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Frederick Law Olmsted and the Middlesex Fells Reservation

In November of 1880, the month after its formation, the Middlesex Fells Association wrote to prominent American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted asking his advice on the plan for creating a four thousand acre rural park in the wild rocky hills north of Boston.

Olmsted’s letter in response referred to a earlier visit he had made to the Fells landscape, and conveyed what he declared was “the most important lesson of my professional study” which spanned thirty years; “the wisdom of…developing in the highest degree whatever may be the distinguishing characteristics of each particular property.”

He advised that since the impulse for the Fells preservation “comes from an appreciation of the beauty & use of absolutely wild sylvan scenery it is most desirable to avoid complicating the purpose of preserving & developing such scenery…”

Referring to the topography of the Middlesex Fells, Olmsted wrote it was advisable to “take it as it stands, develop to the utmost its natural characteristics, and make a true retreat not only from town but from suburban conditions” and that “every inducement should be offered visitors to ramble and wander about.”

As it turned out F. L. Olmsted himself did not work on the Fells Reservation plan. He retired in 1885 the same year that Elizur Wright died. But in 1890 Olmsted’s protege, Charles Eliot, had begun to put together what became a successful movement to create the nation’s first metropolitan park system.

When the Metropolitan Park Commission was established in 1893, Eliot, working with Olmsted’s two stepsons, was appointed to lay out boundaries for five reservations, including the Fells. The first parkway Eliot designed was a route to connect the Fells to Boston.

Following Charles Eliot’s death in 1897 the Olmsted Brothers firm continued extensive landscape work in the Fells Reservation.

Thanks to the efforts of the Massachusetts Historical Commission today Fells Historic Parkways and the Fells Spot Pond Historic District have been listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, to provide protection to the legacy which has been bequeathed to us.

And we would like to think that F. L. Olmsted would solidly endorse the growing citizens’ movement to protect the Fells from being swamped by development, to actively make sure the Reservation and its parkways remain a natural place of refuge, “a true retreat from city life.”

Mike Ryan

Mike Ryan

Former Executive Director, Friends of the Fells
Mike Ryan
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