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Charlotte Planners: The Olmsted Brothers

Excerpted from Neighborhoods: Charlotte's Neighborhood Planning Tradition
by Dr. Thomas W. Hanchett

Three of the most important city planning firms in the United States helped shape Charlotte. They were the Olmsted Brothers, John Nolen, and Earle Draper. All worked in the city during the boom years of the 1910s and 1920s. They gave the city new ideals in urban design which are still followed today. In addition, Nolen and Draper took lessons learned in Charlotte's neighborhoods and applied them in hundreds of cities throughout the nation, giving Charlotte's early planning efforts special importance.

When Charlotte's original hundred acre tract was laid off in house lots in the 1770s the city fathers chose a gridiron street pattern. A surveyor, either hired by the village or supplied by the colonial government, laid out the streets at right angles to each other. Many cities of the era were not planned at all, with streets growing up from trails and cowpaths running in every direction. The grid was the most popular alternative because it was orderly and easy to understand, and its straight lines meant that it could be created quickly and broken up into lots easily. Charlotte's reliance on the grid continued throughout the nineteenth century.

In the 1910s Charlotte's New South leaders, as part of their drive to make Charlotte a modern city, hired John Nolen, the Olmsted Brothers, and Earle Sumner Draper who turned the city forever from the grid pattern. The very idea of having a landscape architect/city planner design streets was unusual. In progressive Dilworth, Latta had hired Joseph Forsyth Johnston, a landscape architect from New York City, to create Latta Park and evidently also asked him for suggestions on the surrounding street pattern. Most areas, though, were laid out methodically by surveyors or civil engineers.

Nolen, the Olmsteds, and Draper were part of a generation with a strong appreciation for nature. America's first National Parks were established in the era and the conservation movement blossomed, extending even to President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09). Landscape architects sought to bring this consciousness to city planning.

George Stephens and developer Edward Dilworth Latta were fierce business rivals. When Latta saw the publicity Stephens received for hiring Nolen, he determined to secure a planning firm of similar stature for the extension of Dilworth. 1

LEFT: George Stephens. RIGHT: Edward Dilworth Latta

On a trip north in February, 1911, Latta met with the developer of Baltimore's Roland Park and asked him to speak with the Olmsted Brothers about the possibility of working in Charlotte. 2 A few months later Latta proudly announced to the Charlotte newspapers that he had hired the famous Olmsted firm to lay out the new streets of Dilworth. 3

The Olmsteds are America's most well-known name in landscape architecture and city planning. The brothers' father, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., had practically invented both professions beginning with his design for Central Park in New York City in the 1850s. He went on to create park systems in almost every major U. S. city from Boston to San Francisco. One of his last commissions was in North Carolina, the immense grounds of George Vanderbilt's Biltmore estate near Asheville. 4

The Olmsted brothers, John Charles and Frederick Law, Jr., took over the firm in the decade before their father's death in 1903. 5 They had not only the famous name but they had their father's talent. Their commissions included the White House grounds, city park systems from Washington, DC, to Seattle, and hundreds of smaller projects including the west campus plan of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. 6 Because the Olmsteds were already an established firm, the Dilworth design probably had less impact on their later work than Nolen's Charlotte projects had on his subsequent output, though the basic idea of the Dilworth street layout does appear to be repeated in the Olmsteds' design of Forest Hills Gardens done at about the same time in Queens, New York. 7

Extensive letters and drawings concerning the Dilworth plan still exist in the Olmsted collections at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and at the Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts. They give a good picture of the process of suburban planning in this era.

First the Olmsted firm directed Latta to hire local engineers to make a topographic survey of the land to be developed. Charlotte civil engineers Blair and Drane produced a large map meticulously showing not only hills, valleys, existing streets, pathways and buildings, but even the location of every tree coded with its species and size. Latta's son, E. D. Latta, Jr., then traveled to the firm's Boston office. There he met with Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and Perceival Gallagher, one of the firm's top designers and later a partner.

The Lattas were at first wary that the Olmsted Brothers might be only interested in designing for the very wealthy. Olmsted assured them, however, that the firm was happy to work with "what the local real estate market demands . . . that there might be a variety of priced lots for instance, and that only a portion of the area would be actually developed at first. It is essential, however," Olmsted went on, "that the entire tract be considered in a general way, that the lines of essential thoroughfares joining the street system of the city be decided upon, and some general principles of development be decided." 8

Over the next six months Perceival Gallagher and the staff drew up their proposals with periodic suggestions from Olmsted. Gallagher visited Charlotte at least three times, accompanied by Olmsted on the second visit. 9 By early 1912 the overall street plan was complete. 40 The firm in addition drew suggested landscaping for a typical block, cross-sections through typical streets specifying sidewalks, tree, and utility location. They also drew a design for a "Garden Courts" townhouse development, never built, on the north side of Morehead Street.

All of these services were included in the firm's charge of five dollars per acre. This was a fairly low fee according to fellow planner Earle Draper, probably because the Olmsteds were not asked to provide any of the engineering work to implement their vision. 11 The total cost of the Dilworth plan was $2,000. 12

Over half of the design was carried out just as the Olmsted Brothers specified. Dilworth Road and all the streets south of Latta Park, including Dilworth Road East and West, Charlotte Drive, and Ideal Way, were evidently constructed first and followed the Olmsted plan. By the time Berkeley, Lexington and other streets north of the park were developed, however, the Olmsted plan had been discarded.

Though the Olmsted street pattern was followed in only part of the enlargement of Dilworth, their concepts carry through the entire area. Winding avenues follow the natural topography, not the grid of the adjoining older area, and they are lined with trees to create a park-like setting. Dilworth is important to Charlotte not only because a nationally famous design firm created a beautiful neighborhood for residents to enjoy, but also because the Olmsteds' work helped set the standard for suburban development all over the city. To the present day most developers strive for curving streets and tree shaded lots, the radical new ideas brought to Charlotte by the Olmsteds, Nolen and their New South backers.

1 Earle Sumner Draper, .. interview with Thomas W. Hanchett, Vero Beach, Florida, August 1982.

2 E. H. Bouton, letter to F. L. Olmsted, Jr., February 13, 1911. Letter at the Library of Congress in the "Olmsted Associates, Inc." collection, container B287, job file 5109.

3 Charlotte Evening Chronicle, July 1, 1911. It was the accidental discovery of this article by Dr. Dan L. Morrill that led to the recent rediscovery of the Olmsteds' role in the creation of Dilworth.

4 Laura Wood Roper, F. L. O.: a Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1973), pp. 414-419, 540.

5 Ibid., pp. 468-474.

6 Architecture and Design 3:8 (August 1939). Entire issue is devoted to the Olmsted Brothers' work.

7 Stern, pp. 32-34.

8 F. L. Olmsted, Jr., to E. D. Latta, April 24, 1911. Library of Congress collection.

9 Memo on conference with E. D. Latta, Jr., F. L. Olmsted, Jr., and P. Gallagher at Brookline, June 20, 1911. Library of Congress collection. Charlotte Evening Chronicle, February 1, 1912, reported that one of the Olmsted Brothers would be arriving in two or three days.

10 Olmsted Brothers, "Dilworth: Preliminary Plan for Subdivision," January, 1912, job 5109 plan 7, in the collection of the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, Massachusetts.

11 Draper, interview with Hanchett, August 1982.

For more information...

Neighborhoods: Charlotte's Neighborhood Planning Tradition