Central Park Creator Left His Mark on Berkeley

By SUSAN CERNY Special to the Planet
Friday August 22, 2003

Although best known for his mid-to-late 19th century landscape design work on the East Coast, Frederick Law Olmsted created his first residential subdivision in Berkeley, centered on Piedmont Avenue—the first of his signature curvilinear parkways with divided roadbed and landscaped median.  

Olmsted’s name entered the designer’s pantheon when he and architect Calvert Vaux won the 1857 competition to design Central Park in New York City, and Olmsted supervised the park's construction until the outbreak of the Civil War.  

As the designer of Manhattan’s dominant landscape feature, and the author of numerous articles, Olmsted was highly sought after, and he took a position as supervisor for the Mariposa Mining Estate in California in 1863. 

Among the projects Olmsted worked on during the two years he was in California were the plans for Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Trees, Mountain View Cemetery and the College of California. 

In 1864, Trustees of the College of California asked Olmsted to prepare plans for their new campus and an adjacent residential subdivision on land they had purchased four years earlier. A private school based in Oakland, the college merged in 1868 with the newly created University of California. 

Although Olmsted’s plan for the campus grounds was not realized, the residential subdivision, called the Berkeley Property, was laid out and graded. The area lies 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 is a curvilinear street, with a planted median, rounded corners, and a large garden circle at Channing Way, Olmsted's street design merges and blends with the existing grid pattern of the streets to the west. 

By the first decade of the 20th 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 some remaining overhanging trees, retains many of the qualities Olmsted envisioned. Today there are plans to replant the two-block medium between Bancroft and Channing that has become an impromptu and unsightly parking strip for UC’s fraternity row.  

Piedmont Avenue is Olmsted’s first divided residential boulevard design. His plans for Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, the Buffalo Parkway system, and Boston parkways had their beginnings here. 

During the next thirty years Olmsted designed hundreds of parks and residential subdivisions where the most important element 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 of 1989. A plaque was placed at the intersection of Bancroft and Piedmont in 1990. It is also a city landmark.  

Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny is author of the book “Berkeley Landmarks.”