For more than a century, landscape architecture emphasizing the beauty of natural settings has helped shape the look and feel of Birmingham.
By Mindy Keyes Black
This post is the second in a three-part series about the Gardens’ new signature sign. We invite you to enjoy parts one and three via the links at the end of the story.
“In dealing with existing real landscapes,” landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. once wrote, “I have been guided by an injunction impressed upon me by my distinguished father: namely, that when one becomes responsible for what is to happen to such a landscape his primary duty is to protect and perpetuate whatever of beauty and inspirational value, inherent in that landscape, is due to nature and to circumstances not of one’s own contriving, and to humbly subordinate to that purpose any impulse to exercise upon it one’s own skill as a creative designer.”
The son of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.—a creator of Central Park and a founder of the American landscape architecture profession—Olmsted Jr., or “Rick,” wrote the credo to the National Park System established in 1916 and became senior partner in the prestigious Olmsted Brothers firm four years later. When the firm, which participated in thousands of design projects nationwide, was approached about creating a plan for Birmingham parks and parkways, the idea of protecting natural wonders for the health and enjoyment of residents became a guidepost for the city’s future development.
Under Rick’s direction, firm representative Edward Clark Whiting visited Birmingham for field work, and in fall 1925 Olmsted Brothers presented a report* to the Birmingham Park and Recreation Board to recommend improvements for established parks and suggestions for future park sites. The report underscored opportunities to expand “highly scenic” areas, establish neighborhood parks, and expand parks with natural landscape features.
“Birmingham is fortunate to have an Olmsted Brothers park report for the region,” says Marjorie White, Director of the Birmingham Historical Society and a longtime member of the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens. “The report sets forth the firm’s vision to pass on, unharmed, the treasury of natural scenery that we inherit.”
While many potential green space properties in the area had already been developed—or were in process of being developed—when the report was released, parks remained a key civic focus in Birmingham during the late 1920s and 1930s. In 1926, Jemison & Co. engaged Boston landscape architect Warren Manning to design a new subdivision in the Appalachian foothills south of Birmingham. Manning, who had worked on a city plan for Birmingham in 1916 and trained with Olmsted Sr., applied the same reverence for the natural world to his plan for the ridges and valleys that would become Mountain Brook, preserving select land features and trees.
The passion of these visionaries has continued to inspire generations of landscape planners and conservation-minded organizations seeking to protect the area’s natural beauty and to reclaim former industrial land for all to enjoy. Today, as the City of Birmingham celebrates its 150th anniversary, the spirit of their work is reflected in recent greenway developments such as Red Mountain Park and Railroad Park.
At Birmingham Botanical Gardens, their influence can be seen throughout this 67-acre urban oasis. Woven into native woodlands, the Gardens offers a glimpse of the oak-hickory-pine forests that once dominated this state. From rock outcroppings at the north to floodplains at the south, our 26 garden spaces highlight the region’s rich and varied terrain and the many plants that thrive in Southern gardens. These include more than 200 species of native plants—many rare and endangered—that clean the air and provide a feast for the eyes as well as for local pollinators.
As we plan for the Gardens’ future and promote this community treasure as a destination of local and regional significance, the Olmsteds’ guiding principle continues to instruct the Friends’ work here. By celebrating the Gardens’ natural wonders and honoring sense of place throughout our garden spaces, we perpetuate the beauty of our region and create a healthier Birmingham.
The Olmsted Brothers report is in print and available for purchase. Visit birminghamhistoricalsociety.com to learn more.
Warm Welcome: A Three-Part Series about the Gardens’ New Signature Sign
Part Two: Sense of Place