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Reading L.A.: The Olmsted Brothers plan and what might have been

November 11, 2011 | 11:45 am

Lincoln

The editors of the 18th title in our Reading L.A. series, historians Greg Hise and William Deverell, write that the task that confronted them in putting the book together was “akin to urban archeology.” And in fact “Eden by Design: The 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region” managed when it was published in 2000 to rescue a key planning document from the dustbin of Southern California history (or at least to retrieve it from a distant shelf). It is a document that anyone with an interest in the urban design of Southern California will find both inspiring and -- because it was never implemented in anything beyond piecemeal fashion -- a little depressing.

The plan was commissioned in 1927 from a pair of major landscape architecture firms -- Olmsted Brothers, based in Brookline, Mass., and led by the sons of the famed Frederick Law Olmsted, and Harland Bartholomew & Associates of St. Louis -- by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. The chamber, which Hise and Deverell describe in their illuminating introduction as “probably the most powerful commercial body of its kind in the American West, if not in the nation,” asked the two firms to prepare a report on parks and open space across Los Angeles County.

Even at that relatively early date in the region’s history, Hise and Deverell note, it was clear that “Los Angeles County had far fewer acres devoted to playgrounds and parks relative to other metropolitan areas.” The leaders of the chamber, though, worried that that the region’s elected officials were “small calibred men” who lacked the foresight to confront the problem. And so they took it upon themselves to raise money for a report and design plan.

The Olmsted office, in particular, was already familiar with Los Angeles, having prepared two major landscape and mobility studies for the region earlier in the 1920s. In 1924 it released a “Major Traffic Street Plan” for L.A. that the introduction notes “fixed the system of north-south, east-west boulevards at one-mile coordinates” that “remains the primary surface street route for regional transportation to this day.”

In June 1927 the chamber formed a Citizens’ Committee chaired by John Treanor, a cement company executive. By August the committee had attracted more than 100 wealthy and powerful members –- including director Cecil DeMille, actress Mary Pickford, attorney John O’Melveny and architects Gordon Kaufmann, John Parkinson and Myron Hunt -– and planned its first full meeting.

What the Olmsted and Bartholomew firms ultimately produced for the Citizens’ Committee was a report –- “Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region” -- of astonishing sophistication and farsightedness. Not only did the plan chart the ways in which the region was lacking in open space, it laid out a remarkably detailed plan for creating new parks, parkways and untouchable "reservations." It was careful to tailor the plan to match the singular character of the region, which it noted “has a far wider and thinner spread of population than any other metropolis, and a far greater use of automobiles.” It also proposed mechanisms for getting its various ideas approved and paid for.

Compared to the proposals landscape architects produce these days, with their sleek digital renderings of park users chatting on cellphones and walking their dogs, the Olmsted-Bartholomew plan, as the editors note, is heavy on text and charts and light on images. It’s also supremely impressive as an analysis of the political as well as the physical landscape of Southern California.

Perhaps, in the end, too impressive for its own good. By February 1929, even before the designers had finished their final version of the report, the chamber’s board of directors had split over the wisdom of implementing it. Indeed, the book reports, after the plan was officially presented in 1930, “it garnered almost no public attention. The response, in truth, was a resounding silence. There were no follow-up stories in the local papers, nor was there discussion of the plan and its publication in the official minutes of city or county agencies and committees such as the Regional Planning Commission, the Los Angeles Parks Department, and the city’s Playground and Recreation Department.”

Reservations“This fate,” the editors note, “was not due to some intrinsic flaw in the plan, nor was it due to a lack of public will, and it certainly was not happenstance. No, what happened in this case was more deliberate, more planned. The Chamber of Commerce and its allies effectively limited circulation of the report and discouraged public discourse.”

Why? It’s not entirely clear. In the end, Deverell and Hise conclude, the chamber’s leaders likely began to worry that the report was a more powerful, persuasive and explosive document than they’d bargained for, and that it might turn into something they wouldn’t be able to control, politically or otherwise. As the editors write, “The Chamber feared that the child had become the parent.”

And so the chamber, or least some of its most powerful members, made sure the plan would go nowhere. The collapse of the national and global economy at the end of the decade certainly didn’t help; but the editors argue that “the report was killed off well before the arrival of the Great Depression.”

For Hise and Deverell, the legacy of the report is twofold. It is first of all “a textbook example of the distance that separates a plan, a vision of the future, from its realization.” Just as important, it is worth revisiting for “how it reveals the form and meaning, the very definition, of urban space as the product of an ongoing contest.” Emphasis mine.

While the plan's larger framework was of course never realized, bits and pieces of it have re-emerged over the years; recent plans for revitalizing the L.A. River arguably have their roots in proposals from the 1930 report.

In a revealing and entertaining afterword, the editors discuss the plan with the landscape architect Laurie Olin, who notes “its quality, its scope, its scale, and its ambition. One of the things I noted while reading is how well written it is, how literate it is.” Perhaps most impressive, he rightly notes, is the degree to which its authors were “unafraid of taking it all on,” from design to politics to municipal finance.

We may think of the Olmsteds simply as designers, he points out, “but they were also good businessman and financiers, and adept manipulators of electoral politics.”

The plan, Olin argues, “underscores several interesting and important facts of American urbanism and Western expansion which should not pass unnoticed. One is that the western cities developed in a relatively short period of time, often in very dramatic and unique physiographic settings....I think the Olmsted Brothers, coming from the East, were particularly sensitive to this phenomenon. They saw it very clearly, while people within the communities did not. It comes through as subtext in this report. All of these cities -– Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle –- now sprawl all over those once-fabulously beautiful settings. Nature has been pushed to the horizon. Each city has serious traffic congestion, terrible air pollution, a great deficit of parks and open space, and swollen populations. They’re all deficient in profound ways, because they happened so fast. People thought, ‘Well, we’ll do that next year.’ They never did. The Olmsted Brothers point that out. They say, ‘This is going to happen, and this is your moment to do something about it or you’ll miss your chance.’ I think that’s one of the most interesting things in this report. It’s poignant actually.”

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Previously in Reading L.A.

Reading L.A.: Think L.A. is unplanned? Think again

Reading L.A.: The giant, complex legacy of the Case Study program

--Christopher Hawthorne

Photos, from top: Lincoln Park (formerly Eastlake Park), one of the existing parks the Olmsted and Bartholomew firms discovered when assessing open space in Southern California in the late 1920s (Credit: Regional History Collections, USC); a diagram from the Olmsted-Bartholomew plan. Areas marked in green were to be redesigned as parks or parkways; those in red to be set aside as open-space "reservations." (Courtesy Greg Hise and William Deverell).

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