Raising a toast — and not a little money — to Olmsted, a century-plus later

Cherokee Park visitors at Hogan’s Fountain in 1920.

Frederick Law Olmsted died 113 years ago this August, so we can only imagine what he’d think of the emerald necklace of parks and parkways his famous New York firm designed for Louisville. Olmsted visited the city in 1891 at the invitation of prominent citizens with newly acquired land reserved for parks; he was 69 years old, and well into a second career (first one: newspaper reporter).

Louisville was flexing its big-city muscles at a time of huge population growth. The Southern Exposition of 1883-87 in what is now Old Louisville had shined a spotlight on the city — an electric one, in fact. One of the exposition’s top draws was the largest to-date installation of Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulbs, to illuminate the exposition at night. (Edison had lived in Louisville 16 years before.) By Olmsted’s arrival, the city had 161,129 residents, a 60% increase in just the two decades after the Civil War.

The parks project ultimately grew to 18 parks and six parkways, public green space that links Louisville to one of Olmsted’s most famous works: Central Park in New York. (And, indeed, we have our own Olmsted-designed Central Park, in Old Louisville.) Much of the work was certainly executed by Olmsted’s firm, rather than the man himself. Tragically, just four years after he visited Louisville, senility forced Olmsted to retire. He died  in 1903 at McLean Hospital in suburban Boston, originally an asylum for the insane.

This morning, we heard Olmsted’s history retold when several hundred people crowded into an auditorium on the Bellarmine campus for the Olmsted Park Conservancy‘s annual fundraising breakfast. Mimi Zinniel, the group’s CEO, runs a tight ship: The event’s notice promised Heine Bros. coffee and a chance to network from 7:30 until 8, when the program would start promptly, concluding by 9. This made sense, because most of the attendees would soon be on their way to work. Nearing 8, the din of so many people talking at once was amplified by the cavernous space, which looked like a basketball court, minus hoops, but with dozens of linen-topped round tables. On the menu: yogurt parfait with granola and fresh blueberries, and quiche Lorraine.

The speakers’ remarks were mercifully short and to the point, with videos adding entertaining pizzazz; one featured children and parents proclaiming which parks were their favorite. But the video drawing the most cheers came midway through. It starred retiring Metro Council member Tom Owen, whose district includes one of the biggest and best-known: Cherokee Park in the Highlands. Owen’s just-elected successor, Brandon Coan, wore a cream-colored suit and greeted well-wishers. Boulevard complimented him on his campaign’s financial efficiency — spending just $18 per vote vs. the $63 spent by the No. 2 finisher, Stephen Riley. Coan protested, but only mildly: “Actually, I think it was closer to $13.”

Frederick Law Olmsted

Squint your eyes a bit — well, a lot — and Owen bears a passing resemblance to Olmsted. Some of that’s the white beard, and age: Owen is now 76. Like Olmsted, he’s all about the outdoors, famously getting about the city on bicycle in a fluorescent-green safety vest. And that’s how he appeared in the video: touring the Olmsted parks as he told their history (history-telling being his other job, after all). Concluding his tour, Owen didn’t miss a chance to plug one of the fundraiser’s main sponsors.

“Now,” he said, “I’m going to pedal off and get a special cup of Heine Bros. coffee.” Cue applause.

Photo, top: Girls pose for a picture in a Winton Six automobile in front of Hogan’s Fountain at Cherokee Park, 1920; the University of Louisville photography archives.

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