Perhaps the most famous American landscape architect was Frederick Law Olmsted, whose work included designing Central Park in New York and the grounds of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.
His sons, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and John Charles Olmsted, also carried on their father’s work in a praised way for decades after his retirement in 1895.
They also secured such well-known commissions as the road system in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Little publicized over the years or at least in recent decades was that the sons also had several commissions in the Chattanooga area. They included the gardens behind a home at 238 W. Brow Road on Lookout Mountain, the grounds of a now-razed home at 1625 Edgewood Lane in Riverview, the now-razed former D.P. Montague home on East Terrace on the also mostly leveled Cameron Hill, and apparently the Eagle’s Nest parkland on the old Cravens quarry site near Ruby Falls on Lookout Mountain.
Longtime local Realtor Charlie Walldorf, who has become interested in the Olmsted work in Chattanooga, also found some information about some contact between the city of Chattanooga and the Olmsted firm regarding possible work on the local parks here. Further research would be required to find the details.
And Mr. Walldorf said he also heard that maybe the firm had designed gardens for a home on Missionary Ridge as well.
All the commissions or discussions were apparently done at different times in the earlier part of the 20th century, with the Riverview work done for an apparent Chattanooga cousin, Roland Olmsted. He lived in a home built in 1924 and later resided in by the Dr. Smith Murray family.
These projects have all come to the forefront – and to canvas and paper as well – due to a recent painting project done by American-born artist Jill Steenhuis Ruffato, now of France. Long interested in “plein air” painting – or painting done in the outdoors – she has been a longtime fan of both Frederick Law Olmsted and the noted French painter Paul Cezanne, who lived in Aix-en-Provence in France where she now resides.
Involved in recent years in some painting projects and competitions in Atlanta related to places designed by the elder Mr. Olmsted, she also recently painted the West Brow Road gardens for a competition connected to the 200th anniversary of Mr. Olmsted’s birth.
She was at the home, now resided in by Jim and Marian Steffner, in April of this year and said in a telephone interview she had a delightful time and enjoyed meeting the Steffners. “They were so generous,” she said.
Although decades had passed since the Olmsted commission, she still gained an appreciation for the work the firm had done.
“It was very natural,” she said. “There were ancient stone steps integrated organically between the stones of Lookout Mountain (quarried nearby) and the boulder stones out of the Earth. It was a very beautiful combination of man putting order with the God-made architecture in a very natural way.”
It was all like a natural art gallery, and Ms. Steenhuis Ruffato enjoyed this experience that was likely more like being on vacation than having to work. It also reminded her a little of being back home in France.
“I was all by myself on the edge of Lookout Mountain and could see the whole valley below,” she said, adding that she has sold some of these paintings at the Mountain City Club and to members of the Montague family. “I felt like I was in the Roman ruins of France that are 2,000 years old. It was very beautiful.”
Called over the years the Garden of the Gods, the original site stretched from the Steffner home up about two houses, according to Marian Steffner.
She said when contacted over the phone that only a minimal part of the gardens remains. Some jonquils/daffodils also come up in the late winter.
Ms. Steffner, who grew up in Raleigh, N.C., later kindly and graciously showed me around the backyard property where the garden was. Stone stairways and stone-lined paths done by the firm are still visible, as are the remains of a very early Lookout Mountain swimming pool, which was possibly also done by the firm.
While the stone adornments will likely be around for years and years unless moved by man, whatever plantings had been done under the advisement of the Olmsted firm have mostly disappeared, she said.
However, in the simply gorgeous valley below – which looks prettiest in the morning with the sun at one’s back – it is the collection of rock that has disappeared there, with a large quarry developed in more recent decades the only blemish on the otherwise beautiful setting.
The paintings of the Steffners’ backyard by Ms. Steenhuis Ruffato show she did her own creative landscaping with her brush. She even created a waterfall over some rocks just behind the back of the home down to the pool in one of the paintings.
Ms. Steffner said that people who have been familiar with the gardens behind their home have come by over the years. One elderly man even told her President Roosevelt had visited the spot.
It is known President Franklin Roosevelt had visited Point Park and drove along West Brow Road during a 1938 visit, one of multiple trips he made to Chattanooga in connection with the construction of Chickamauga Dam.
President Teddy Roosevelt also visited the Point Park area in 1902.
Ms. Steffner said she has also talked with Elliott Doggett Williams, who grew up in the West Brow home.
Finding information on the full history of the home at the time of the commission proved challenging, but old city directories say H.W. McCall lived in the home before World War II. He was the president of J.H. Allison and Co., which had been a packing company.
For Ms. Steenhuis Ruffato, getting to paint this Olmsted garden site on Lookout Mountain was literally like returning to her home base, despite having lived in France for decades. She was reared in Atlanta, but her mother died at a young age, so she was sent by her father to Camp DeSoto down the mountain in Mentone, where her mother had also gone after being from Scottsboro.
“I felt like I got to know my mother,” she said.
She had also become interested in the artist Paul Cezanne as a youngster after her father gave her a book about him. After finishing at Sweet Briar College in Virginia in 1980, she went to France where he lived to study, and she has been there ever since.
She also sent her three sons to Alpine Camp for Boys, also in Mentone, so she feels like life has come full circle.
“They all have the mountain heart in them, too,” she said with pride.
Among the other Olmsted garden commissions, the gardens at 1625 Edgewood Lane down in the valley above downtown were evidently a showplace for many years, much as the nearby Riverview garden of Ginny Power I once visited and wrote about was in later decades.
Mr. Olmsted, whom Mr. Walldorf thinks was a relative of the landscape architects, was president of Fidelity Trust along with being involved in other business and civic endeavors.
His obituary after his death in June 1958 says of his home and grounds, “The Olmsted home in Riverview, modeled after the ancestral Olmsted Hall in England, is one of Chattanooga’s best-known residences. Many people visit the gardens in the spring.”
After the death of his wife, Elsie Caldwell Olmsted, in October 1963, the obituary said similarly, “The grounds around their home in Riverview have been a showplace for many years.”
Mr. Walldorf’s wife, Catherine, also found a book, “History of Homes and Gardens of Tennessee,” done in 1936 by the Garden Study Club of Nashville that features information on the Edgewood Lane home.
The writeup said the home was comfortably hidden at the end of Edgewood Lane and added, “The entrance drive is between closely planted white and loblolly pines, dogwood, crabapple, and sourwood trees, with an undergrowth covering of all varieties of azaleas, mountain laurels, rhododendrons, and jasmines.
“Pine thickets and flowering shrubs frame the lawn, while a natural growth of sassafras, hackberry, red bud and walnut clothe the bluff, along with paths which wind down to the river,” the book description continued. “The Mayapples, wild ferns, violets and wild irises, to which have been added bluebells and trillion, make a ground cover throughout which azaleas and pine trees predominate in the general planting.
“A densely shaded terrace, built out toward the river and protected by parapet walls, against which are banked azaleas, lilies and maiden-hair ferns, is most secluded and peaceful.”
The story also said the architect for the early 20th century home was E.M. Parsons of Boston.
Ironically, Mr. Parsons’ old home for Roland Olmsted has just in recent weeks been torn down, according to an examination Friday by automobile. The ownership of the property changed hands recently, and the site is being prepped for a new home.
I also decided to drive up to Eagle’s Nest park off Scenic Highway just below the entrance to Ruby Falls on Lookout Mountain. It had been part of land set aside a few years before World War II with the work of project leader Milton Ochs and his older brother, New York and Chattanooga Times publisher Adolph Ochs. It was originally to be part of a fancy hanging gardens leading up the mountain and inspired by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon of ancient history.
The quarry rock had been used for Cummings Highway. Today only a closer examination reveals it was indeed a quarry and just not part of the limestone outcroppings found all along the side of Lookout Mountain, as might seem to be the case with a quick pass by automobile.
The park space has some trademark steps done by the Olmsted firm and, like the West Brow home lot, uses stone only minimally shaped. It leads up to a small, dried-up pond lined with smaller stones around it. Some spectacular vertical walls that look like a miniature El Capitan – although shaped by man and not nature – surround it.
I also learned some eagle statues designed in the 1930s by Spefano Giuliano of Chattanooga sit at the top above the walls, although I was afraid to climb too high up beside the cliffs by myself on Friday to see them. I did meet Mr. Giuliano years ago at his home at the top of Forest Avenue in North Chattanooga. His friendly wife was typing a master’s thesis for my father, Dr. C. Wayne Shearer, while my father was getting a degree from UTC in those pre-computer keyboard days.
Some steps lower down the mountain at Eagle’s Nest come right to the roadside. They have flattened stones, and it is not clear if the Olmsted firm did these or if they were done later.
The latter steps look like they lead up to a peaceful and isolated home at the top and give no visual hint that busy traffic passes by a few feet from the bottom steps.
More detailed stories about Eagle’s Nest were written by John Wilson for chattanoogan.com in 2019 and Rodger Ling for rootsrated.com in 2016. Mr. Wilson also recently wrote about the local Roland Olmsted family related to the Riverview home as part of his series on Cameron Hill.
And I remember a story of a few decades ago about well-known Chattanooga developer Tommy Lupton personally trying to clean up some of the parkland.
It is not clear if the Olmsted landscape firm’s connection to both Eagle’s Nest park and the West Brow Road home on the other side of the mountain – but on the same end — were part of grand plans to use land wrapping around both sides of Point Park, or if they were done separately.
Regardless of that and the fact that only minimal reminders of their original work remain, at least some of all the spaces are still good examples found locally of the creative skills of the Olmsted firm known nationally.
* * *
Here is how Jill Steenhuis Ruffato described getting to paint the Olmsted garden space behind the West Brow Road home:
Painting in Olmsted’s Garden of the Gods on the overhanging ledge of Lookout Mountain in April 2022 was truly an otherworldly experience. The towering natural boulders rising out of the earth with Olmsted’s masterful use of the nearby smaller stones inviting one up, up, up to the summit, to the stars. Alone in the hidden garden, I felt the presence of the native Indian and the gods of ancient times. It was a mystical experience beyond words; my language and my dance with nature were my brush strokes – the wind and the birds joined me.
* * *
September 12, 2022
September 12, 2022
September 12, 2022
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