STOCKBRIDGE — Frederick Law Olmsted, known as the "father of American landscape architecture," began his long and storied career with a single urban park — Central Park.
He would go on to shape urban parks around the country, including parks in Milwaukee, Chicago's Riverside parks and Boston's Emerald Necklace. He would champion a national park system and design the college campuses of Wellesley College, Smith College and Stanford University. (Williams College retained the services of Olmsted Brothers, his sons, John and Frederick Jr., who carried on the family business after his retirement in 1895. Olmsted died in 1903.)
Olmsted's firm, which designed gardens for many Gilded Age cottagers, worked in the Berkshires, touching some 60 properties here, from 1885 to 1979, as well as working with Stockbridge's Laurel Hill Association, on creating a landscape plan for the town's railroad station and for the overall town, as well.
On Aug. 26 and 27, the Laurel Hill Association will celebrate Olmsted, as part of the nationwide celebration Olmsted 200 — the 200th anniversary of Olmsted's birth — by the National Association of Olmsted Parks, with two days of activities, culminating at its annual Laurel Hill Day celebration.
The weekend begins with "Olmsted In the Berkshires," an author's panel featuring Hugh Howard, author of "Architects of an American Landscape," and Cornelia "Nini" Brook Gilder, co-author of "Houses of the Berkshires, 1870 - 1930," 5:30 p.m., Friday, Aug. 26 at the Red Lion Inn. (Tickets are required.) On Saturday, 2 p.m., the annual Laurel Hill Day Ceremony will take place at the Rostrum in Laurel Hill Park, with Anne “Dede” Neal Petri, president and CEO of the National Association for Olmsted Parks, serving as the keynote speaker.
Laurel Hill Day honors Olmsted’s ideal of democracy, said Hilary Somers Deely, president of the Laurel Hill Association, during a recent interview.
"Olmsted really believed in the public being invited in for free, to have the health benefits of a green space. In the old days, only the elite had access to parks in many places. And it's still that way in many places, like New York's Gramercy Park, where you have to live there and get a key," Deely said, noting the Laurel Hill Association's holdings have always been free to the public. "We have many trails and about 450 acres of green space."
The Laurel Hill Association's trails include the Mary Flynn Trail, Laura's Tower Trail and the Ice Glen Trail. It's properties include the Byron and Chestnut preserves, Goodrich Park, Field Arboretum, Four Corners, Laurel Hill and Rostrum, Lower Bowker's Woods, the Sedgewick Reservation and several other preserves.
Founded in 1853, the Laurel Hill Association is the oldest village improvement society in the United States.
"Mary Hopkins Goodrich was riding on her white horse through the Stockbridge cemetery and she was appalled by the toppled tombstones and the overgrown with weeds. Proceeding up Main Street she was overcome by 'odiferous smells' because these were the days before septic and sewage systems. She rode into the middle of town and posted a sign calling for all like-minded individuals to meet and formed the first village beautification association," Deely said, of the group's founding.
In 1912, the New York Times would call the Laurel Hill Association the "most significant model for the nation's village beautification movement" she added. Since 1853, the group has come together at the Rostrum, designed by Daniel Chester French, to celebrate the association's founding.
This year, the Laurel Hill Day celebration will begin at 1 p.m. with a children's scavenger hunt.
"Once the scavenger hunt is finished, the children will proceed to the Rostrum, where we'll have them sing 'Happy Birthday' to Mr. Olmsted," Deeley said.
The program will continue with performances by the Berkshire Brass Quartet, which will play selections from the 1850s that Olmstead may have heard; a performance by the association's own “Singing Rangerettes,” the laying of the laurel swag on the Rostrum, "as they did in 1853," a benediction by the Rev. Brent Damrow, pastor of the First Congregational Church in Stockbridge, and a reading from Monique Tyndall, cultural affairs director of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians. In addition, alumni of the Stockbridge Plain School and Williams High School will be in attendance.
Petri's address, "The Genius of the Place: A Look at Frederick Law Olmsted highlighting the life, work and legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted," will round-out the program.
"I'm pinching myself that someone of her prominence is coming to speak here," Deely said. "She's flying in from Milwaukee. She's traveling the country, speaking at events nationwide as part of the Olmsted 200 celebration."
Deely said the association joined the nationwide celebration after she learned of the program though a Garden Club of America newsletter.
"I started looking through the Laurel Hill archives and found we had a very legitimate connection to Olmsted," she said. Not only had Olmsted worked on estates and properties in Stockbridge, in the Berkshires, but the Laurel Hill Association had hired Olmsted's firm to landscape the town's train station, a very significant entry point to the town in the early 1900s, and later, hired the firm, from 1913 to 1917, to create a village improvement plan for next 100 years.
For more information about Laurel Hill Day, visit laurelhillassociation.org.