‘The Olm­sted Legacy’ takes edge off win­ter, but tells a tragic story

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS&STYLE - BY EMILY YAHR yahre@wash­

A doc­u­men­tary looks at the fa­ther of Amer­i­can ur­ban parks.

As the hol­i­days end, Christ­mas lights­dark­e­nandthe city set­tles in for the frigid win­ter months, an in­con­spic­u­ous and in­trigu­ing doc­u­men­tary makes its tele­vi­sion de­but and re­minds us of the sim­ple joy of sit­ting out­side in the sun­shine.

Never mind that just step­ping out­doors will be fairly in­tol­er­a­ble for many weeks. It’s still pos­si­ble to ap­pre­ci­ate “ The Olm­sted Legacy: Amer­ica’sUrban Parks,” which ex­plores the life and phi­los­o­phy of land­scape ar­chi­tect Fred­er­ick LawOlm­sted. The pre­miere airs at 8 p.m. Sun­day on Washington pub­lic tele­vi­sion sta­tion WHUT (Chan­nel 32).

The hour-long film, writ­ten and co-pro­duced by writer and first­time filmmaker Re­bec­ca­Mess­ner, and screened around the coun­try, ex­pertly weaves facts about Olm­sted’s (frankly, de­press­ing) per­sonal life in with a time­line of how he used his tragedies and ec­cen­tric­i­ties to be­came an in­flu­en­tial fig­ure in Amer­i­can his­tory.

Known as one of the in­ven­tors of land­scape ar­chi­tec­ture and a le­gendary ur­ban plan­ner from the 19th cen­tury, Olm­sted is most fa­mous for help­ing de­sign and cre­ate Man­hat­tan’s Cen­tral Park, cited many times in the film as the crown jewel of Amer­ica’s ur­ban parks, along with hun­dreds of other parks, aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions and pub­lic and pri­vate build­ings across the coun­try.

His ac­com­plish­ments in­clude fa­mous sites in the District. Credit Olm­sted for the aes­thet­ics of Rock Creek Park, the Na­tional Zoo, Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity and Gal­laudet Uni­ver­sity. The doc­u­men­tary, how­ever, doesn’t spend much time on his projects in the nation’s cap­i­tal, squeez­ing a fewsen­tences be­tween longer seg­ments about his de­signs in Bos­to­nandChicago.

The film does note that one of Olm­sted’s most rec­og­nized works is the grounds of the Capi­tol, for which­h­e­sub­mit­tedade­sign in the mid-1870s. “Olm­sted found a way of sub­or­di­nat­ing his land­scape to the ar­chi­tec­ture,” the nar­ra­tor says.

Olm­sted’s phi­los­o­phy on parks — sim­ply put, that they should be glo­ri­ous, wide-open spa­ces where any­one, rich or poor, can es­cape the stress of ev­ery­day life— can be traced back to his child­hood. Born inHart­ford, Conn., in 1822, he had few mem­o­ries of his mother, who died when he was young; one of them in­cluded her sewing un­der a tree while­he­p­layed nearby. Idyl­lic mem­o­ries of na­ture shaped the rest of his life, as he traded in aca­demics to gal­li­vant around the world and bask in the great out­doors.

“At the time my school­mates were en­ter­ing col­lege I was ... given over to a de­cently re­strained vagabond life,” Olm­sted says, his soft-spo­ken words voiced by Kev­inK­line. Olm­sted’s ad­ven­tures, in­clud­ing a stint as a deck­hand on a boat to China that nearly killed him, helped him iden­tify with the com­mon­man. He re­al­ized that the beau­ti­ful green land­scapes of pub­lic parks could up­lift even the poor­est cit­i­zens, most trapped in ex­tremely un­san­i­tary con­di­tions in cities.

“Whathe stress­esabout­park­sis that you got away from the city to re­ceive the psy­cho­log­i­cal calm that you needed,” says Sara Cedar Miller of the Cen­tral Park Con­ser­vancy, one of the many his­to­ri­ans called in for the project. “ That ‘mental re­fresh­ment’ is what he called it, and that’s what he was re­ally search­ing for and as­sumed ev­ery­body else was search­ing for.”

Mess­ner wisely taps into a very re­lat­ablepartofOlm­sted’s per­son­al­ity: be­ing a worka­holic. As more sad­ness struck — ill­ness, in­jury, the death of his brother and the loss of a new­born son to cholera— Olm­sted made his ca­reer his only pas­sion.

“He was trou­bled. He had a sad life,” Miller says. “He un­der­stood and needed the calm and the quiet and the peace­ful­ness.”

Sadly, the film’s nar­ra­tor ex­plains, as Olm­sted tried to bring a sense of peace to oth­ers with his projects, it was his in­ten­sity about work that led to his de­te­ri­o­rat­ing health. As he suf­fered from in­som­nia, fa­tigue and headaches, doc­tors could only con­clude that he worked him­self sick. He died in 1903 at 81, af­ter be­ing placed in a hos­pi­tal in Mas­sachusetts that he had helped de­sign (and be­com­ing in­fu­ri­ated when he found out they hadn’t stuck to his plan for the grounds).

Smoothly nar­rated by Kerry Washington, the film fo­cuses main­ly­on­the yearsOlm­st­ed­spent cre­at­ing the land­scape of Cen­tral Park, along with his de­sign part­ner Calvert Vaux, and their work on Prospect Park in Brook­lyn. Thrown in are the fun facts typ­i­cal of doc­u­men­taries: Be­fore parks, peo­ple had pic­nics in ceme­ter­ies; in to­day’s money, the Cen­tral Park pro­jec­ta­tone­point­was$6mil­lion over bud­get; a col­league of Olm­sted’s ac­cused him of break­fast­ing on strong cof­fee and pick­les.

But it’s the idea of calm and quiet, and ev­ery­one’s se­cret urge tothrowthe Black­Berry into a lake and play in the park all day, that moves the film along when the myr­iad his­tor­i­cal fact­sands­ketches of land­scapes start to blend to­gether. The shots of peo­ple on bikes, walk­ing dogs, rest­ing on pic­nic blan­kets and read­ing books are de­light­ful, and they re­mind us that that type of peace­ful­ness and spring­time warmth are just around the corner.


UR­BAN OA­SIS: Many see Cen­tral Park as the jewel of Fred­er­ick Law Olm­sted’s ac­com­plish­ments.


THE AR­CHI­TECT: Olm­sted also de­signed the grounds of the Capi­tol and Rock Creek Park.

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