In 1914, the widely renowned Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm was commissioned to design a “New City” on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Southern California. Having been purchased by a syndicate of businessmen headed by banker Frank A. Vanderlip, the 16,000 acres of peninsular land were sparsely settled at the time, having previously supported only a cattle ranch and a small number of Japanese farmers. Assigned the task of replicating an Italian Mediterranean oasis here, John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (sons of noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted) initiated their work by undertaking a deep investigation into the land and climate.
INHABIT: The Olmsted Brothers at Palos Verdes Peninsula, set to debut March 16 at the Palos Verdes Art Center, presents a revealing visual and experiential take on the Palos Verdes landscape during these formative years. Utilizing an abundance of original source materials, the exhibition applies a multidimensional perspective to the Olmsted Brothers’ creation. Exploring the firm’s organic-based design strategies incorporating nature, vista, and the pursuit of beauty, it highlights the unique opportunity the brothers had to develop a landscape that would foster artistic and civic virtues. Speaking to the intentions of INHABIT, guest curator Hilairie Schackai explains: “This exhibition is designed to cast a spotlight on the crucial process of visionary translation from a rough settlement and natural environment into a habitation of cultural splendor by displaying planning and other documents that are virtual art objects in themselves. Viewers will be invited to immerse themselves in a great variety of these foundational materials–many of them sourced directly from the National Park Service’s Frederick Law Olmsted Archives in Brookline, Massachusetts, and all chosen on the basis of their aesthetic and informative value.”
Concerning the specific types of materials being presented, topographic maps display planting areas for mountainous slopes and ravines and suggest ideal vantage points for individual home lots and neighborhood formations. Road studies, printed as cyanotypes resembling choreographed sequences of dancing clouds across the maritime sky, lay out potential areas for undulating highways and byways. And horticultural lists, derived from botanical experts that influenced the firm’s plant selections–complete with personal notes–are presented.
There are also extracts from the journal of Ford A. Carpenter, a seminal document in Palos Verdes history, that provide poetic and technical descriptions of native wildflowers and local meteorological conditions. Inspired by Carpenter’s writings, the exhibition installs a collection of images, gathered from herbaria in California and New York, of wildflower specimens that flourished on the Peninsula at the turn of the twentieth century. It should be noted that the curator of INHABIT was influenced by the enthusiasm of Monique Sugimoto, archivist and librarian at the Palos Verdes Library District, whose Local History Center has been more than generous in providing materials for INHABIT. Ms. Sugimoto has presented a previous exhibition at the library displaying photographs of wildflowers taken from Carpenter’s book.
To round out the exhibition, samples of early marketing brochures and advertisements are displayed that feature colorful clarion calls to invest lives and fortunes in this gorgeous area. Flower arrangements that once adorned La Venta Inn, the original locus of property sales, are recreated within the gallery. And finally, viewers will be invited to leaf through an oversized photo album containing a collection of classic black-and-white photographs of early Palos Verdes.
All of these foundational materials, the plans, studies, drawings, plant lists, photographs, herbaria specimens, and ephemera—a formidable assembly of historical documents and imagery—are gathered here in one place for the first time. Taken together, they can be seen as a powerful representation of the comprehensive ecological ideal so characteristic of the forward-looking Olmsted design philosophy.