The Olmsted Brothers’ 1913 plan for Ypsi’s stretch of the Huron River

Way back in 2007, after learning that my friend Nat Edmunds was in possession of an original copy of the 1913 Huron River Improvement Plan drafted by influential landscape architects John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., I made a promise on this site that I’d figure out a way to get it scanned and share it here on the site. Well, I’d forgotten about it until today, when someone asked me whether or not I ever intended to actually follow through… Clearly, the answer was no… Fortunately, though, my inability to follow though didn’t really matter in this case, as someone at City Hall apparently went ahead and scanned it for us back in 2012, as part of the Parks and Recreation master plan update. So, here it is, about a decade after I promised to share it with you.

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[Much appreciation to City Planner Bonnie Wessler for sending me the file earlier this evening.]

And, here, by way of context, is a little something from that old 2007 post of mine, when I thought that the plan had been drafted by the father of the Olmsted brothers, the designer of New York City’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, followed by the update I added later that same day.

…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.

And here’s the update I posted later that same day, after talking with someone who had seen the plan.

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.

Here’s what the whole Olmsted brothers’ plan looks like. As you’ll notice, their vision extended well beyond just Riverside Park, starting at Highland Cemetery and going all the way to the far edge of the city, in the direction of what is now Ford Lake.

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[A larger version of the plan can be seen here.]

And here’s the official write-up that accompanies the copy of the map in the city’s archive: “The Olmsted map was a hand-colored, fabric-backed original. It dates from the 1913 Olmsted Brothers master plan for Ypsilanti, and was the impetus for the Riverside (originally Quirk) and Frog Island parks, and its legacy lives on in the efforts to develop Peninsular, Waterworks (formerly Tourist), and River’s Edge parks.” [It should be noted that the Olmsted brothers created a plan for the entire city, and that this Huron River Improvement Plan was just part of that larger project.]

But wait, there’s more…

As luck would have it, Janice Anschuetz just happened to write about this map in the Spring 2016 edition of the Ypsilanti Historical Society’s quarterly journal, Ypsilanti Gleanings. Here, adding quite a bit more color to the story behind how the Olmsteds came to be involved, is a clip from her article.

…By 1823, the river, and the water power it offered, was quickly bought up by nineteenth century industrialists such as Norris, Harwood, Hardy and Reading, who all built dams for harvesting the river power. When the railroad was built in Ypsilanti in 1838, stockyards holding sheep, pigs and cattle lined the river bank. Far from the clear waters we see today and could imagine when the trading post flourished, looking down from Heritage Bridge we would have seen waste – both human and animal – and garbage of all descriptions – flowing in the river, certainly no place for a tranquil park.

The Godfroy family sold their land on the river to some of the wealthy industrialists who had taken advantage of the river power, before the age of electricity. Soon elegant and picturesque mansions lined the high banks of the Huron River, many with ornate terraced gardens which lined the sides of the cliff. Because the river often flooded, the lower part of their property could not be built on, and without stable banks would be considered boggy and marshy – what today we know as wetlands and were then called “flats.”

It could be that the first recreational use of this land occurred in 1886 when the Ypsilanti Toboggan Slide Company was formed by four young men. A 200-foot wooden slide was constructed starting at the second story window of an existing barn on Huron Street (about where Riverside Arts Center now exists) and in trestle like fashion with a drop of 50 feet. The wooden structure was packed firm with ice from the river. Thrill seeking Victorians could provide their own sleds or rent one for a modest fee. It seems that this was a spectator sport as much as one for participation, as an audience could watch women and girls in long dresses and men and boys screaming past them as they made the chilling descent from a second story window high above the river.

By 1892 the city formed an official Ypsilanti park system when a group of women determined to transform public land into a park where a cemetery existed at Cross and Prospect Street. The original bodies had already been moved to Highland Cemetery. The land was soon transformed into a pleasant place to walk with flowered paths and even a pond and fountain known as Luna Lake. Visitors were said to arrive by train from Detroit and Ann Arbor to enjoy this tranquil space.

The following account could have been the inspiration of the beginning of a park on the river. About 1908 the Quirk family donated their large Victorian mansion to the city of Ypsilanti for use as a town hall, replacing the small town hall/jail located on the north east side of Cross and Huron Streets. Not only were the residents of Ypsilanti given a stately building, but it came complete with terraced gardens and riverside land. A “Landscape Design for Development for Quirk Park” was done by the Monroe, Michigan firm of J. Joseph Poleo and shows a meandering series of garden paths between the mansion on the bluff and the river. Harvey C. Colburn indicated in his book, The Story of Ypsilanti, that the flats behind the city hall were used for “pageants” and athletic events for the nearby high school. The rest of the area, which is now Riverside Park, was held in private hands with the “ribbon lots”, extending in the French way from Huron Street to the river.

In 1913, the Olmsted Brothers were commissioned by the small town of Ypsilanti, whose population was then about 6000, to give advice on how to help the town grow in such a way as to not only attract business and industry, but to provide a healthy living environment for its citizens. As far as the Huron River was concerned, the Olmsted Brothers were frank in their criticism of its neglected and defiled state saying in their report: “The Huron River with its large natural reservoirs and its steep channel, was long ago claimed for economic uses, by water power development in a small unsystematic way. Many mills were built but most of them have since fallen into disuse and decay, and the river is now largely in a picturesque state of neglect. Its shores now overgrown in many places, pools and rapids break into monotomy (sic), while railways and public roads cross and recross it in many places.”

The report went on to chastise the city for neglecting the riverfront, which at that time was often used as a garbage dump with raw sewage, waste products, and chemicals flowing into it daily. The report continued: “The river, with its many advantages as a naturally beautiful feature of the city, is now almost wholly ignored, or worse, it is defiled and treated as a menace to adjacent property.” The Olmsted Brothers suggested that the flood plain between Michigan Avenue and Cross Street, unsuitable for building, could be used as a public park. The firm also provided a drawing of a string of parks throughout the city on the Huron River, which included what would become Frog Island and Riverside Park. In a more detailed drawing of Riverside Park there is an access bridge from Michigan Avenue in the vicinity of where the 2015 Heritage Bridge is newly located!

Perhaps with the need for employment during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the possibility of municipal projects funded by the Federal Works Progress Administration, Olmstead’s ideas began to take shape. During this time, the city was able to collect the deeds to the many parcels of land that now make up the 14 acres of what we now know as Riverside Park. Some were purchased and some were donated. We read in an Ypsilanti Press article in 1932 that the Detroit Edison Company not only donated the hill and land to the river behind their property, but paid for the land to be landscaped to conform to the adjacent slope and land of the park. The city purchased the old Greek Revival home at 126 North Huron Street and demolished it in order to provide an entrance to the park between St. Luke’s Church and the Ladies Library. We read descriptions of this entrance to the park, which sound charming, involved rock gardens along the slope on the way to the park, and remnants of them can still be seen…

Am I the only one who finds it both funny and depressing that, after 103 years, we’re still essentially saying the same thing: “The river, with its many advantages as a naturally beautiful feature of the city, is now almost wholly ignored”? [For context, see our recent conversations with the Huron River Watershed Council’s Laura Rubin and Elizabeth Riggs, both of whom are fighting to increase the role the river plays in our community.]

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  1. Cheryl Farmer
    Posted April 13, 2016 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    Nat’s original rendering is currently with the County Parks and Rec Director Bob Tetans. It shows parkland from border to border in the city along the Huron River, and was the inspiration for the Border to Border Trail that is now being developed throughout the County.

  2. anonymous
    Posted April 14, 2016 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    Why was it decided not to call the park Quirk Park?

  3. Mr. X
    Posted April 14, 2016 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    There’s still a lot of work to do.

  4. site admin
    Posted April 14, 2016 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    The Ypsi Toboggan Slide.

  5. Shane Davis
    Posted April 14, 2016 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    It started earlier than I thought…a Starbucks and McDonalds were already slated for Ypsi back in ’13.

  6. Kristin
    Posted April 14, 2016 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    I am picturing past generations of my family zooming down the toboggan thing, but more likely they would have been at home, staying safe and judging the frivolity. I know that is what I would do today.

  7. XXX
    Posted April 14, 2016 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Today, the Olmsted brothers would be like the Hilton sisters.

  8. Mike S.
    Posted April 14, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Destroy the tridge!

  9. Sam
    Posted April 14, 2016 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    It’s hard for me to imagine a time when companies were allowed to dump anything directly into rivers. It’s amazing that humanity still exists.

  10. Jim
    Posted April 14, 2016 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    I’d love to see the drawings for the rest of the Olmsteds’ plan for the city–do they exist?

  11. Peter Larson
    Posted April 14, 2016 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Build nothing anywhere ever.

  12. Posted April 14, 2016 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    and was the impetus for the Riverside (originally Quirk)

    Fun fact: Descendants of those Quirks live in Ypsilanti. They are some of my very best friends, in fact. I think that Quirk was Matt’s great-uncle. There was also the Belleville Quirk guy for whom the road (in B-ville) is named, who I believe was the brother of the Ypsi Quirk.

    I have now typed the word “quirk” so many times that it has lost all meaning and I am doubting it is even a word.

  13. Chelsea
    Posted April 22, 2016 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    If you’d like to see the Olmstead homestead, visit Brookline again!

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