PAUL DUNN: Olmsted Had Very Little to Do With Pinehurst's 'Village Green'
For 119 years, the federally landmarked area in Pinehurst located between The Village Chapel and Given Memorial Library/Tufts Archives has never been a village green.
Early attempts to grow grass lawn there failed miserably. It has existed as a pine barren, ultimately growing into today's healthy long-leaf pine forest. Some trees are approaching their 90th birthdays. The colors here are pine straw's tan-yellow, never grassy green.
With federal historic landmark protection, many question why it is now being threatened with severe tree destruction. They ask: Why would Pinehurst's government consider cutting down so many of those wonderful pines? It's a good question, which remains unanswered.
Visitors were rarely in the forest because its ill-defined paths were poorly maintained by the village. This is now being addressed. One might naturally expect Pinehurst's Historic Preservation Commission to protect this venerable wooded area, but it has remained ineffectively mute.
On June 23, 2009, the Village Council established a "Village Green Commission" -- an odd name, because Pinehurst has never had a village green, only a village forest. It was instructed to "consider proposals to enhance the Village Green formulate a report and recommendation on specific short and long-term enhancements."
The commission invited 12 professional landscape architects and designers to suggest plans for 7.3 considered acres. Six of them presented plans at the Fair Barn. Instructions given to them were of dubious value because cost estimates ranged from a modest $150,000 to $1 million. Golf course architect and historian Richard Mandell won the competition.
The commission rushed its final report, delivering it just before Election Day. It may have acted precipitously when it discovered that a council candidate, Mike McCrann, opposed changes to the venerable forest, and nearby resident James Spoonhour threatened to enjoin tree destruction.
The commission claimed that to be "historically correct and consistent with Frederick Law Olmsted's landscape philosophy and principles," Pinehurst should have "rolling meadows, trees and plants in a people-friendly central park."
Anyone studying Olmsted's classic park designs, including Central and Prospect parks, must admire his foresight in protecting areas for future public enjoyment. However, his designs were usually for parks in moderate climate zones where grass lawns were sustainable. He did little work in the South.
Students of Olmsted believe he never personally designed Pinehurst's now forested area. One archivist concludes, "I personally doubt that Olmsted had any part of drawing the plan." Library of Congress records indicate James Walker Tufts met with Frederick Law Olmsted one morning on June 20, 1895, and returned that afternoon to meet with him, his son John and Charles Eliot, who agreed to the plan. This Pinehurst history expert suspects that one of them did it -- "but not Frederick Law Olmsted."
Olmsted was terribly ill after his 1893 Chicago World's Fair troubles and struggled mightily at the Biltmore to please Vanderbilt. His family then sent him away for a long-needed rest. Biographers describe him as suffering from dementia then.
He wrote a son in 1895, "I think it my duty to tell you this at once in order that you may take measures to guard the business from possible consequences. I see that I ought no longer to be entrusted to carry on important business for the firm alone."
Later he wrote Eliot, "I have been dreading that it would be thought expedient that I should be sent to an 'institution.'" That year, senility forced his confinement at McLean Hospital in Waverly, Mass. His wife assumed power of attorney of his affairs.
Only his associate, the horticulturalist Warren Manning, ever came here from Olmsted's architectural firm. The Olmsted Associates Papers in the Library of Congress read: "July 3, 1895, Mr. Tufts called twice. First on F.L. Olmsted, and afterwards, J.C. Olmsted. He accepted our offer to make a plan without visits for $300, and signed an agreement to that effect."
To argue, as does the Village Green Commission, that Pinehurst should redesign its pine forest area to jibe with "Frederick Law Olmsted's design ideas" is dreadful public policy because Olmsted never came here and most likely never put ink to paper to the original, modest design. That is generally believed the work of his son or another firm member.
James W.Tufts initially wanted a typical New England village green to grace his new resort community, but as a practical man he willingly abandoned that dream when he discovered that the grasses of those days could not thrive in this difficult sandy soil with its hot, dry climate and lack of irrigation.
Inspired by the majestic pines he found here, he was pleased to select the appropriate name, Pinehurst (and not Fairlawn) to describe his Eden.
Paul R. Dunn lives in Pinehurst. Contact him at email@example.com.
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