Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Washington Park Would Honor Olmsted

Washington Boulevard would be renamed to honor Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the park and two others in Milwaukee.

By - Jul 20th, 2022 03:46 pm
Washington Boulevard. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Washington Boulevard. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A resolution headed to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors would rename the parkway running through Washington Park, currently called W. Washington Boulevard, for Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect who designed three county parks.

The resolution was originally authored by Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson and submitted to the board in 2020. But it was tabled twice at committee in her absence and was never taken up again.

Now, Sup. Peter Burgelis has resumed the effort, with new legislation that “deepens some of the language and history and background” of Olmsted and his contributions to Milwaukee and the history of landscape architecture, Burgelis said. “The roadway is important, I think, to acknowledge his contributions not just to Milwaukee County, but to park system’s throughout the United States.”

Olmsted is often called the Father of Landscape Architecture. He designed world-famous parks around the country, including New York City’s Central Park. And he designed Lake Park, Riverside Park and Washington Park in Milwaukee.

Of those three, Lake Park “has retained the greatest conformity to the Olmsted design,” according to a history of the first 150 years of Milwaukee County published by the Milwaukee County Historical Society in 1987.

Olmsted didn’t just design parks, he was also an advocate for public access to them. Burgelis said changing Washington Boulevard to Olmsted Way will carry a double meaning. “Sure it’s a roadway where you can drive and walk and bike,” he said, “but it also references the Olmsted Way.” Meaning Olmsted’s advocacy for free and open public parks, and the influence his work had on the parks movement and landscape architecture around the country.

Olmsted was hired by the City of Milwaukee Parks board in the late 19th century to design the parks. These parks were later acquired from the city by the county. The resolution notes that Washington Park features Olmsted’s “characteristic elements of naturalistic vistas, curvilinear pathways, and a picturesque lagoon.”

The historical society book notes, “Olmsted was critical of the sites selected by the Board because they were located considerable distances from the center of the City. This attitude not only tended to ignore the realities of Milwaukee land prices but sharply conflicted with the views of Charles B. Whitnall and his followers, whose vision of future urban growth was the cornerstone of the county park system’s development.”

This year is the 200th birthday of Olmsted, and the National Association of Olmsted Parks (NAOP) have been organizing, along with other partners what they call Olmsted 200, described as “a coordinated national and local celebration, engaging wide and inclusive audiences in examining the foundational principles of Olmsted’s democratic vision, values, and resilient designs.”

Anne “DeDe” Neal Petri, NAOP president and CEO, traveled to Milwaukee from Washington D.C. and attended the parks committee meeting Tuesday. “As you know, you are very lucky,” she said. “You have not one, but three fantastic Olmsted Parks.”

She told the committee that Olmstead was a friend of Christian Wahl, an important Milwaukee leader in the early formation of what would become the county parks system. “Olmsted’s papers indicate that he and the Wahl’s became good family friends,” she said. “There is even one letter where Olmsted lets his family know that Mr. Wahl has been introducing him to some mighty good beer.”

Petri told the committee that in supporting a name change for the parkway they are showing support for the natural landscapes Olmsted designed as well as his “remarkable principles.”

“While we take public parks for granted, it wasn’t always that way,” Petri said. “In fact it was indeed because of Olmsted that parks went from being private property open only at the whim of the rich and powerful to public assets for all of us.”

The name change was unanimously recommended for approval by the parks committee. It will go before the full board for final approval later this month.

Categories: MKE County, Parks, Weekly

3 thoughts on “MKE County: Washington Park Would Honor Olmsted”

  1. Ed Werstein says:

    Great news.

  2. NieWiederKrieg says:

    The Milwaukee County Zoo was located at Washington Park… I remember getting so close to the hippos that I could almost touch them…

    I didn’t understand it at the time but putting wild animals on display in cages for their entire lives is one of the sickest forms of cruelty ever created by man.

  3. gerrybroderick says:

    A very good idea!

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