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.