olmsted in ypsilanti

I’ve heard for quite a few years now that Ypsilanti’s Riverside Park was designed by noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted “and his brother” in the late 1800s. I’ve poked around a few times looking for confirmation of this, but haven’t been able to find much. (Being somewhat skeptical by nature, it’s crossed my mind that either it wasn’t true at all, or perhaps our park was designed by a charlatan Olmsted.) Well, tonight, at the 2020 meeting, local historic preservation enthusiast Nat Edmunds mentioned that she had in her possession the original Olmsted plans for the land on the banks of Ypsilanti’s Huron River. She said that the plans were currently on loan to City Hall.

If there aren’t already plans to scan them, and make them available to the community, I’d like to suggest it be considered. I’m sure that, if need be, we could make use of resources at EMU to see this accomplished. (I believe they would want copies for their archives.) I suspect that Olmsted’s plans weren’t followed exactly and I’m curious to know what was, and what was not, done to his specifications. As we start discussing the new master plan for our City parks, I think it’s absolutely imperative that we go back to the original plans and see if there are perhaps elements that we might still want to incorporate. As I think we’d all agree, our parks are among our community’s most distinctive assets, and, if this tie to Olmsted does in fact exist, I think we’d be well served to exploit it.

update: OK, so the “Olmsted brothers” who drafted the plan turn out to have been the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, who took over the family business after the death of their father. (The plans for Ypsi’s parks were drawn up a few years after the death of the elder Olmsted.) I’ve still to see the plans, but, from what I’ve been told, they’re fairly high level, and don’t include much detail. A friend who has seen the plans tells me that all they call for is green space along the river (done), a park entrance off of Michigan Avenue (done), another entrance off North Huron at about where the RIverside Arts Center is (done), and pathways along the perimeter of the green space (done). Being a bit of a wise-ass, this friend then went on to say that if we really wanted to stay true to the Olmsted vision, the only thing we’d change is that we’d “tear out the tridge.” So, it would seem that I was wrong when I suggested that there might be elements within the original plans that would help guide us today as we reconsider our parks and what we want for them to look like in the future.

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8 Comments

  1. mark
    Posted November 6, 2007 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Most likely, of course, is that someone in Omsted’s office drew up the plans for Ypsilanti’s parks and he never even saw them. Still, it’s cool to have the connection to him.

  2. Union Household
    Posted November 6, 2007 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    A marker at the entrance to Highland Cemetery gives credit to Omsted. Forrest Hills Cemetery in Ann Arbor is also of his design.

  3. Posted November 6, 2007 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Here is local historian James Mann’s word on this interesting topic:

    “Fred Law Olmstead never came to Ypsilanti, as he had been dead a few years before the study. It was one of his sons who came to Ypsilanti and did the work. The plan was not workable, as in one part he suggests moving the houses on Normal Street, I think, back 15 feet, but does not say how this could be done.

    “The map of Riverside Park, which I saw a few years ago, is a large size like five by three feet. At the time of the study, what is now Riverside Park was private property, mostly gardens behind the homes facing Huron Street. The park came about piece by piece during the 30’s and 40’s.”

  4. Ol' E Cross
    Posted November 6, 2007 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    Olmstead also designed the nation’s largest city park … Belle Isle park in Detroit.

  5. Mark H.
    Posted November 6, 2007 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    If memory serves, Olmstead’s sons had a firm for some time, carrying on their father’s business; the sons designed, for instance, Morningside Park in NYC (at the edge of Harlem). Olmstead and Olmstead, I think it was called.

    Central Park was most certainly the inspiration for Prospect Park here in Ypsi, and for thousands of other parks around the world: Central Park, for the first time ever, was a very large park, open to the public (not just guests of the royals), and land bordering the park went from being undesirable swampish land to the most expensive real estate in the world. It was counterintuititve – taking land out of the market place forever as a means to enhancing the market value of land.

    As for moving homes on Ypsi streets – that would have been nothing compared to the labor of building central park. The elevation was lowered in some areas, large areas, and raised in others, and millions of trees planted: What looks natural was actually man made. Ypsi did not, apparently, have the will or the capital to put into place a similarly ambitious plan for Riverside park.

    And yeah, Mark, those plans would be a nice artifact to display. I a bet EMU would be able to help with this….

  6. Posted November 7, 2007 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Yes, the Olmsted Bros. & Co. plan for the Huron River was done in 1905; Frederick Law Olmsted died in, I believe, 1902 or -03.

    Remember the 1998 Huron River Corridor Plan I linked to just a few days ago? Take a peek at the cover again; the Olmsted plan for the river is pictured there.

    “Designed by” is a pretty strong term – essentially the Olmsted Plan is, “Hey, did you guys know you’ve got a river running through town? You should take advantage of that. You could have a big park here, in this floodplain, a somewhat smaller park on this island to the north, link it to the cemetery, and generally make it a nice place.” It’s very high-level, looking at the river from north of Peninsular Park to south of Waterworks Park, so there’s nothing to the level of individual design “elements we might incorporate”.

    As for making copies, so far the quotes I’ve gotten are a few hundred dollars for one copy – copying large-format century-old plans involves fun non-contact photographic copying and so forth. Mark & Mark, if you know of somebody at EMU who would want to throw resources at copying and displaying the plans, point me to them.

  7. mark
    Posted November 7, 2007 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    I do know someone at EMU who might be able to help. I’ll ask her.

  8. Ross Gladwin
    Posted April 13, 2016 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Mark, did anything ever come of this? I’d love to see those Olmsted plans for Ypsi.

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