Arts & Literature

North Easton's Public Palaces

A lavish downtown still offers the sense of majesty, identity and pride in community its builders intended over a century ago.

Comments (2)
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Photo By Mark Roessler
North Easton's Memorial Hall and the Ames Public Library in the distance

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As exciting as spring is for anyone who appreciates leaves on a tree or green grass underfoot, for landscape architects it's a season with added thrills—with professional consequences. In their art form, the brushstrokes they make—the geographical and horticultural changes they make to a space—take years to fill in.

Taking in the work of these artists when all is in bloom can be edifying and can offer ideas you can take home with you. The Valley has a knack for producing fine landscape architects, and there are many well-appointed parks and town commons to enjoy.

If you want to take in the work of a master, Frederick Law Olmsted's landscapes abound in the Pioneer Valley and all around New England and New York. All but one of the area's major college campuses were designed by Olmsted or his staff. He consulted on the building of Forest Park in Springfield and did designs for several Holyoke residences and parks.

In the southeastern corner of Massachusetts, about equidistant from Boston and the Rhode Island border, the small town of North Easton has one of the most distinguished and architecturally significant downtowns of any in the country—regardless of size.

Most New England town centers have grown somewhat haphazardly over the centuries; they are a myriad of styles and tastes. North Easton, though, has the distinction of having been conceived and constructed by two of the nation's greatest 19-century builders—architect H. H. Richardson and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Long before Caterpiller, John Deere or Mack Trucks were household names in the construction business, the Ames Shovel Company took a lead role in providing the equipment that helped build America. The shovels, manufactured in North Easton, were used by the crews constructing the Union Pacific Railroad. They became known as a key instrument in opening up the West.

The Ames family made a fortune from their product. In the early 1870s, in addition to building themselves grand estates, they decided to re-imagine their small town. They sought to imbue their public architecture with a sort of royal magnificence seldom bestowed to the common folk. Only the best would do.

Richardson had just finished work on Trinity Church in Boston's Copley Square.

After a decade working mostly on the New York City park system, Olmsted was considering moving to Boston. He had recently ended a long and successful collaboration with Calvert Vaux.

On either side of the Civil War, they had built a system of parkways throughout the city—Olmsted did the park grounds, woods, waterway and pathways; Vaux did the buildings, bridges and other public structures. Playing off each other's rhythms and inventions, they created scenes that—in addition to being enjoyed by millions every year, they have become iconic, the backdrops for countless movies and photographs: the bow bridge stretching over the lake; a wide meadow snaking off into the distance; through the trees a slender granite archway; a tunnel made of boulders; an idyllic stream next to an Adirondack-style hut; a castle by a pond.

Vaux was a tough act to follow, but Richardson believed he was the man for the job. Physically, he was every bit Olmsted's opposite—a real-life Falstaff: large, barrel-chested, and given to dressing in a medieval monk's cloak and hood.

Before North Easton, he and Olmsted had already worked on a number of projects together, and they had become friendly. Early on, Richardson began urging him to quit the New York scene, move north and be his neighbor near Boston.

When the Ames family came calling, offering a chance for the two to work together on a plan that would include town hall, the library, a train station and a war memorial, it became an occasion for Richardson to strut his stuff and Olmsted to consider a new partner. The resulting duet has its awkward, over-exuberant missteps, but the sum total is daring and lavish. It has a fairy tale feel. Enchanting.

*

Local filmmakers Larry Hott and Diane Garey are currently at work on the documentary film Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America. It is a co-production with WNED-TV, the public station that serves Buffalo and Toronto.

Their last film, The War of 1812, featured elaborate historical reenactments and staged scenes with costumed actors and stuntmen. Things like artillery shooting at cavalry, bombs bursting in air, and a gunfight in the winter woods.

Hott told the Advocate that while there would be some reenactments of historic events in their Olmsted film, it wasn't always as easy to "find a way to show something actually happening."

Unlike that of America's early military conflict, the drama of the landscape architect's life happens in letters, conversations and architecture. There's no body count. At one point, Olmsted had a bad accident while riding, but otherwise, his life was a mix of art, horticulture, managing large-scale projects, and a heavy dose of endless wrangling with local, state and national politicians. He grew up in Hartford, and summered along the Connecticut River in Massachusetts. For breakfast, he liked pickles and coffee. Bruce Willis probably wouldn't be right for the role.

Garey said one approach they'd been exploring is describing Olmsted as precursor to Walt Disney. An interview subject had made the comparison, arguing that both men sought to build transporting, recreational environments for leisure-time America.

In addition to countless public parks and residential work he did across America, Olmsted also designed the grounds for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In record time, a murky swamp was turned into a lagoon with gondolas and giant, gleaming white buildings. A midway with its own train system featured the world's first Ferris wheel. The new fangled electric lights lit the place up at night. The stories Elias Disney told his son Walt of this wonder land were his inspiration for his kingdom in a Florida swamp.

The comparison between their work is interesting, but the distinctions between them might be more significant.

Most of Olmsted's park work was to serve public, not private interests: there were no ticket takers at his gates. Instead being torn down or remodeled when obsolete like a Disney ride, Olmsted's landscapes are meant to improve with age. Unlike a Disney attraction, where visitors are passive participants moving along in a confined car on a set of rails, Olmsted's work is accessible from any direction and open for almost any use. You can only ride on Pirates of the Caribbean so many times before it's dull, and everyone's experience of the ride is pretty much the same. Talk to any lover of an Olmsted park, and they're likely to have dozens of different cherished memories of time spent there.

Most importantly, Olmsted trade techniques are ones that can work on any scale and are sustainable. You'll probably never recreate Disney's jungle safari in your backyard, but you might be able to find ways to turn an empty lawn or barren yard into something more inviting and private.

*

On the heels of the North Easton commission, Olmsted began work on the Boston park system, now known as the Emerald Necklace. For five years, he commuted between the site and his home and office in New York, until he finally moved to Brookline. His home became his design office. It was as short walk from Richardson's house and is now a National Historic Site with archives of his designs (www.nps.gov/frla/).

Haydenville landscape architect Tom Benjamin points to both the plantings around Olmsted's home in Brookline and the network of parks he designed around Boston as examples of advanced thinking for the 19th century planner.

"Part of Olmsted's house was covered in vines," he told the Advocate in a recent interview. "Now, we call those green walls"—used for improving a building's thermal insulation, acoustics and wildlife habitat. A wall of vines can be used as a screen for privacy or creating multiple spaces.

"A good deal of the Emerald Necklace is designed for storm water management," Benjamin said. Urban areas displace a lot of water. Whether for a backyard or a downtown park, the plan "must aggressively handle storm water, getting it away from buildings."

Benjamin, who teaches sustainable landscape design at both UMass and Greenfield Community College, said he admires Olmsted's "reformer ethic" and his belief that landscaping could create spaces that were beckoning and therapeutic.

His design for one such space, a rain garden outside a hospital in Rhode Island, was recently honored by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"The space I had to work with was a fraction of an acre," he said. "It had been part of their parking lot. It's on a promontory with a view of traffic and the hospital entrance."

Using deep-rooted grasses and perennials, Benjamin created an environment where the urban world was masked out and the water run off from adjacent pavement went to work feeding the hungry plants. Using creeping thyme and other fragrant plants, he turned parking spots into somewhere people wanted to congregate—a kind of "outdoor room."

Successful landscape design "addresses multiple problems and provides multiple solutions," Benjamin said. "You can bring the same sustainable design principles to play in a residential property."

*

But for Olmsted and Richardson's additions, downtown North Easton is a nondescript crossroads.

There's a wooded hill where the town hall sits and a wide stretch of lawn for the library, but there isn't a patch of green for a common. To create a greater sense of place and frame Richardson's impressive edifices, Olmsted designed a war memorial out of river boulders, rising like a crest at the center of town. There's a flagpole and lookout on top, and a tunnel runs underneath.

Across the road from the memorial, wide stairs climb up through the craggy rocks to a verandah lined with Gothic arches. The three-story castle was intended as the town hall. Woodland creatures are carved into the stonework and a mighty oak door stands at the end of the cloister.

Down the hill from the great hall (which residents never embraced as their seat of government—it's now rented out for functions), is the abbey-like library, stretched out on the grass with the authority of a Sphinx. Inside, the vaulted arches of the main reading room are like those found in a Celtic scriptorium. On a bright, beautiful May day, it was still packed with patrons.

Further down the hill is a river. If they follow it a short distance, visitors can find the mill buildings where the Ames shovels were manufactured. Across from the rows of factory windows is the town train station, its arms open wide. The tracks have fallen into disuse and are overgrown, but the building has recently been renovated for use as a town history museum.

When I visited about a year ago, the paint was still fresh on the train station, but volunteers welcomed the curious inside. The historic society members bubbled up with stories about their hometown and wanted to know where the visitors had visited and where they were going next.

"Heck, I'm going that way too, perhaps we could walk together?" one of the neighborhood histrorians asked.

As eager as he might be to get his picture taken with you, you've got to pay Mickey a much bigger ticket fee to get that kind of tour of his kingdom.

Comments (2)
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The place that you have written about is the Town of Easton. There are several sections/neighborhoods in the town; North Easton is but one part of the whole. There is also Furnace Village, Eastondale and (surprise!) South Easton. There is no town of North Easton. All of us who lived or once lived in every section of EASTON are very proud of the Ricchardson and Olmstead legacies in the town. Thanks for letting me vent.

Posted by Jim Kippenhan on 5.30.12 at 9:27

Thanks for the comment, Jim.

I don't think you need to come from anywhere near Easton to be proud of what Richardson and Olmsted created there, but if you're going to find the place and see what's described above, you'll be disappointed if you head to Furnace Village, Eastondale or South Easton. To find their work, you'll have to go to the place marked on all maps as "North Easton," whether the residents regard it as a place or not.

Posted by M. Roessler on 5.30.12 at 10:24
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