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Presenting Nature








Design Ethic Origins

Design Policy & Process

Western Field Office

Park Planning

Decade of Expansion

State Parks

Appendix A

Appendix B


Presenting Nature:
The Historic Landscape Design of the National Park Service, 1916-1942
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The future of the national parks depends on the action of thoughtful men all over the country, who will help to bring the American people to realize what national parks really are, and how they ought to be developed as great pleasure grounds, as great scenic reserves, and as holding inviolate the notabilities of nature.... I shall hope that this sort of education.., will lead to the establishment of a national park service, with its skilled and permanent force, with its civil and not military guards and rangers, with its engineers and advisers, so that these parks cannot be made.., the victims of an incidental political change.

— J. Horace McFarland to the American Society of Landscape Architects, 1916

The 1916 act creating the National Park Service charged the new bureau with promoting and regulating the use of national parks in ways that would conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and... provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

The act's wording has been attributed to Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., a preeminent landscape architect and the son of the Olmsted who had written an important report on Yosemite half a century earlier. The involvement of the Olmsteds in park conservation is indicative of the advocacy of the landscape architecture profession for the preservation of natural areas of national importance. In the 1910s, as concern over the uses and management of national parks increased, landscape architects called for the organization of a government agency to establish a policy and process for park development. [1]

Beginning in the early twentieth century, the American Civic Association (ACA) and the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) were influential advocates for national parks. In a letter to the ASLA, J. Horace McFarland, president of the ACA and the leader of the movement to establish a bureau to administer the national parks, called upon the profession of landscape architects to educate the public. Professional standards, not politics, in McFarland's opinion, should determine the future of the parks.

In February 1916, the ASLA held a conference devoted to the subject of "Our National Parks" and the bills pending before Congress to create a national park service. The ACA, with the cooperation of members of the ASLA, had drawn up the bill (H.R. 8668) introduced in the House of Representatives by William Kent of California on January 11, 1916. At its February conference, the ASLA resolved to support the bill and pledged to cooperate with the new agency in any way possible, consistent with the recognized ethics of the profession. This conference promoted the stewardship of the landscape architecture profession for national parks and the preeminence of a landscape preservation ethic in the development of natural areas of outstanding value. [2]

The society recommended the formation of an advisory board composed of landscape architects and an engineer, whose services could be called for whenever landscape questions in existing parks or proposals for new parks were considered. Although this measure was dropped from the bill, conference speaker Richard Watrous predicted that the profession would have a continuing role: "I have no doubt they will call on you frequently for such advice. Planning for the proper treatment of the parks is no small undertaking. in respect to its scenic beauty, each park is an entity in itself, and for such treatment as may be necessary each park presents its own special problems." [3]

Landscape architects were fully aware of the dilemma posed by the park service's twofold mission to protect the resources of the national parks and at the same time to make them accessible. James Sturgis Pray, president of the ASLA, warned against the overexploitation of the national parks. Recalling John Muir's advocacy of the preservation of unimpaired examples of primeval landscape, Pray called upon members of the profession to educate Americans about the sacredness of these areas. Pray outlined the vital role of the landscape architecture profession:

Let me now go on record as believing that the surpassing beauty of our National Parks is neither safe, nor will be made enjoyable, for the maximum number of people with the minimum of injury to that landscape beauty, unless the administration of the National Park areas employs the best counsel it can secure in the profess ion of Landscape Architecture, and that this is needed for four principal purposes: First, a careful determination of proper boundaries of the National Parks.., in consonance with the topography and landscape unity; second, the development of comprehensive general plans for every National Park and Monument, showing roads, bridges, trails, buildings, etc., so far as these may be needed, and at the same time can be built without injury to the landscape, and the adoption of a definite policy of development; third, the approval of designs for buildings or other special structures; fourth, prescribing a system of intelligent and scrupulous maintenance having particular regard to the protection of the beauty of the landscape. [4]

Henry Hubbard, a professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University and partner in Olmsted Brothers, upheld the profession's stewardship role the following year in An Introduction to the Study of Landscape Design, which he coauthored with Theodora Kimball, Harvard's librarian for landscape architecture. Having visited Yosemite shortly before, Hubbard called upon members of his profession to work toward preserving the primeval and characteristic scenery of what he called America's "wild landscape." He wrote,

A possession of inestimable value to mankind, which was once so common that it went unheeded, is now becoming in our country so rare that we are beginning to appreciate its preciousness; and the responsibility rests upon us, especially upon our landscape architects, as it has never rested upon any generation of men before, to see to it that the scattered remnants of natural character and natural beauty, which we still have left to us, are preserved for the recreation and inspiration of the generations to come. [5]

Removing natural scenery from economic use and preserving it for public enjoyment as state and national parks was a civic and professional obligation. Hubbard called for the nationwide planning of areas to be preserved as landscape parks and reservations at all levels, town and city, state and nation. He urged members of his profession to take responsibility for identifying areas of outstanding scenic beauty and for educating the public about their value. [6]

Similarly in 1917, Frank A. Waugh, a professor of landscape architecture at Massachusetts Agricultural College, writing in The Natural Style in Landscape Gardening, recognized the development of national parklands as the domain of the landscape architect:

We have, therefore, in hand several millions of acres of national park lands (including the national forests and the national monuments), with other millions fairly in sight, and we are just organizing a national park service to develop these unimagined resources in the public interest. . . . And this magnificent enterprise will soon be in the hands of the landscape gardeners;for whom [sic] can deal with it, except the men best trained in the love of the landscape and in the technical methods by which it alone can be conserved, restored, improved, clarified, made available and spiritually effective in the hearts of men and women? [7]

Outstanding scenic character distinguished national parks from national forests, which were set apart for economic purposes with the by-product of recreation. According to Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.,

The National Parks are set apart primarily in order to preserve to the people for all time the opportunity of peculiar kinds of enjoyment and recreation, not measurable in economic terms and to be obtained only from the remarkable scenery which they contain—scenery of those primeval types which are in most parts of the world rapidly vanishing for all eternity before the increased thoroughness of the economic use of land. In the National Parks direct economic returns, if any, are properly the by products; and even rapidity and efficiency in making them accessible to the people, although of great importance, are wholly secondary to the one dominant purpose of preserving essential esthetic qualities of their scenery unimpaired as a heritage the infinite numbers of the generations to come. [8]

The vision and wisdom of this generation of landscape designers, which included Pray, Hubbard, Olmsted, Jr., Warren Manning, and others, provided the philosophical underpinnings of the new bureau. From 1916 to 1942, the landscape profession, in practice and in theory, would have a leading role in the development of parklands for public use and enjoyment. The ASLA followed the events and legislation concerning national parks, supporting bills that would limit and prohibit economic uses of the parks, and established a committee to follow national park issues.

Beginning in 1918, the National Park Service hired landscape architects to plan and design park villages, campgrounds, roads and trails, and facilities and to provide advice on issues affecting the scenery of the parks. The first of these so-called landscape engineers—Charles Punchard, Daniel Hull, and Thomas Vint—integrated the principles and practices their profession with the fundamental conservationist philosophy of park service directors Stephen Mather and Horace Albright. These landscape engineers and architects relied heavily upon their educational training and the principles published by Andrew Jackson Downing, Henry Hubbard, Samuel Parsons, Frank Waugh, and others. Some of the national park designers, including Punchard, Hull, Merel Sager, and Conrad Wirth, had studied under Hubbard at Harvard or Waugh at Massachusetts Agricultural College. Others received their training in some of the leading landscape design programs in the nation, including those at the University of California, Berkeley; Cornell University; the University of Illinois; and Iowa State College.

In numerous instances, formally and informally, the service called upon national experts and private practitioners to help solve some of its most pressing problems. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., had a strong presence in the parks and remained a steadfast supporter of landscape preservation. In 1920 and 1921, he visited the national parks and forests of the West, accompanying Director Mather on some occasions. Experiencing the sense of freedom and independence stimulated by the vast untouched tracts of these reservations, Olmsted became more than ever convinced of the need to preserve these areas "substantially unimpaired by the intrusion of other functions" and to set aside wilderness areas in national parks and forests. [9]

Olmsted served on Yosemite's expert advisory committee from 1928 to 1956 and wrote numerous comprehensive reports for the committee. In the park, he helped the superintendent and the Landscape Division work out problems regarding traffic and circulation in Yosemite Valley, access to Glacier Point from the valley, and the landscape preservation of the park's meadows. He also offered advice on the location of facilities and the design of roads at Crater Lake National Park and participated in the earliest planning of Acadia National Park and later in the design of a shoreline motor road. Olmsted's influence went far beyond the projects on which he commented. Yosemite's problems were some of the service's most vexing, and Olmsted's continuing involvement provided in-depth analyses of special problems and carefully worked out solutions that affected how similar problems in other parks were treated. His private practice, including the design of the grounds of the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley and the development of a plan for California's state parks, provided models for the development and management of natural areas.

Henry Hubbard also remained involved in the affairs of the National Park Service. He was a delegate and committee member of the National Conference on Outdoor Recreation in the 1920s. He served on the National Capital Park and Planning Commission from 1932 until his death in 1947. As a professor of landscape architecture at Harvard from 1906 to 1941 and as coauthor of the field's primary textbook, first published in 1917 and revised in 1929, Hubbard exerted widespread influence on the practice and character of park design in national and state parks. Hubbard continued to write on park issues and, as editor of Landscape Architecture, circulated information about the national parks. In 1941, at the request of the service, he wrote an article for Yearbook: Park and Recreation Progress entitled "The Designer in National Parks." Here he described the park designer's concerns and contrasted the landscape architect's approach with that of the architect. He wrote,

Now it is with the preservation of this natural character that the landscape designer has to deal in considering a national park, and usually in considering a "landscape park." He thus starts with an attitude of mind in one respect directly opposite from that of the architect. The landscape designer is just as much bound as is the architect by the requirements of stability and practicality. Like the architect, he also must put before the beholder compositions aesthetically effective. But, unlike the architect, the good landscape designer must think in terms of natural beauty and natural expression. He is often an interpreter, a sympathetic showman, a loving conservator, rather than a self expressing creator. He builds roads and bridges and houses, to be sure, and they are—and should normally look manmade; but they are not there for their own sake, and usually the less they are noticed the better. They are merely necessary conveniences in presenting the pictures of nature. The national park designer cannot, of course, design the mountains. But, if he is from long and humble study an interpreter of natural beauty, he can present the mountains to the observer effectively. [10]

Greenleaf, Hull, and Cammerer
In November 1922, James Greenleaf (far left) of the federal commission of Fine Arts visited Yosemite National Park and conferred with Daniel Hull (middle left) and Arno B. Cammerer (far right) on plans for the new village in Yosemite Valley. (National Park Service Historic Photography collection)

In 1939, Hubbard published "Landscape Development Based on Conservation, as Practiced in the National Park Service" in Landscape Architecture. In this comprehensive article, he summarized the master planning process behind the park service's program of landscape protection and harmonization: First came the location of the elements of park development—roads, trails, and buildings—and then the design of architectural features using native materials and harmonizing principles. And finally came the reestablishment of the natural setting through the planting of native materials. [11] The National Park Service called upon members of the federal Commission of Fine Arts to review questionable issues and designs using its authority as a federal land-managing agency under Executive Order 1010 of January 19, 1909. Olmsted served as the commission member for landscape architecture from 1910 to 1918, including the years when the National Park Service was being promoted and organized. In 1919, Chairman Charles Moore visited Yosemite, and shortly thereafter the commission helped the park service retain the services of Myron Hunt, a Los Angeles architect, to develop a new plan for Yosemite Valley. As the commission member for landscape architecture from 1918 to 1927, James L. Greenleaf, whose private estate work included informal, naturalistic designs, visited Yosemite in 1922 to consult with landscape engineer Daniel Hull on plans for Yosemite Village. For several years, he advised Hull on the naturalistic design of masonry for guardrails and bridges. In 1928, Ferruccio Vitale, who succeeded Greenleaf as the commission's landscape architecture representative, traveled west to help Chief Landscape Architect Thomas Vint locate several park museums and to study landscape problems at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone. On this trip, Vitale also reviewed problems in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park and later provided designs for the park's Swiftcurrent Bridge.

The nation's leading authority on parkways, Gilmore Clarke of New York's Westchester County Parks Commission, also developed close ties with the service. After Vitale's visit to Yellowstone's Mammoth Hot Springs headquarters, Vint had concluded that no more development should occur there until a general plan had been worked out; it was Clarke who created general development plans for the area in 1930. Vint and Clarke also ran a program in which they exchanged staff for periods of several months as a way of mutually enhancing their design programs. Clarke served on the Commission of Fine Arts from 1932 to 1950, during which time he helped develop parkways around the nation's capital. He also trained landscape architects such as Stanley Abbott, who later worked for the National Park Service and designed the Blue Ridge Parkway. Clarke and Charles W. Eliot II, planner for the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, visited Rocky Mountain National Park in 1930 to help the park service work out the final boundaries for the park and develop a plan for restoring the park's natural vegetation.

Other landscape designers advised on landscape matters, sometimes without compensation. Jens Jensen, for instance, supervised some planting at Hot Springs Reservation in 1919; Harold Caparn advised on boundary issues at Yellowstone in 1926; and Beatrix Farrand was hired by John D. Rockefeller to make recommendations for clearing vistas and adding plantings along the carriage roads at Acadia. Others experienced as educators or park designers, including P. H. Elwood, Jr., Frank Culley, S. B. de Boer, George Nason, and Harvey Cornell, carried the ethics of landscape preservation and rustic landscape design to state parks through the New Deal's Emergency Conservation Work program as National Park Service inspectors or, in the case of Waugh, as authors of technical manuals for conservation work.

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