A Brand-New Olmsted

The discovery and replanting of a century-old lost landscape

Judging from its late-nineteenth-century downtown buildings, Scranton was once a rich little city. The coal barons who made their fortunes mining anthracite—hard, clean coal—poured their wealth into bricks and mortar. Rugged Richardsonian Romanesque office blocks line the sidewalks. Elaborate churches (one designed by the New York architect Russell Sturgis) punctuate the street corners, their steeples competing with the tower of the Victorian Gothic city hall. Opposite the handsome Beaux Arts high school is a real gem—the public library, a passable replica of a fifteenth-century French chateau in Indiana limestone.

It was the library I had come to see—or, more precisely, the library's garden—on a visit a year ago. The landscape architect responsible for its design was Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous builder of Central Park, whose biography I had recently finished writing. But when Jack Finnerty, the director of the library, called me about the garden, I had to admit that I'd never heard of it. That wasn't really surprising: although the garden was designed in 1892-1893, this Olmsted landscape was completely new to modern eyes.

The Scranton Public Library, also known as the Albright Memorial Building, was built thanks to the generosity of John Joseph Albright, a Buffalo financier who had grown up in Scranton and made a vast fortune in the coal-shipping business. In 1890 he and his three siblings donated the land, which was the site of the family homestead, and Albright pledged to pay for the construction of the new building. He knew exactly what he wanted, specifying that the building should be designed by his Buffalo architect, Edward B. Green, and that the grounds should be landscaped by the Brookline, Massachusetts, firm of Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot.

Frederick Law Olmsted, who had earlier designed the park system in Buffalo, had recently laid out the grounds of the Albright estate there. Almost seventy years old, he headed the foremost landscape-architecture practice in the United States, perhaps in the world. Although he and his partners (his stepson, John, and his protégé, Charles Eliot) were working on major commissions around the country (the imminent World's Columbian Exposition, in Chicago; a suburban subdivision in Atlanta; and Biltmore, the huge Vanderbilt mansion in Asheville, North Carolina), no project was too small to merit their attention. They submitted a planting plan for the new library's tiny half-acre site. The detailed order list for the job included no fewer than thirty-seven species of shrubs, trees, and perennials.

Green based his design for the building on the fifteenth-century Musée de Cluny, in Paris. The library has steep roofs covered with black glazed tiles, decorative dormers, lively ornament, and stained-glass windows. This style, known as French Renaissance, was popularized in the United States in the late 1800s by the great architect Richard Morris Hunt, who was collaborating with Olmsted at Biltmore; Hunt had first used French Renaissance in a celebrated Fifth Avenue mansion for William K. Vanderbilt. The picturesque opulence, crafted details, and solid materials—all of which were costly—attracted affluent Americans to what has been called the Nouveau Riche style. Albright promised Scranton citizens "a suitable building of the value of from $50,000 to $75,000"; the final cost of the library reached $125,000. The building opened in 1893, and the garden was finished two years later.

Like many old industrial centers, Scranton is no longer riding high. Anthracite is not in demand, and the fifty-odd collieries that once stood around the city were quieted long ago. The population, which in 1930 had grown with the booming anthracite and steel industries to almost 145,000, has shrunk to about half that size. But the architectural legacy of the boom years remains. Like most nineteenth-century civic monuments, the library was built to last. Fortunately, Scranton was too poor to "modernize" its library in the 1960s, so no acoustic-tile ceilings or suspended fluorescent lights mar the beautiful interior. The quartered oak paneling, high barrel-vaulted ceilings, and luxurious marble fireplaces remain miraculously intact.

Olmsted's garden fared less well. Landscape is a fragile art form (everyone thinks himself a gardener), and over the years changing tastes made themselves felt. Flower beds were put in and shrubs were removed or crowded out by new oak trees. When a towering Masonic temple, designed by Raymond Hood in the 1920s, was built next door to the library, the shaded back garden languished. In a final indignity, the plantings on the east side of the building were sacrificed to make way for a parking lot. By 1950 the Olmsted landscape had disappeared.

In 1992, during the planning for the centenary of the library, a local heritage association unexpectedly turned up a copy of the original landscaping plan—a single drawing that specified the names of the plants and included the precise locations of all the plantings. The name Olmsted created a flurry of interest. Since there was barely a trace of the original garden, it was assumed that the plan had never been implemented; evidence to the contrary turned up only this year. It was decided to rebuild the Olmsted design as part of the anniversary celebration. Except for the back garden, which was too dark to support plant life, Olmsted's plan was carried out again.

I asked Thomas J. McLane, a local landscape architect who was in charge of the work, how he would characterize the hundred-year-old design. "It's not too different from good landscape architecture today," he answered. "It's naturalistic. The pastoral landscape that Olmsted is famous for is simply compressed into a small space." McLane worked with the landscaping drawing and a later planting list, which was located in the Olmsted drawing archive in Brookline. The first challenge was to identify the species in the planting list. The terminology was not always clear. For example, the "World's Fair rhododendrons" were obviously things the Olmsted firm had used in Chicago, but the precise varieties were a mystery. Some plants, including zanthorhiza apifolia, or yellow root, a herbaceous ground cover, were no longer easily available, and substitutes had to be found. Others, such as the multifloral rose and the Japanese honeysuckle, are today considered noxious weeds, because of their tendency to spread and dominate large areas, and could not be used. The final planting included thirty-one species of trees, deciduous bushes, evergreen shrubs, and perennials—six fewer than called for in the original plan.

Another problem was the density of the planting. The actual area to be planted, now only about a quarter of an acre, was to contain 1,798 shrubs, perennials, and trees—a veritable jungle. "We assumed that Olmsted planted things in masses and later had them trimmed into clumps, so that they looked like swatches of color," McLane told me. This approach required constant cutting back to keep growth under control. But times have changed. "They had real gardeners; we have a kid with headphones and a hedge clipper," McLane said. The modern solution is to plant much more thinly and to create a mass of texture and color by pruning to a natural shape once or twice a year. As a result, the finished garden included only about a third the specified number of plants.

Like all landscapes, Olmsted's will take time to grow in. When it does, it will exhibit characteristic Olmsted features: tangled rhododendrons and disheveled mountain laurels mixed with evergreen shrubs, surrounding a curved swath of turf—hardly the Sheep Meadow of Central Park, but a pleasing choreography of greens. The only anomalous touch is a solitary flowering dogwood in the center of the grassy area. It was planted almost two decades ago by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and "removing it was one battle I didn't need to wage," Jack Finnerty told me. In fact, the dogwood is a poignant reminder of the hundred-year gap between the first and second incarnations of this garden. I don't think that Olmsted, who was touchy about details, would object.