The Olmsteds and Baltimore’s Parkway Heritage

Baltimore’s principal east-west parkways–The Alameda, 33rd Street, and Gwynns Falls Parkway–represent a 100-year-old heritage, fulfilling the vision of the Olmsteds and the city’s planners and civic leaders to provide a green corridor connecting parks, afford green spaces for neighborhoods along the route, and contribute immeasurably to the quality of life for Baltimore’s citizens.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., (1870-1957), who led planning efforts by the Olmsted firm on Maryland projects for more than four decades.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., (1870-1957), who led planning efforts by the Olmsted firm on Maryland projects for more than four decades.

The parkways were a key component of the vision of an integrated, comprehensive park system for Baltimore advanced in 1904 by the noted Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects firm, under the direction of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and John Olmsted, son and step-son of landscape architecture pioneer Frederick Law Olmsted. Recognizing historic Druid Hill Park as the centerpiece of Baltimore’s parks, their report called for parkways or connecting boulevards to link Druid Hill to newer parks—Gwynns Falls to the west, Wyman Park to the immediate east, and Clifton and Herring Run Parks and Lake Montebello farther to the east. The report argued that parkways “should be treated as far as possible like extensions of the parks to bring them to the people and place them in touch with each other.” Over the next decade the Olmsted Brothers worked directly with the Park Commission and city government on the plans for these parkway corridors. While the Olmsteds conducted park and landscape plans for many cities, their impact upon the landscape of Baltimore is among the most significant in scope and implementation.

Excerpt from the map of the 1904 Olmsted Report.

Excerpt from the map of the 1904 Olmsted Report.

Equally important as the Olmsted vision was the commitment of Baltimore civic leaders to the development of the parkways. With the support of the Park Commission, City Council, and Mayor, over the following two decades plans for this set of parkways were developed and implemented. Sun articles from the period particularly credit the leadership of Richard M. Venable, president of the park board, who championed the idea of a “chain of modern parkways,” based upon the plan prepared by the Olmsted Brothers.

At the time of the Olmsted report this east-west line represented the northern edge of the built-up city, and the Olmsteds had recommended a curving route and wide clearances to provide a park-like experience. However, by the time plans were underway, city officials recognized that the pace of development and the cost of land acquisition would mean that the corridor would have to be straighter and less wide than the Olmsteds envisioned. The Olmsted report of 1926 acknowledged this change, terming transportation corridors like these as “boulevards,” which “should be treated with ample planting strips and trees so that they are attractive and passage over them pleasant.”

As the parkways were planned and developed, Baltimore’s press and public understood the logic of this set of east-west parkway connectors as distinctive in plans for the city’s landscape. A Baltimore Sun article of 1909 announced the “Design for New Parkway to Connect Druid Hill and Gwynns Falls Park,” noting that ordinances already had been passed for a comparable boulevard along 33rd Street and The Alameda.” And a 1914 Sun article celebrated implementation of the vision of “Linking Our Great Park System by Boulevards,” concluding:

“It is reasonable to suppose that another decade will not pass without seeing the chain complete and all the parks linked together by one continuous boulevard.”

Baltimore Sun, March 9, 1909, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Baltimore Sun, March 9, 1909, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Over succeeding decades, the parkway corridor became a front yard for fine row house development and some of the city’s most vital neighborhoods.   Open spaces along its span afforded sites for important cultural and educational institutions, past and present—on the east, Baltimore City College, Eastern High School (now JHU Eastern), Memorial Stadium (now the site for senior housing at Stadium Place and Waverly’s Y of Central Maryland), and the JHU Homeland campus (also designed with the assistance of the Olmsted Brothers); on the west, Frederick Douglass High School (previously Western H.S.), the Mondawin Shopping Center, and Coppin State University.

“How fortunate for Baltimore to have the benefit of early comprehensive planning by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., for a regional system of parks and parkways . . . This leafy corridor across the urban grid, linking diverse green nodes, was designed to make the quality of life in the city more habitable and civilized.”
Arleyn A. Levee, Landscape Historian, 1987 ASLA “Revitalization Plan for the Wyman Park Drive, 33rd Street Corridor”

Subsequent roadway changes altered the sense of connectivity to the system’s centerpiece, Druid Hill Park. While Gwynns Falls Parkway continued to link directly with the park’s principal western entrance, the routing of through traffic on the southern edge along Druid Park Lake Drive left Wyman Park Drive (formerly Cedar Avenue) with something of the feel of a back-door entrance, rather than a seamless parkway approach from the east.

Today, many Baltimoreans who live near or travel these boulevards may take them for granted, likely appreciating their green canopy (and the shade it provides) and their contribution to the area’s quality of life, but without full recognition of the century-long heritage that they represent. These are not simply tree-lined roadways, but important linkages in Baltimore’s comprehensive park system. Landmark designation is imperative to assure that the Olmsted Parkways receive the recognition, protection, and enhancement that they deserve.

Ed Orser, President, Friends of Maryland’s Olmsted Parks & Landscapes