Balancing Adaptation and Legacy: How the Washington National Cathedral is Protecting its Olmsted Woods in the Era of Climate Change


In this presentation, participants will learn about Olmsted’s role in the development of the National Cathedral grounds and recent efforts to ensure that this historic landscape can respond to the pressures of climate change in a way that guarantees longevity and honors the intent of Olmsted’s original design.

In 1898, the lush, wooded hilltop site of the Washington National Cathedral was chosen with the intent of providing visitors with an escape from the bustle of urban life in order to connect with their faith. To achieve this, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. was hired to develop a master plan for the Cathedral’s 59-acre grounds, and he remained involved with the site for the following thirty years. Olmsted imagined the woods as an integral part of the Cathedral experience where “the great sweeping branches of the trees seem to brush off, as it were, the dust of the city, so that one at last reaches the Cathedral cleansed in mind and in spirit….The Cathedral will crown a densely wooded hill, standing tree embowered at the summit of easy and graceful slopes, it will rise heavenward out of and above nature’s strength and beauty.”

From the beginning of the planning process, Olmsted was sensitive to the threat of surrounding uses that could negatively impact the Olmsted Woods experience. One hundred years later, the threats of a rapidly changing climate and increased runoff from impervious areas surrounding the site have become a reality. The All Hallows Guild, a nonprofit organization which has stewarded the woods for over a century, has been working diligently to protect the natural beauty of Olmsted’s vision while improving access and responding to increased urban development in the surrounding area.

Through a long-term partnership with the Guild, Andropogon has helped to design and implement numerous restoration projects within the historic property, taking a phased approach to the realization of their 1997 master plan. The interdisciplinary team developed solutions to prevent further degradation of the forest and stream ecosystems by treating stormwater before and after it enters the woods and formalizing the ‘Pilgrim’s Path’, which provides access to the main building from the south, in keeping with Olmsted’s original vision.

In 2018, in connection with its Integrative Research practice, Andropogon completed an assessment of the Olmsted Woods in order to understand how the interventions completed from 1998 through 2008 were performing and what improvements could be made to ensure the continued protection of the woods. As part of this process, the Guild and Andropogon are now working with Morris Arboretum to document, mitigate, and understand the causes of the sudden loss of many large oak trees on the site. This work is part of a broader regional effort to study the impacts of the large-scale loss of oak trees within many Olmsted-designed sites in the Washington DC area.

Future efforts will include a large-scale planning study to understand the impacts of maintenance activities, which have expanded in scope over recent years, on the forest and stream ecosystems of Olmsted Woods.

Presenter Biography

Martha Eberle is a landscape architect with Andropogon Associates who works with both public and private sector clients to develop creative design solutions rooted in ecology and community. She has worked on award-winning projects throughout the United States and beyond, ranging from large-scale coastal resiliency and brownfield restoration efforts to small-scale urban interventions tailored to community character. In addition to her experience as a landscape architect, Martha also draws from past positions as an anthropological researcher, horticulturalist, and public servant working to help neighborhoods and small towns develop meaningful cultural spaces. She received her Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture from NC State University.

Scott Todd is a licensed professional landscape architect, registered in PA since 1990. He has worked across a wide variety of sectors and has extensive experience applying geospatial technologies to landscape architecture, facilities management, global health and non-profit consulting in general. Scott earned a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture degree from Utah State University (1986) and a Master of Arts in Geography & Urban Studies from Temple University (1996). He has planned, designed and managed many land development projects in the Philadelphia region, and has provided Geographic Information Systems (GIS) training and implementation consulting to local, State and Federal agencies and other clients. His primary focus with Urban Forestry is to provide technical assistance in CAD and GIS technologies for university, arboretum and other consulting programs and projects.

Part of a series of articles titled Olmsteds: Landscapes and Legacies.

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Last updated: December 21, 2022