Camden and the Camden Public Library will be joining the nationwide “Olmsted 200” celebration of the work and philosophy of the Olmsted firm over the past two hundred years of American park design. Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. was born in 1822, and his and his sons’ designs of parks and landscapes have had an enormous impact on the philosophy and appearance of public spaces in the country in general and Camden in particular.
The Camden library will offer an exhibit celebrating Harbor Park and the Village Green as part of Camden’s “Olmsted 200” celebration. The exhibit will portray in photographs and text of the Olmsted design philosophy, vintage construction photographs, modern color photographs, and the story of how the Park came to be, thanks to the generosity, vision, and talent of Mary Louise Curtis Bok as well as Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. The Library exhibit will be on display for the month of October in the library’s Picker Room.
The month-long celebration will include a talk by Eleanor Ames on Tuesday, October 26 on Zoom. Eleanor “Noni” Ames is a landscape designer and historian and served as the co-chair of the National Association for Olmsted Parks as well as founding the Maine Olmsted Alliance for Parks and Landscapes. The Maine Olmsted Alliance was folded into the Maine Historical Society in Portland a decade ago.
“In the face of the pandemic, Olmsted’s parks and places have proven more important than ever,” says the Olmsted 200 website. “These places did not appear by accident. They took generations of dedicated stewardship and will require generations, going forward. . . . In good times and in times of crisis, parks and open spaces give people from all walks of life a place to connect. They offer a setting for diverse individuals and groups to find common ground, whether playing host to family celebrations, local festivals, political rallies or other activities.
“Olmsted understood that parks and public places were not luxuries, and advocated for government to provide adequate funding and support at the federal, state, and local levels. He also believed that parks and landscapes required ongoing maintenance to protect them for future generations . . .
“Olmsted and the Olmsted firm promoted comprehensive urban and regional planning, connecting communities through a network of parks and natural spaces. Olmsted envisioned the preservation of America’s great scenic features for the enjoyment of all Americans, and his son (FLO Jr.) played a critical role in the creation of the National Park System. Olmsted and the Olmsted firm undertook nearly 6,000 projects over 100 years. These landscapes are part of America’s cultural heritage. They can still be enjoyed, coast to coast – including New York’s Central Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the grounds of the United States Capitol, Seattle’s Washington Park and the Palos Verdes community in California.”
The Cultural Landscape Foundation has summarized the history of Harbor Park and the Village Green. “Hired by patron Mary Louise Curtis Bok,” says the report, “Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. prepared a plan in 1928 for the neglected two-acre hillside between Camden Harbor and the Camden Library. Simultaneously, Fletcher Steele designed the Camden Library Amphitheatre directly across Atlantic Avenue, a unique convergence of work by two of the most important American landscape architects in the 20th century.
“Employing strategic grading operations, Olmsted’s design emphasized framing views, especially those of the harbor from the library’s Palladian window, as well as views by boat toward nearby Mt. Battie and Mt. Megunticook. Curved walking paths led from street level to the shore, and generous planting beds concealed views of the backs of contiguous houses and stores. Olmsted proposed numerous native plants such American arborvitae, juniper, and blueberry, along with old-fashioned shrubs such as weigela, lilac, and tree hydrangea.
“Much of Olmsted’s plan was carried out. After a period of neglect, both Harbor Park and the Camden Library Amphitheatre were rehabilitated in 2004. Today Harbor Park features lawns for public gatherings, sweeping views, benches fashioned after the original design, and hundreds of trees, shrubs, and groundcovers. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing resource to the High Street Historic District in 1989.” The Harbor Park project was originally known as Camden Shore Front Park.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation has a thumbnail history of Village Green as well. “After a fire destroyed a summer hotel with sweeping views of Camden Harbor, a group of patrons led by Mary Louise Curtis Bok purchased the one-half acre site and hired Olmsted Brothers to design a village green. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. completed the design and Leon H. Zach was the site inspector.
“Olmsted, Jr. considered Bok’s request for a simple, unadorned place, while also addressing the awkward topography and lack of trees. He suggested re-grading the site to create a longer sweep of lawn visible from downtown, along with planting trees and shrubs of varying heights to screen neighboring buildings. He specified a simple border fence of wooden rails set into rough-cut granite posts. The town followed much of Olmsted Jr.’s plan, but altered the plantings and installed a more formal fence of smooth-cut granite posts and heavy iron chains.
“Years later, citizens asked for a memorial to World War II soldiers. Despite her own reservations but in deference to the community, Bok hired Olmsted Brothers to design a memorial flagpole which remains on the site today. The village green is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing resource to the Chestnut Street Historic District.”
The parks have attracted thousands of visitors from both near and afar, as described on the “Camden Maine Vacation” website. “Harbor Park offers a panoramic view of the harbor. One can sit for hours and gaze at the quintessential New England village, the sailboats and white steeples. You might just feel like you are sitting inside of a living painting. The parks have hosted countless picnics, craft fairs, weddings, concerts, family strolls, festivals, theater productions, and graduations. The parks serve as the perfect backdrop for just about everything. Both parks are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”