Thursday, June 22, 2017

Frederick Law Olmsted and Hudson

At the end of May, a professor of American studies at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, contacted Historic Hudson seeking information about Hudson architect Michael O'Connor. (F&M's first library was designed by O'Connor, but more about that at a later date.) The inquiry was referred to me, which put the professor and me in touch.

Earlier this week, the professor contacted me to ask about a reference to Hudson found in an "Open Letter" written by Frederick Law Olmsted, which appeared in the magazine Century Illustrated for October 1886. In the letter, which has the title "A Healthy Change in the Tone of the Human Heart (Suggestions to Cities)," Olmsted argues the importance to cities of preserving "the grandeur, picturesqueness, and poetic charm" of the natural landscape. In particular, Olmsted celebrates a view that includes water.
No matter what is beyond, an expanse of water . . . can never fail to have a refreshing counter interest to the inner parts of a city; it supplies a tonic change at times even from the finest churches, libraries, picture galleries, conservatories, gardens, soldiers' monuments, parks, and landward outskirts. What is easier than to provide a grateful convenience for such refreshment? Yet if one wants it at Troy, Albany, Newburgh, Springfield, Hartford, Middletown, New London, Trenton, Norfolk, Louisville, St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg, what is offered? What was lost for Brooklyn when the brow of its heights was wholly given up to paved streets and private occupation!
He speaks specifically and at some length about Buffalo, where in 1868 he and Calvert Vaux designed an entire park system. 
Years ago a traveler arriving in Buffalo asked in vain where he could go to look out on the lake. "The lake?" he would be answered in the spirit of the middle ages; "nobody here wants to look at the lake; we hate the lake." And he might find that two large public squares had been laid out, furnished and planted, leaving a block between them and the edge of the bluff to be so built over as to shut off all view from the squares toward the lake and toward sunset. But lately land has been bought and prepared, and is much resorted to, expressly for the enjoyment of this view. This new public property also commands a river effect such as can be seen, I believe, nowhere else,--a certain quivering of the surface and a rare tone of color, the result of the crowding upward of the lake waters as they enter the deep portal of the Niagara. Is the regard paid to these elements of natural scenery by the city less an evidence of growing civilization than is given in the granite statues on its court-house or in its soldiers' monument?
It is in this context that Hudson is mentioned, to support Olmsted's assertion that "A small space . . . may serve to present a choice refreshment to a city, provided the circumstances are favorable for an extended outlook upon natural elements of scenery." This is what he says of Hudson:
Another illustration of the fact may be found in a queer little half-public place, half-domestic back-yard, from which the river may be overlooked if any one cares for it, at Hudson, New York.
[Interestingly, Henry James in The American Scene (1907) also used the adjective queer to describe Hudson: "It was the queer old complexion of the long straight street, however, that most came home to me: Hudson, in the afternoon quiet, seemed to stretch back, with fumbling friendly hand, to the earliest outlook of my consciousness."]

Of course, the "queer little half-public place, half-domestic back-yard" Olmsted speaks of is none other than Promenade Hill, designated as a public space by the Proprietors, according to the National Register of Historic Places, on October 14, 1785. In 1886, when Olmsted spoke of it, Promenade Hill was surrounded by houses. This is illustrated by the map below, which shows the 1970 National Register Front Street-Parade Hill-Lower Warren Street Historic District before Urban Renewal laid waste to much of it a few years later.


1 comment:

  1. So, the question now is, Do we lay waste to this space again or do we try to recreate the "queer little half-public place, half-domestic back-yard" that once was? And how do we decide?