John C. Olmsted

In "Organization and Management of a City Engineer's Office," Journal of the Association of Engineering Societies 13 (October 1894):594-95.

John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920) presented one of the papers at a meeting of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers in 1894. This was ten years after he had become a full partner with his step-father, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., in the landscape architecture firm whose office in 1884 was established in Brookline, Massachusetts. Since 1875 when he graduated from Yale's Sheffield Scientific School J. C. Olmsted had worked in the firm and had made himself invaluable by using his organizational and business abilities to make the work of the firm more efficient and productive.

When the senior Olmsted's mental illness caused him to retire from active participation in the firm, John became senior partner with his half-brother, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. under the new firm name of Olmsted Brothers. When the American Society of landscape Architects was founded in 1899 it members elected John Charles Olmsted it first president. He also was closely involved in the creation of the Boston Society of Landscape Architects. Unlike his father and half-brother, J. C. Olmsted produced few published writings.

The title used for the paper excerpted here suggests a focus limited to the engineer's role in a single element of the city, but the critical comments that follow, might equally well have been intended to apply to the broader aspects of urban physical planning. Certainly many architects and Olmsted's fellow landscape architects came to feel that the shortcomings of many civil engineers involved in park planning carried over to the design of streets and the location of public buildings--those staples of early city planning.

The city engineer is to the city very much what the family physician is to the family. He is constantly called upon to advise and direct in all matters pertaining to his profession. He is not expected to know every branch of his profession as well as the specialist in each branch, but he does know the character, constitution, particular needs and idiosyncracies of the city, as the family physician knows the constitutions of the family. Just as the family physician calls a specialist into consultation in cases requiring expert advice which he may not feel competent to give, so the city engineer should, in all cases of sufficient importance, secure the services of the specialist in sewerage, in water supply or in park designing. He should be quick to realize that a man who has prepared himself by years of careful study and by wide experience in designing parks, is likely to secure more satisfactory results than he can who has not had such a special experience. The city engineer should, therefore, be the very one to suggest and to urge the employment of experts whenever the case is of sufficient importance to justify it, and should not wait until it is urged upon him. The fact that the city engineer has designed and built city roads and walks, is supposed by many persons to fit him to design such roads and walks as may seem to be needed in the parks. The results are almost without exception distressingly bad, in the opinion of those qualified to be judges of landscape. In most cases the city engineer lays out park roads on much the same principles that would govern him in running a railroad, the chief difference being that he smooths the side slopes and seeds them down to grass. He seems to prefer short straight stretches of road, alternating with ungraceful radial curves, with steep, abrupt side slopes and stiff rows of trees. In other words, he seems to prefer not to harmonize his work with the landscape, but to make it everywhere obvious and distinct. He unhesitatingly sacrifices the landscape to economy of construction, and is well content if convenience and neatness are obtained, though beauty and naturalness be absent. But the main trouble with the city engineer as a designer of work in parks is that he is often disposed to solve the problem presented by each element of a park, independently of every other. One year he will lay out a needed piece of road. Another year he will dig a pond, or build a conservatory, or lay out a zoological garden, each in the place where it is most convenient and economical, and where it will have pleasant surroundings, but rarely, if ever, with due consideration for the effect on the design of the park as a whole. If the city engineer were to build a great city hall without the aid of an architect, without any general plan, without following any recognized style; without knowing in advance what accommodations are to be provided for, and without adopting a definite scheme as to the particular materials which are to show on the outside, he would produce no more mixed and inharmonious results than he often accomplishes in public parks under the direction of the average park commission. The public has at last become sufficiently educated to know that an architect should be employed to make plans for a building before work is begun, and that radical and inharmonious changes of plan should not be allowed during construction, but it still permits much money to be spent on parks without regard to any comprehensive plan and without the guidance of a competent designer. The city engineer, at any rate, ought to know that a park should be built according to a preconceived plan, just as water-works and sewerage systems are. He should know that the parks of a city ought to be located and designed in a systematic way, one supplementing the deficiencies of another and not simply duplicating its characteristics, and also that they should be provided for in advance of the actual necessity for them. The city engineer is becoming the most important director of the material development of cities, and his office is becoming more and more a permanent one. He is thus to a certain extent responsible for holding the successive political officials to a consistent, progressive policy in all the branches of work under his charge. To him, even more than to the successive mayors, falls the duty of serving as the intelligence and brains of the municipal government in all physical matters. To no one, therefore, can an appeal for a wiser management of public parks be more fittingly addressed. 
Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: 
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