Category Archives: Gardening

Happy 200th Birthday, Frederick Law Olmsted!

Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America is a co-production of WNED PBS, Buffalo/Toronto and Florentine Films/Hott Productions Inc., made possible by major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor and The Margaret L. Wendt Foundation. With funding provided by HSBC, The Tiffany & Co. Foundation and The C.E. & S. Foundation. With additional support from The Peter C. Cornell Trust and Mass Humanities. (Click on image above to view)

Birmingham is among many American cities that owes a debt of gratitude to the efforts and vision of Frederick Law Olmsted. Considered the founder of American landscape architecture, he was among the first to recognize the importance to public health of providing green spaces and parks in burgeoning cities at the turn of the century.

First, as a writer for the New York Times, he toured the country, and saw the anxiety, irritability, and impatience that close quarters in smoke-filled cities induced. He abhorred the segregation of the antebellum South. Olmsted was convinced that access to green spaces would reduce stress at a time when that real estate was being rapidly developed. Ultimately, Olmsted believed that public spaces would bring people from all walks of life together in a harmonious environment.

Subsequently in 1865, at the age of 43, upon becoming a landscape designer, he became an unintentional reformer who set out to change the way urban Americans engaged with one another.

His legacy in Birmingham includes:

  • an impressive plan for a comprehensive park system,
  • the plan for Birmingham’s civic cen­ter with its governmental buildings surrounding today’s Linn Park,
  • the site selection for today’s Samford University, and
  • the site selection and general plan for the Vestavia Country Club.

He invented parkways; he promoted curving, landscape- driven, suburban streets; he created planned communities, and experimental forestry. He connected cities with a series of parks, and ’rules of engagement’ that would allow everyone to protect and enjoy common green spaces. And perhaps his best known and also his first project is Central Park in New York City.

“The time will come when New York will be built up, when the rocky formations of [Manhattan] will have been converted into foundations for rows of monotonous straight streets and piles of erect, angular buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface, with the single exception of the Park.” ~ Frederick Law Olmsted

His legacy provided the guidebook as to how American cities are planned today. We will forever celebrate the gifts he gave us! So, Happy Birthday, Mr. Olmsted!

(Many events are being planned and attendance may be in person, virtual or streaming due to Covid restrictions. Stay tuned for more details.)

A comprehensive film and commentary has been produced by WNED PBS and can be viewed HERE

To see the sheer VOLUME of work by The Olmsted Brothers, view the MAP HERE. Select an area to explore and download project maps. For instructions, read THIS

View Birmingham Historical Society’s newsletter regarding Olmsted’s legacy HERE

Please also refer to Birmingham Historical Society’s publication: The Olmsted Vision – Parks for Birmingham. A Publication about the Early Years and Today

Read more HERE: https://birminghamhistoricalsociety.com/the-olmsted-vision-parks-for-birmingham/

You’re Invited! Nov 1, 2021

Birmingham Historical Society
invites you to
An Evening in Honor of George B. Ward
Monday, November 1, 2021
7:00 p.m. Strange Auditorium
at
Birmingham Botanical Gardens
PROGRAM
By Marjorie White
SIGNING OF THE NEWLY RELEASED
Birmingham: The City Beautiful, Compliments of G. Ward
Published by the Society
with the financial support of
The Sterne-Agee Foundation
Members paid for 2021 may pick up their copy of the new release.
Books not picked up will be mailed following the meeting. Additional copies will be available for purchase for $30 (cash or check), both at the meeting and from Birmingham Historical Society, One Sloss Quarters, Birmingham, AL 35222.


INVITATION FRONT: Left, top to bottom: George Ward, Mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, 1907; Birmingham City Hall (1901-1950); George Ward Park, 1901 Greensprings Avenue, Birmingham.
Center, top to bottom: The Relay House, the city’s first hotel and home to the Ward family, its proprietors (1871-1886); Cover, Birmingham: The City Beautiful booklet prepared and signed by Mayor G. Ward, 1908; View of Birmingham at the Red Mountain Gap, the city’s first protected viewshed, enacted 1929.
Right, top to bottom: George Ward, investment banker, builder of Vestavia, 1926; Ward’s Vestavia temple residence (1926-1971); Ward’s Temple of Sibyl (1929), as relocated to its park site on U.S. 31 at the entrance to today’s City of Vestavia Hills. Historic photographs courtesy Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts; color photographs courtesy Abraham Odrezin, 2020.

“George Ward was a most unusual and an unusually accomplished man with a significant legacy. Ward was alderman, mayor, and city commission president, an investment banker, a civic and community leader, a student and a reader, a writer, a lover of classics, a gentleman farmer, an idealist, sentimentalist, natu- ralist, conservationist, birder, and floriculturist, in short, a many-sided man of extraordinary ability.”
— Marjorie L. White, Author, Birmingham: The City Beautiful, Compliments of G. Ward


“Birmingham: The City Beautiful, Compliments of G. Ward is a fundamentally important contribution to the material available on our community. It places Birmingham in the City Beautiful Movement in the context of urban America. The document can also serve as a guide for citizens interested in becoming en- gaged in their community. It is a manual of civic participation. Three cheers.”
— Edward S. Lamonte, Retired Professor of History, Birmingham-Southern College, Former Chief of Staff to Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington Jr.


“Every man, woman, and child in Birmingham seems to be imbued with the city beautiful idea. I have never observed in any other city universal interest as is being manifested by the people in this city.”
— Warren Manning in “Manning Tells of Progress of Work-Talks to Commission of City Beautiful Plan,” Birmingham Ledger, November 19, 1914

(click HERE to purchase from Amazon)

Birmingham – The City Beautiful

Vestavia will be featured in Birmingham Historical Society’s newest book Birmingham: The City Beautiful, Compliments of George Ward. A publication celebration will be held on November 1 at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.  The event is open to the public. The book will be available from Birmingham Historical Society, One Sloss Quarters, Birmingham, AL 35222 for $30 postpaid (cash or check) or from Amazon.

Celebrating Birmingham: The City Beautiful 
and George B. Ward, its Champion

The newest volume from the Birmingham Historical Society bears the apt title Birmingham: The City Beautiful, Compliments of G. Ward. And in its 112 pages, laced with photos of both George B. Ward (1867-1940) and the growing city he so adored, the story of early Birmingham unfolds like a novel. From George arriving in 1871 in yet-to-be-named Birmingham at the age of 4 to his ascent to city leader, the book draws the reader page to page, improvement by improvement—especially detailing Ward’s determination to beautify the city that benefited greatly from his measures. 

Ward—who during his time served as Alderman, Mayor, City Commission President—unwittingly assisted the writing of this volume by keeping news clippings and correspondence in 24 bursting-to-seams scrapbooks now housed in the Birmingham Public Library’s Department of Archives and Manuscripts. Newspaper accounts beyond his personal collection reveal the spirit of this man who shrewdly chose to first recruit women and children to the beautification notion. 

Then-Mayor Ward’s little pamphlet of June 1908 (reproduced on the book’s cover and in its title) made beautification simple with suggestions for “block improvement societies” such as: “Whitewash everything you can’t paint,” “Wherever the ground shows bare, plant something green in it,” and “Report anybody who militates or ties a horse to a tree. You get half the fine on conviction.” “For permanent screens [to block unsightly views], use hardy shrubs, or the quickly growing vines.” Most of all Ward entreated the ladies to “call all you meet to the idea of a ‘ City Beautiful.’”

As the story continues, triumphant and true, the Birmingham Beautiful initiative, fueled by Mayor Ward’s energy, worked. Newspapers of the era reported planting tips from local florists (the period’s horticultural experts) while city schools engaged children in thinking, writing, and talking about the program’s potential. A headquarters office in City Hall, bombarded with inquiries from other cities, worked to spread the beautification message. 

What came from the years of Birmingham’s Beautiful boom were parks we enjoy today: Ward, Phelan, East Lake, the pocket parks along Highland Avenue, Lane (which now houses Birmingham Botanical Gardens and the Birmingham Zoo), and Linn, the latter surrounded by public buildings, forming a city center, a prime City Beautiful era project. 

Ward’s best-known park may be Vestavia, his country estate on Shades Mountain that he ran like a public botanical garden, opening the residence in the reconstructed Roman temple and the extensive gardens to visitors—both whites and blacks—who arrived in large and small groups and in thousands during annual festivals. Today’s Ward’ temple of Sybil in its park setting on U.S. 31 commands the northern entrance to the city of Vestavia Hills, incorporated in 1950. 

George Ward’s vision for the City Beautiful movement, inspired by the great “White City” created for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, was to create “a living urban environment . . . healthy and happy to live in.” He championed the movement long after leaving office in 1917, executing his learning from nationally prominent landscape designer Warren H. Manning (who had himself worked on the World’s Fair project). Ward never strayed far from his visions or opinions, even as he spent 40 years as an investment banker, founding the firm of Ward, Sterne & Company (later Sterne, Agee & Leach and today part of 1919 Investment Counsel, Inc. and Stifel Financial Corp.) specializing in Alabama public and corporate finance and securities. The Sterne Agee Charitable Foundation, in fact, commissioned this book to honor its founder and his achievements. 

Indeed, the name George B. Ward should live on. George H. Eustis, a contemporary who served as Birmingham treasurer, described Ward as “competent, untiring, energetic, and wedded to his work. He never dodged responsibilities or sidetracked an issue. He cleaned this town up to the queen’s taste…[getting] the ladies of the city interested in a ‘city beautiful’ movement.” 

Researched and written by the Birmingham Historical Society, Birmingham: The City Beautiful, Compliments of G. Ward will be available November 1 from Birmingham Historical Society, One Sloss Quarters, Birmingham, AL 35222 for $30 postpaid, from Amazon, and from Shoppe at 3815 Clairmont Avenue South. One copy of the book will be provided gratis to 2021 Society members

Archival document originally published in 1908 by George Ward, Mayor, and reprinted in 2021 by The Birmingham Historical Society with rules for block improvements for ”the public good, health, and happiness”!