In the Boston area, it’s easy to forget what a backyard looks like. As more and more people are choosing to rent, it can be even easier to forget what a mindfully designed backyard looks like. Seeing Frederick Law Olmsted’s home in Brookline this week was all the more impressive having grown accustomed to this loss. The property is very much a scaled-back version of the Olmsted firm’s large public park designs, featuring an open lawn, a sunken garden, vine-draped hedges, and impressive mountain laurels sheltering a stepping stone path. It’s an excellent reminder that landscape architecture impacts more than national parks and public green space. Whereas the modernist architects whose work we surveyed on Cape Cod found respite in leaving the natural landscape and vegetation largely untouched, Olmsted clearly created an intentional urban haven. Park ranger Alan Banks (pictured above, thanks for the tour!) spoke to the subtle power of intentional planning when he spoke about some of the property’s youngest visitors. Elementary students, upon exiting the secluded laurel path, often run uncontrollably into the open field space behind the house.
As we move forward evaluating various living collections management strategies, considering the spirit and design of intentional landscapes like the Olmsted property, and integrated landscapes like many of the Cape Cod modern homes is equally important. They highlight the very different needs of individual parks and historic sites. In some cases, securing the historically accurate genus and species holds significance, in others, creating a particular feel enriches the property more. Manipulating living collections records is also dependent on visitors and their questions and areas of interest. For instance, highly curated properties often call for the creation of species maps that visitors can consult, whereas visitors to Cape Cod might be more interested in historic photos of the landscape. At the end of the day, however, the most important thing to remember is that all of these collections, landscapes, and desires are dynamic. The most useful database is one that can respond to change and help us critically think about the future.