Architecture ‘father’ used Berkeley to grow career
Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York City, is considered the father of Landscape Architecture in the United States. He is primarily associated with the extensive work he did in the New York and Boston areas, and it is a revelation to realize he also worked in California between 1863 and 1865.
It is also a revelation that it was his work in Berkeley, in particular, that served as a turning point in his career.
In 1860 the Trustees of the College of California purchased 30-acres of land that would become the future campus of the University. In 1864 they asked Olmsted, already working in California as the manager of a large mining company, to prepare plans for their new campus and an adjacent residential subdivision.
Olmsted’s plan for the college campus was not used, but his plan for the residential subdivision was followed.
The Berkeley Property, as the subdivision was called, encompasses the area between College Avenue on the west, Prospect Street on the east, Dwight Way on the south and Strawberry Creek on the north.
Piedmont Avenue (formally Piedmont Way) is the main divided roadway bisecting the residential subdivision and is the most clearly defined surviving feature of Olmsted’s 1865 plan for the College of California.
While Piedmont Avenue features a curvilinear plan, with a planted median, rounded corners, and a large garden circle at Channing Way, Olmsted’s street design merges with the existing grid pattern of the streets to the west.
Piedmont Avenue is the first divided residential boulevard that Olmsted designed. His designs for Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, the Buffalo Parkway system and Boston parkways had their beginnings here.
During the next 30 years, Olmsted designed hundreds of parks and residential subdivisions where the most important feature was the preservation, enhancement, and use of natural features. Olmsted’s legacy can be seen in residential subdivisions across the country.
Piedmont Way was designated California Historical Landmark No. 986 in May 1989. A plaque was placed its intersection with Bancroft Avenue in 1990. It is also a city landmark.
By the first decade of this century, Piedmont Avenue was lined with impressive houses designed by prominent architects and set in lush gardens. Although today these homes are mostly used for student housing, the appearance of the street, with its green median and overhanging trees, retains many of the qualities Olmsted envisioned.
Susan Cerny is author of “Berkeley Landmarks” and writes Berkeley Observed in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.