University of Rochester

EVENT: Olmsted in Rochester: A Rich Park Heritage Expands Under his Gaze Exhibit, Lecture, Walking Tour Connect Designer's Genius to Long-lasting Benefits

TIME, DATE, AND PLACE: Hours for the exhibit at Rush Rhees Library are 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. Monday through Thursday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. Sunday. (Exceptions will be 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 26; closed on Nov. 27 and 28; and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 29.)

September 8, 2003

Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. had no blank canvas when he came to Rochester. By the late 19th century, city leaders had finally committed themselves to the park concept. Land had been obtained, some from nursery entrepreneurs George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry. The process of carving out public space for pleasure was under way.

But it took Olmsted's talent and reputation as the nation's foremost landscape architect to imagine the vistas and to recognize the value of natural terrain at three of the city's best-loved and majestic parks: Highland, Genesee Valley, and Seneca. A major grant from the New York Council for the Humanities to the University of Rochester River Campus Libraries now provides the chance to see and understand how urban parks can accommodate nature and people. All programs are free and open to the public.

A lecture, walking tour, and exhibition will trace Olmsted's impact here, and also raise ideas about the uses of parks, their significance, and their management. Columbia University historian Elizabeth Blackmar will speak on the changing urban park at 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, in the Welles-Brown Room of Rush Rhees Library. She is an expert on New York's Central Park designed by Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, which was the first landscaped public park in the United States. Co-author of an important book on the evolution of that park, Blackmar's talk is titled "Urban Parks: The Changing Prospects of Nature and Recreation."

For a closer look at Olmsted's design of Highland Park, local landscape architect JoAnn Beck will lead a walking tour on Saturday, Oct. 18; and, starting Oct. 1, Rush Rhees Library will open an exhibit of rarely seen maps, drawings, and photographs.

The intention of the exhibit, "Our Olmsted Parks: Implementing His Vision in Rochester," is to place Olmsted in the world of Rochester.

"People can see the huge topographical map of Seneca Park done by Calvin C. Laney in 1890. This map was the 'skeleton' upon which Olmsted placed the landscape design of the park," says Nancy Martin, the John M. and Barbara Keil University Archivist and Rochester Collections Librarian. Architectural details for Central Park reappear in Rochester parks decades later and are included in the exhibit.

Almost every item on display belongs to the library's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Some unusual photographs include "a stunning image," says Martin, taken in Seneca Park by University Professor Herman LeRoy Fairchild in 1902 and reproduced from his glass-plate negative. Alongside important drawings will be period photographs of people enjoying Rochester parks.

Martin, the curator of the exhibit, points out that the "hard edges and old bricks" of recently industrialized 19th-century Rochester made for congested and oppressive streetscapes. "The parks were intended to transport and refresh people, and we can see that contrast quite well in the exhibit," she explains.

The Olmsted-related events are part of the October celebration of State Humanities Month, which promotes the presence of the humanities in the cultural and intellectual life of New York. The exhibit will remain on display until Dec. 31 in the second-floor Great Hall of the library on the University's River Campus.

Rochester's park system is considered one of the finest in the country, and the city also boasts smaller parks and squares designed by Olmsted (1822-1903). His decisions to route traffic through parks without disrupting the natural landscape, and showing native rocks and outcroppings can be found here.

Blackmar, a professor who specializes in social and urban history, is the author of The Park and the People: A History of Central Park with Roy Rosenzweig (1992) and Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850 (1989). She is also on the teaching and research faculty of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia.

The Highland Park tour with Beck, senior landscape architect in the city's Department of Environmental Services, will begin at 1 p.m. Oct. 18 from the Lamberton Conservatory near South and Reservoir avenues. For 90 minutes, she'll walk through some of Highland Park's unique elements and explain Olmsted's imprint there.

"The design responds to the fact that this park is on a hilltop with a horticultural collection," says Beck. "Nationally, these three parks are very important pieces of work." The parks are city land, but Monroe County manages them.

Hours for the exhibit at Rush Rhees Library are 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. Monday through Thursday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. Sunday. (Exceptions will be 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 26; closed on Nov. 27 and 28; and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 29.)

For more information on the Olmsted programs, contact (585) 275-4461.

Note to editors: JPEG images of a few photographs on exhibit can be sent to you for limited use. Please call (585) 275-4128 or send your request to