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Secret History

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A landscape pioneer's forgotten Knoxville project

by Jack Neely

You know you've got an educated readership when several readers call because they found unexpected references to Knox-ville on pp. 390-392 of a new scholarly biography of a major 19th-century thinker.

One morning a few months ago, a guy stopped me on the sidewalk and asked me, point blank: "What the hell did Frederick Law Olmsted do in Knoxville?"

I didn't even have a good bluff for that one. I couldn't guess what connection traditionally park-impaired Knoxville could have with this landscape architect best known as the designer of New York's Central Park. In the weeks to come, other readers called with the same question. They're all asking because they've read the new biography of Olmsted, A Clearing In the Distance, by maverick urban theorist Witold Rybczynski.

I'll admit right up here that I still don't know. However, this moment of ambitious public-park development seems a good opportunity to recall Mr. Olmsted's career.

The Connecticut native grew preoccupied with the South. He toured the slave states as a young man, and his travelogues reflected his complicated feelings for this region. Olmsted found the antebellum South to be a weird, beautiful, ignorant, promising, sometimes horrifying place. (He surprised his Northern readers with descriptions of a place far more diverse and complex than they'd pictured.)

In his book, A Journey In the Back Country, Olmsted described East Tennessee in the hot summer of 1854, and the aftermath of an especially grisly slave lynching—a burning at the stake. Olmsted quoted the Knoxville Whig, including Parson Brownlow's bizarre justification for the lynching. "How much more horrible than the deed are the apologies for it," Olmsted wrote.

It was more than three decades later that Olmsted—now a balding man in his 60s, with a wildly unkempt white beard that led some to call him "the ancient philosopher"—returned to a changing South.

He came to help the Vanderbilts design the extravagant lawn for their new palace near Asheville. But Knoxville? This was a pragmatic industrial city in those days, growing fast and recklessly, with little room for parks.

For years, UT professor of horticulture Donald Williams has followed clues concerning an intriguing Olmsted connection.

Knoxville newspaperman Alfred Sanford lived in a big place on Kingston Pike, just east of Sequoyah Hills. He was in his 50s in 1928 when he sold the Knoxville Journal and hired the famous Olmsted Brothers—a firm run by the ancient philosopher's sons—to design a dream: an arboretum with examples of all the trees native to Tennessee.

The Olmsteds delivered their design for the Sanford Arboretum in 1929. Today, in the Olmsted archives in Massachusetts, are more than 50 sheets of plans for Sanford's Kingston Pike venture.

Sanford may have found something in the Olmsteds' plan that displeased him. In any case, Williams is convinced that Sanford ignored most of the Olmsteds' recommendations and allowed his gardener, Pleasant Wright, to design the arboretum as he saw fit. What resulted was a 20-acre museum of native Tennessee flora, stretching from Kingston Pike down to the river: a total of 2,500 species represented, all carefully recorded. If it was not "the most complete arboretum in the United States" as some claimed, it was an astonishingly ambitious start.

Sanford maintained the arboretum through 1940, but then suffered several setbacks; Wright found wartime work with the Fulton Sylphon plant. Soon after, Sanford came down with what may have been throat cancer. He offered his arboretum to UT's botany department, which declined it due to the expense of upkeep. To Sanford, UT's refusal was a bitter disappointment.

In 1946, after two years of radiation therapy, the 71-year-old Sanford died in a fall from the window of his Philadelphia hospital.

Left with no one to care for it as fastidiously as Sanford and Wright had, the arboretum dwindled, its land subdivided. Most of it's now the site of Boxwood Square, named for Sanford's house. Last year, Dr. Williams identified more than 60 plants in 11 different neighborhood yards as survivors of the celebrated Sanford Arboretum.

As it happens, none of that has anything to do with the spectral references to Olmsted in Rybczynski's book: "Traveling...and overseeing park projects in Milwaukee, Knox-ville, and Kansas City, he could see that his work was 'having an educating effect...a manifestly civilizing effect' on the American public." That's about the elder Olmsted himself, around 1890, nearly 40 years before Sanford's grand experiment.

I contacted author Rybczynski last week; from letters, he believes Olmsted came to Knoxville on business, perhaps to consult on a park design. However, because no Knoxville park designs show up in the Olmsted archives, Rybczynski says, it apparently didn't go very far.

Exactly what Olmsted did in Knoxville in 1890 or '91 is a mystery. Our only public park then was a new one: Circle Park, in a residential area on the west side of town that was then only near UT. It was established, coincidentally I assume, the same year Olmsted first came to Asheville to commence exhausting work on designing the Biltmore's lawn and gardens.

There are things about Circle Park of which Olmsted would have approved: the naturalistic arrangement of trees and shrubs, the rock outcroppings preserved as found. Dr. Williams is especially intrigued with one plant in Circle Park, a huge shrub known as a European spindle tree. Dr. Williams says it's rare in America; he has seen only one other. It's very old, he says, much older than UT's acquisition of this property.

Whether Olmsted's advice had any influence on the creation or design of Circle Park is the sort of rampant, irresponsible speculation that thrills me.