Monday, June 20, 2011

Frederick Law Olmsted and Mountain View Cemetery

Genius of Place by Justin Martin

Mountain View Cemetery in its early days

There is a wonderful new book out called "Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted" by Justin Martin. In the book, Martin describes how Olmsted came to design Mountain View Cemetery and what inspired him. I highly recommend this book and you can purchase it by clicking on the Amazon widget to the right. Here are two excerpts:
Unsettled in the West, desperate for money, Olmsted rattled this way and that. Tellingly, he reserved his greatest energy for seeking out landscape architecture jobs. Yet despite his enduring passion for the outdoors and his success with Central Park, he was less certain than ever that there was enough demand to make a living as a landscape architect.

The first project he embarked upon was actually one that he’d been handed while still supervising the Mariposa Estate. It was also his first solo commission, landed without Vaux. Now that his gold-mine obligations appeared finished, Olmsted turned his attention to the job.

The Mountain View Cemetery was to occupy 200 acres in the hills above Oakland. In preparing a design sans Vaux, Olmsted worked with a hired draftsman. As with Central Park, he showed an unusual sensitivity to the unique requirements of the site. He came up with a variety of thoughtful cemetery-design touches. Many of the people who would be buried in the cemetery were Chinese immigrants. So Olmsted’s plan included a “receiving tomb” to hold bodies temporarily until they could be returned to China, as was then the practice. There was also a preponderance of single men in California’s highly transient population, as Olmsted had noted. So his plan included an unusual number of single plots.

The land set aside for the cemetery was a bowl consisting of a flat, dusty floor surrounded by steep barren hillsides. When it came to plantings, this was quite a challenge. A stately canopy of elms was simply not going to be possible. Here again, Olmsted proved extremely imaginative, suggesting a tree – the cypress – that he believed would thrive on the grounds while striking the perfect note of reverence:

Being an evergreen, and seeming more than any other tree to point toward heaven, it has always been regarded as typical of immortality. For this and other reasons, it was considered by the Persians and Hebrews of old, as it is by the Turks and Oriental Christians of the present day, more appropriate than any other tree for planting about graves. Thuchydides mentions that the ashes of the Greeks who died for their country were preserved in Cypress; and Horace speaks of the custom among the Romans of dressing the bodies of the dead with Cypress before placing them in the tomb. It is the gopher-wood of Scripture, of which, according to the tradition of the Hebrews, the Ark was made; and it constituted the “exalted grove” of Mount Sion, spoken of in Ecclesiastes. Here, then, is a tree which seems peculiarly fitted by its associations, as well as its natural character, for your purposes.

Olmstead’s plan greatly pleased his client; he received a much-needed $1,000. He also chased several other landscape architecture projects, but with far less success.

Martin’s book also raises an interesting connection between Mountain View Cemetery and Golden Gate Park. One of the people buried in the cemetery is Henry Coon, who was Mayor of San Francisco at the time. Martin writes:
Another possible landscape job came from Henry Coon, mayor of San Francisco. He met with Olmsted, and the pair walked over a desolate, wind-whipped section of land. Apparently, there was some desire to create a park here. But the city commissioners and other interested parties were intent on a reprise of Central Park in San Francisco. Olmsted argued for a park more appropriate to the city’s climate and topography. Mayor Coon asked Olmsted to draft a proposal.
You can read my post about Henry Coon HERE


Chris Pattillo, FASLA said...


What you didn't say is that much of Olmsted's original design vision for Mountain View remains today.

A fellow docent

Bob Giles said...

Be nice to see a side by side shot of today's view next to the old photo showing a landscape view of MV before the huge mausoleum was added to the left side. You can see the cathedral like mausoleum in the back there and what looks to be St. Mary's cemetery in the hills to the right.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know what was Olmsted's vision for the highest point in the cemetery? Walking around the top of the cemetery the other night provided amazing views. Yet, there is a large, fenced off area which is the utmost highest point of the cemetery which would provide even greater view - 180 degree plus views. Did Olmsted sketch in a future folly to be placed atop this high point? Also, I'm interested in viewing his design sketches. How does one do that?

Unknown said...

I Remember a large wooden cross was located at that peak. I would see it from my home in Piedmont. It was was struck by lightening in the early 1980's and burned. I would be interested, too, in knowing the significance.