The Olmsted Brothers’ Artificial Nature: South Philadelphia’s League Island (F.D.R) Park


 
When author Christopher Morley sauntered around “the Neck” one hot summer evening in the early 20th century, to his surprise he found Philadelphians living an almost rural existence amid the marshes, ash heaps and junk yards. But Morley saw that the boggy land where the Delaware met the Schuylkill – “the canal country of South Philadelphia” – held great promise. He longed to see the “wonderful Dutch meadows of the Neck reclaimed into one of the world’s loveliest riverside parks.”

Perhaps Morley knew of the city’s plan for a South Philadelphia park -perhaps he did not- but as early as 1899 the New York Times was announcing with subtle hauteur that “the winning plan for the new League Island Park at Philadelphia was drawn by a New Yorker, Samuel Parsons Jr.” But to the Times, the conditions of the site looked bleak: “the territory where it is proposed to lay out this park consists of 300 acres of low-lying land on the Delaware River…. Irrigation ditches, a sluggish, winding stream, and a small amount of what may be termed upland are all that at present represent the park.”


 

Though city planners placed Parsons’s design on its 1904 Plan of Park and Parkway Improvements in South Philadelphia and began laying out his design, by 1910 work had ground to a halt. Then in 1912, the city’s director of public works, Morris Cooke, asked the preeminent landscape architecture firm, Olmsted Brothers, to produce designs for League Island Park, Oregon (Marconi) Plaza and the stretch of Broad Street connecting the two parks known as the Southern Boulevard. The Olmsted firm, helmed by the son and stepson of noted landscape architecture pioneer Frederick Law Olmsted, produced two plans that worked with the low lying tidal conditions of League Island’s site. An earlier Olmsted plan borrowed Parson’s design feature of a large plaza in the center of the park along Broad Street. Later plans omitted this formal plaza. But all three designs were not short on water.

The final Olmsted plan situated Meadow Lake and Edgewood Lake inside a ring of carefully segregated lawns, meadows, and “playsteads”. While the area east of Broad Street was designed for active recreation, the western portion was to be a “landscape park.” Incorporating the design features developed by their father, the Olmsted Brothers ran curvilinear paths throughout the complex of open space and water. Just like their father’s Central and Prospect Parks in New York, a combination of altered topography and tree screens effectively walled off the city. The Olmsteds also sought to remake portions of Parson’s design: they adjusted the drives, simplified the drainage system, and made features of the park more “natural”. Thus, lawns and marsh plantings near the lakes replaced severe concrete retaining walls. (Note: some of the photos included in this essay show the retaining wall prior to demolition.) The whole effect was to create a series of well-structured, picturesque natural views and to segregate recreation spaces according to their function.


 

Beneath the surface, a sophisticated drainage system connected the lakes to the alluvial waters of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. This connection allowed them to “breathe” or expand and contract depending on the tides. Portions of Hollander Creek, the “sluggish, winding stream,” was banished to a viaduct and connected to the rivers.

Although the Olmsteds considered their design inalterable, League Island Park underwent substantial modifications almost as soon as it was completed in 1921. New structures were added for the Sesqui-Centennial of 1926 and the original boathouse on Edgewood Lake was converted into a Russian Tea House. The John Morton Memorial Building, now known as the American Swedish Historical Museum was added north of Edgewood Lake in 1926. Other portions of the Olmsted design have been irrevocably obliterated. The decision to construct a municipal stadium on the recreation space land to the east of Broad Street ensured that this part of the park would forever be a stadium complex. A golf course, added in 1940 in response to changing recreational tastes, removed the western portion of the Park. By the late 1940s, even the Park’s name had changed to honor America’s Depression-era and wartime leader. And although the encroachment of I-95 appears the most grievous assault on the park; its looming presence has given an unmistakable ambiance to Philadelphia’s world-class FDR skate park.


 

While recreational tastes may change, officials at the Fairmount Park Commission have seen the practical wisdom and natural simplicity of the Olmsteds’ plan. When tidal waters began to seep up through the bottom of FDR’s large concrete pool made from Meadow Lake, park landscape architects converted the pool into a natural marshland.

References:

  • Morley, Christopher. Travels in Philadelphia, (Philadelphia: David McKay Company, 1920), 65.
  • Heilprin, Angelo. Town Geology: The Lesson of the Philadelphia Rocks, (Philadelphia: Academy of Natural Sciences, 1885), 125.
  • “Proposed League Island Park at Philadelphia,” The New York Times, 2 April 1899.
  • “League Island Park (F.D.R. Park) Historic District Building Inventory” (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Historical Commission, 2001), 1-6.
  • Fairmount Park Commission Archives.

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