Jan 15, 201412:30 PMPoint of View

The METROPOLIS Blog

Q&A: Marion Pressley, Landscape Architect

Q&A: Marion Pressley, Landscape Architect

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Olmsted Park restoration by Pressley Associates

Courtesy Marion Pressley

Marion Pressley, FASLA, is principal at Pressley Associates. In addition to her practice, Pressley has taught for the past 40 years landscape history at the Landscape Institute of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, and now at the Landscape Institute at Boston Architectural College. Marion received the 2004 BSA Women in Design Award of Excellence and the 2002 Massachusetts Horticultural Society Gold Medal Award.


Jared Green: For almost 30 years, you have restored and updated Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, his famed system of parks. What has this project taught you about Olmsted? What do you think he did best? What do you think he should’ve done differently?

Marion Pressley: We started on it in 1984, and, actually, I worked on some parts of the system back in the mid-seventies. It has been a long time. It was part of an important statewide-Olmsted initiative that included 12 park sites.

What it really taught me is the man had the ability to not worry about politics. This system is owned by two municipalities and the parkway is under state jurisdiction. You have Brookline, with a small amount of the Emerald Necklace, and Boston, with the majority of the Necklace. When he designed it, he really didn’t care who owned it. In Olmsted Park along Riverdale Parkway, the system for pedestrians was sometimes on the Boston side and sometimes on the Brookline side. For him, this was one landscape. He reset the boundaries between the municipalities. That’s really one the most important things I learned about what he was doing.

I haven’t really looked to see if there’s other park systems he worked on that have been owned by different entities. I don’t know of one. Buffalo, the first system of parks he designed, was owned by Buffalo.

What he did best is bring all the parties together as he did the design. So that’s the attitude we took with the rehabilitation: This was one park and all groups met together. It didn’t matter whether you were municipal or state; everything was done that way. That’s possibly the best thing he accomplished when he created this system of parks and parkways.

What would he have done differently? One thing he never really thought about is the maintenance of these parks. The maintenance could be uneven because one town could have more money than the other. One might have a different aesthetic than the other, even though Olmsted designed it as one place. He also didn’t foresee as much active recreation coming into any flat space it possibly could, although I think it was late enough for him to recognize it would happen. He didn’t really provide a lot of space for active recreation. His Emerald Necklace was really a passive, linear system. You would pass through it in a linear way. That’s one of the things he might have done differently.

In his writings, there was one thing about Central Park that struck me: if his landscape was still intact 50 years or 100 years from now, he would know he’s been successful. The best thing he’s achieved is that this system has held itself together. The individual parks have had some changes. Some of the changes came with the dam going in, and changing saltwater to fresh at the Fens, but he created a system that was able to sustain itself.

Olmsted Park pathways by Pressley Associates

Courtesy Marion Pressley

JG: With your deep understanding of Frederick Law Olmsted’s designs, what do you think he would make of Boston today? What would he approve of? What developments would dismay him?

MP: He would very much approve of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy and Brookline, Boston, and the state, getting together and recognizing it as one park. He would be amazed that it happened, in some ways. He would be really pleased with the fact that the park system has maintained itself. Different ownerships really could have allowed it to split. He would be most pleased that his vision continues today.

One of the things that would dismay him is the fact that most of the understory areas in critical places, like the Riverway and Olmsted Park, were wiped out over time. But this happened in all parks. It happened in universities. It happened everywhere where people all of a sudden felt unsafe, so the shrub and herbaceous layer had to be wiped out. That’s something that he wouldn’t have foreseen.

All of his plantings were very dense — if you look at photos in 1906, a few years after it was finished in 1895, and then, the 1920s, you see it as he envisioned. He was trying to use the density of the planting to achieve the picturesque. To see these plants totally wiped out would have upset him, because he was trying to create and control views with the plants. He was creating this vegetation with openings in it, so you could see the water. There was a very definite sequence of open and closed and open and closed, as you went down through. The fact now that some areas that are just totally open or totally closed off would really disturb him.

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