply that he had a preference for the rustic—he was creating a new aesthetic category. His insistence in the Berkeley report on “domestic influences” and “domestic attractions” resonates with what he would define later in his career as the “scenery of a . . . domestic order,” a type of landscape in which an aesthetic aspect, “domestic beauty,” is derived from a functional one, the “domestic occupation.”59 Hence, when he asserted that “the essential qualification of a suburb is domesticity,” he understood the term in its broadest sense.60 By arranging the view from the house in such a way as to make the existence of the neighborhood evident, he made the condition of domesticity evident.

This is closely related to some scholarly interpretations of the College of Berkeley. Charles Beveridge sees the placement of the houses as a way of camouflaging the semiarid regions of the American West.61 In his view, Olmsted created a kind of communal trompe l’oeil, where the sum of individual gardens could simulate the greenery more typical of New England. In addition, the houses collectively reinforced the idea of inhabiting a domesticated place in an environment that was unlikely to be settled. And this factor seems almost more important when one considers that in the more humid parts of the eastern United States, he also envisioned his neighborhoods as mechanisms for concealing landscapes that he disliked.

In this case, one can compare Olmsted’s thoughts on the view from the house with how he conceived the views of his parks. Some authors have explained that in Central Park and Prospect Park, his desire was to show the civilized conduct of the people who gathered there. Olmsted believed that the democratic meaning behind the parks’ vistas could instill civilization in the viewer, an idea that was in keeping with the thinking of his time.62 In an Olmsted neighborhood, residents saw from their houses what he defined as “an unbroken community of people of not excessively uncongenial tastes purposes and modes of life; a community likely therefore to be measurably united.”63 They could thus be influenced by what was before their eyes, a reflection of the best that the country’s capitalist democracy could offer: a strong association of equals living in prosperity in the midst of an apparently domesticated nature, but in touch with urban advantages.

The Olmsted Brothers archives show several things in this regard. An important thread of intergenerational continuity runs through the various members of the firm. The innovative approach to house siting that Olmsted initiated in his unrealized Berkeley project was further developed by his sons decades later. They placed as much or even more emphasis on the views from the houses in a neighborhood and developed documents and methods to reproduce Olmsted’s visual structure. Although some authors have appreciated the occasional appearance of the same visual plans in some Olmsted Brothers communities, here we see how they sought and achieved the views in a systematic way.64

The topographic study was fundamental to the location of the houses. They were first translated into viewpoints, which in turn were treated as coordinates. Each viewshed from each house determined the distance between neighboring houses. These could not hide the surrounding landscape but could serve as the foreground. The plans produced by the studio show a very precise measuring technique using points of location, directions of view, and angles of view. This reinforces Jon Peterson’s reading of the Olmsted firm. He describes the elder Olmsted as “the visionary” of a historical moment that needed imaginative reformers, and his son Frederick Jr. as “the professional” of an era that sought to standardize practices, procedures, and regulations.65 In the specific case of the College of Berkeley, Olmsted imagined how to achieve a particular kind of view and gave it allegorical meaning, and Olmsted Brothers went on to devise technical mechanisms that enabled the firm to accomplish such views in almost any suburban community.

In the desire to produce a type of view from the house, Olmsted Brothers was responding to a set of social demands that differed from those faced by their father. Normally, the neighborhoods the firm built in the first decades of the twentieth century were aimed at wealthy families, elites who sought, above all, to represent and maintain their status. The promotional materials for some Olmsted Brothers communities seem to hint at these new meanings. Notably, they do so by showing both the houses and their views. For example, a brochure for the Glen Arden community, a high-end development in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, features a plan of one of the houses in which a series of lines run outward from the back deck, indicating the views from that vantage point, a panorama that includes the valley and the golf course as well as other homes (Figure 12). The brochure’s text emphasizes the ability to see from the house “the irregular roof lines of the charming new home of Mr. and Mrs. Wallace.”66 It goes on to insist that “in all human probability the views seen from the rear terrace will be perpetual.”67

Figure 12

Olmsted Brothers (landscape architects) and M. H. Westhoff (architect), colonial house in Glen Arden, Longmeadow, Massachusetts, illustration in undated advertising brochure (Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

Figure 12

Olmsted Brothers (landscape architects) and M. H. Westhoff (architect), colonial house in Glen Arden, Longmeadow, Massachusetts, illustration in undated advertising brochure (Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

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In an advertisement for Palos Verdes Estates in California, another high-end community and probably the firm’s best known today, we see the Crossmans (Figure 13). The view of their residence follows a precise structure: in the foreground, their house and garden; in the middle, the neighborhood; and finally, in the background, the sea and the horizon line. The view of the Pacific Ocean, the same one Olmsted had mentioned in the Berkeley report decades earlier, includes a ship with a smoking funnel, a technological echo of the automobile in the foreground. This was the kind of view heralded as one of “unquestioned permanency.”68

Figure 13

Olmsted Brothers, Palos Verdes Estates, Los Angeles County, 1923, publicity pamphlet, detail (Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

Figure 13

Olmsted Brothers, Palos Verdes Estates, Los Angeles County, 1923, publicity pamphlet, detail (Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service).

Close modal

Palos Verdes Estates has often been recognized as a paradigmatic example of the regulation that accompanied Olmsted Brothers neighborhoods. Among other control methods, these neighborhoods incorporated rules that prevented certain types of construction and limited both the class and ethnicity of future residents.69 It may seem, then, that the social meaning of the view was no longer so much oriented toward the domestication of a landscape. Rather, it emphasized the idea of the neighborhood as a mechanism for maintaining a way of life. Now, the collectivity of houses was beautiful because it represented the joint status of the community, but also because it ensured the imposition of regulations that allowed its preservation.

1.

John Archer, Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream House, 1690–2000 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 45–92.

2.

John MacArthur, “Luscombe House (1799),” in Companions to the History of Architecture, vol. 2, Eighteenth-Century Architecture, ed. Caroline van Eck and Sigrid de Jong (Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017), 801.

3.

Humphry Repton, An Enquiry into the Changes of Taste in Landscape Gardening: To Which Are Added, Some Observations on Its Theory and Practice, Including a Defence of the Art (London: J. Taylor, 1806), 81.

4.

John Claudius Loudon, The Suburban Gardener, and Villa Companion (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1838).

5.

Andrew Jackson Downing, Cottage Residences; Or, A Series of Designs for Rural Cottages and Cottage Villas, and Their Gardens and Grounds, Adapted to North America (London: Wiley and Putnam, 1842), 98.

6.

See John Archer, “Country and City in the American Romantic Suburb,” JSAH 42, no. 2 (May 1983), 139–56; Robert A. M. Stern, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove, Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City (New York: Monacelli Press, 2013).

7.

Archer, Architecture and Suburbia, 215.

8.

David L. Ames and Linda Flint McClelland, Historic Residential Suburbs: Guidelines for Evaluation and Documentation for the National Register of Historic Places (Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Register of Historic Places, 2002), 39.

9.

David Schuyler, “Riverside: The First Comprehensively Designed Suburban Community in the United States,” in Iconic Planned Communities and the Challenge of Change, ed. Mary Corbin Sies, Isabelle Gournay, and Robert Freestone (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 42; Walter L. Creese, The Crowning of the American Landscape: Eight Great Spaces and Their Buildings (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985), 219.

10.

This is not to say that Olmsted scholars have not researched the Berkeley project. For example, Charles Beveridge frames it as an attempt by Olmsted to transfer the pastoral aesthetic beyond New England. Charles E. Beveridge, “Regionalism in Frederick Law Olmsted’s Social Thought and Landscape Design Practice,” in Regional Garden Design, ed. Therese O’Malley and Marc Treib (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1995). Another interpretation of the significance of the Berkeley report is that it anticipated certain solutions that Olmsted employed throughout the rest of his career, such as the parkways with which he intended to connect the community and the city; it also may have influenced the way he approached his work on other campuses. See Victoria Post Ranney, “Introduction,” in The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, vol. 5, The California Frontier 1863–1865, ed. Victoria Post Ranney (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 1–40.

11.

Werner Hegemann, Report on a City Plan for the Municipalities of Oakland and Berkeley (Oakland, Calif.: Kelley-Davis, 1915), 105.

12.

Between September 1863 and the end of 1865, Olmsted lived in California and engaged in several professions. During this period, he produced a considerable number of landscape architecture reports and designs, most of them unrealized. Apart from some private gardens, he produced the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, a report for the management of the Yosemite Reservation, and another report for a system of parks in San Francisco. See Witold Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Scribner, 1999).

13.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Report upon a Projected Improvement of the Estate of the College of California, at Berkeley, near Oakland (San Francisco: Towne and Bacon, 1866). By the time the report was published, Olmsted had returned to work with Calvert Vaux. That explains why the title page states that the authors are “Olmsted, Vaux & Co. Landscape Architects.” On the inside, however, the report is signed by Olmsted alone.

14.

When Olmsted received the commission, the college was seen as a modest institution with a small number of buildings. The vicissitudes of the institution caused it to transfer its assets to the new University of California. A more ambitious plan made the campus-neighborhood unfeasible. William Hammond Hall (1846–1934), Olmsted’s partial collaborator in the project, was the one who eventually drew up a new plan. This was not carried out in its entirety either, and a succession of proposals resulted in the current UC Berkeley campus. See Kent E. Watson, “William Hammond Hall and the Original Campus Plan,” in The University in the 1870s, by Kent E. Watson and Peter Van Houten (Berkeley: Center for Studies in Higher Education and Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, 1996), 41–48.

15.

Olmsted, Report upon a Projected Improvement, 19.

16.

Olmsted, 23, 7.

17.

Olmsted, 11, 17.

18.

Olmsted, 12.

19.

Olmsted, 13.

20.

See Charles E. Beveridge, “Frederick Law Olmsted’s Theory on Landscape Design,” Nineteenth Century: The Magazine of the Victorian Society in America 20, no. 2 (2000), 32–37.

21.

Olmsted, Report upon a Projected Improvement, 12.

22.

Olmsted, 7.

23.

Olmsted, 10. The reference here to favorable surrounding circumstances is a paraphrase of Olmsted’s passage “if the site be well chosen, and the surrounding circumstances are favorable”.

24.

Olmsted, 12.

25.

Olmsted, 19.

26.

Olmsted, 13.

27.

Olmsted, 17.

28.

Olmsted, 13.

29.

Olmsted, 23.

30.

Olmsted, 27. The latter quotation comes from Frederick Law Olmsted, “Scenery, Society and Gardening,” typescript, undated, n.p., Speeches and Writings File, 1839–1903, Frederick Law Olmsted Papers, Library of Congress.

31.

See Frederick Law Olmsted, “Plan for a Small Homestead,” Garden and Forest 1 (May 1888), 111–13; Frederick Law Olmsted, “Plans for Small Places,” Garden and Forest 3 (May 1890), 259–61; Frederick Law Olmsted, “Plan for a Small Town Place,” Garden and Forest 3 (Sept. 1890), 450–51.

32.

Frederick Law Olmsted, “Suburban Home Grounds,” The Nation, 26 Oct. 1871, 277.

33.

Frederick Law Olmsted, “Two Examples of Landscape Work,” typescript, undated, 2, Speeches and Writings File, 1839–1903, Frederick Law Olmsted Papers, Library of Congress.

34.

The community is also known as the “Village in Lake Wauconda,” named for the lake created by investors in 1888. Nowadays, the lake and surrounding area are part of the Perry Park Country Club.

35.

Frederick Law Olmsted, “Lake Wauconda: The Design,” ca. 1890, 1, Subject File, 1857–1952: Community Design, Perry Park, Colo., 1889–1894, Frederick Law Olmsted Papers, Library of Congress.

36.

Olmsted, 2. In the original, the word “all” in this quotation is crossed out in pencil.

37.

Olmsted, 2.

38.

Frederick Law Olmsted, “Letter to Bronson Case Rumsey, November 1884,” in Frederick Law Olmsted: Writings on Landscape, Culture, and Society, ed. Charles Beveridge (New York: Library of America, 2015), e-book, loc. 10528/14460.

39.

See, for example, Frederick Law Olmsted, “Letter to Mary Perkins Olmsted, August 23, 1868,” in The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, vol. 6, The Years of Olmsted, Vaux & Company, 1865–1874, ed. Charles Capen McLaughlin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 266–67.

40.

Howard K. Menhinick, “Riverside Sixty Years Later,” Landscape Architecture 22, no. 2 (1932), 109.

41.

Frederick Law Olmsted, “Report to John & Blatchford Esq., Boston,” 3 Oct. 1870, 2, Subject File, 1857–1952: Community Design, Needham, Mass., 1870, Frederick Law Olmsted Papers, Library of Congress.

42.

Olmsted, Vaux & Co., memorandum, 24 Oct. 1871, 2, Subject File, 1857–1952: Community Design, Irvington, N.Y., 1871, Frederick Law Olmsted Papers, Library of Congress.

43.

Lucy Lawliss, Caroline Loughlin, and Lauren Meier, eds., The Master List of Design Projects of the Olmsted Firm, 1857–1979 (Washington, D.C.: National Association for Olmsted Parks, 2008).

44.

See, for example, Susan L. Klaus, A Modern Arcadia: Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and the Plan for Forest Hills Gardens (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002). See also Fukuo Akimoto, “California Garden Suburbs: St. Francis Wood and Palos Verdes Estates,” Journal of Urban Design 12, no. 1 (Feb. 2007), 43–72.

45.

It is not surprising that a letter added to the plan stated that “Mr. and Mrs. Auchincloss are both very much pleased with the outlook now across the lawn and pasture.” H. H. Blossom, “H. D. Auchincloss, Report by,” 26 May 1910, 1, #3794, Job Files, 1863–1971, Olmsted Associates Records, Library of Congress.

46.

Percy Reginald Jones to Charlton D. Putnam, 17 June 1915, 2, #6180, Job Files, 1863–1971, Olmsted Associates Records, Library of Congress.

47.

Percy Reginald Jones (?) or John Charles Olmsted (?) to E. A. Deeds, 7 Feb. 1916, 3, #6180, Job Files, 1863–1971, Olmsted Associates Records, Library of Congress.

48.

Percy Reginald Jones to E. A. Deeds, 2 Oct. 1916, 1, #6180, Job Files, 1863–1971, Olmsted Associates Records, Library of Congress.

49.

An employee and later a partner in Olmsted Brothers, Zach also worked as a landscape designer for the U.S. Army.

50.

Humphry Repton, Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (London: T. Bensley and Son, 1816), 234.

51.

Repton, 235.

52.

George Carter, “Humphry Repton at Hare Street, Essex,” Garden History 12, no. 2 (1984), 121.

53.

Frederick Law Olmsted, “Letter to Thomas Worthington Whittredge, 1882,” in The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, vol. 8, The Early Boston Years, 1882–1890, ed. Charles Beveridge, Ethan Carr, Amanda Gagel, and Michael Shapiro (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 138.

54.

Percival Gallagher, “Repton’s Cottage,” Landscape Architecture Magazine 8, no. 4 (July 1918), 184–85.

55.

Humphry Repton, The Art of Landscape Gardening, ed. John Nolen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, with the cooperation of the American Society of Landscape Architects, 1907).

56.

Downing, Cottage Residences.

57.

Andrew Jackson Downing, “Our Country Villages,” Horticulturalist 4, no. 12 (June 1850), 539–40.

58.

Archer, Architecture and Suburbia, 203–48. On the dimensions of the concept of retirement in the suburban villa, see Archer, 147–68.

59.

Frederick Law Olmsted, “Letter to Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, June 18, 1893,” in Beveridge, Frederick Law Olmsted, loc. 12186/14460; Olmsted, Report upon a Projected Improvement, 13.

60.

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Preliminary Report upon the Proposed Suburban Village at Riverside, near Chicago (New York: Sutton, Browne, 1868), 26.

61.

Beveridge, “Regionalism in Frederick Law Olmsted’s Social Thought.” See also Charles E. Beveridge, “Introduction to the Landscape Design Reports: The California Origins of Olmsted’s Landscape Design Principles for the Semiarid American West,” in Ranney, The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, vol. 5, 449–73.

62.

See Scott Roulier, “Frederick Law Olmsted: Democracy by Design,” New England Journal of Political Science 4, no. 2 (2010), 311–43. See also Jason Kosnoski, “Democratic Vistas: Frederick Law Olmsted’s Parks as Spatial Mediation of Urban Diversity,” Space and Culture 14, no. 1 (2011), 51–66.

63.

Olmsted, “Letter to Bronson Case Rumsey,” loc. 10549/14460.

64.

See, for example, Larry McCann, “Uplands: A Residential Park in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada,” in Sies et al., Iconic Planned Communities, 88–110.

65.

Jon A. Peterson, “Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.: The Visionary and the Professional,” in Planning the Twentieth-Century American City, ed. Mary Corbin Sies and Christopher Silver (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 37–54.

66.

Glen Arden advertising brochure, undated, 1, art. no. 07798-03, Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service.

67.

Glen Arden advertising brochure, 6.

68.

Palos Verdes Project, “Advertisement Scrapbook January 1925–May 1926,” 274, Palos Verdes Library District, Rolling Hills, California.

69.

Robert M. Fogelson, Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia, 1870–1930 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005).