Vol. III No. 19 10/1/2022
Photo: Lionel Delevingne
Editorial: An Architectural Firm Looks at Main Street
On October 17, Stockbridge will have a Special Town Meeting about "Main Street Redesign". It might be fun to look to the past for pointers. In 1914, Stockbridge and the Laurel Hill Association partnered and hired Olmsted Brothers to "view the town with a careful and practiced eye" and report its suggestions for "a comprehensive and effective plan of improvement."
Born in 1822, Frederick Law Olmsted won his first commission in 1858. From that date Olmsted designed public parks, streetscapes, and private gardens all over the country. His many projects were punctuated by the truly exceptional such as Central Park in New York City and the grounds of Biltmore, the Vanderbilt estate in Ashville, North Carolina. In Berkshire County Olmsted designed gardens at Elm Court, Wheatleigh, and Naumkeag. Olmsted died in 1903 — the premier landscape architect in the United States.
Olmsted established the country's first landscape architecture business. When he was 76 years old, in 1898, his sons, John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. inherited it.
For more than fifty years 1864 - 1914, Stockbridge businesses and individuals were prodded to improve their "door yards". Electric wires were buried, simple streetlights chosen, and historic structures maintained. The width of the street allowed for roadbed and walkways. Trees were planted on either side. Those trees, the Stockbridge Elms, overarched Main Street.
As a result, the Olmsted Brothers found Stockbridge "in a happy situation with rare charm... Stockbridge was fortunate because it took pride in its town and planned wisely."
In offering suggestions, the landscape architects were clear from the outset: "the purpose of village improvement is... civil betterment."
They were frankly suspicious of individual improvements that could do damage "unless [all] citizens take an interest and calculate the probable impact." If done correctly, village improvement profits the Town and is "an investment with a return in tax valuation, land values, increased commerce, and civil contentment".
So, what did Olmsted Brothers suggest?
- Maintain historic structures
- Have a continuity of plantings
- Be aware of how high and wide trees will grow in future
- Open views and create sightlines to distant mountains or lakes
- Discourage unwise or selfish action on the part of an individual that may undo the overall good effect
Their report concluded: "The fact that Stockbridge is so attractive has made the town well-known, and there has resulted a demand for land for country places which has caused a great increase in land values."
One hundred eight years later the Olmsted report still seems relevant. Perhaps it contains hints how not to undo the magic of Main Street Stockbridge — how to avoid killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
Finally, I want to thank Joshua Hall of the Stockbridge Library Museum & Archives for scanning the report so we could link to it. If you'd like to read it, just visit: https://stockbridgeupdates.com/Olmsted-Stockbridge.pdf.
I hope they remembered the ring. Photo: Patrick White