Tracking Olmsted in Ontario

Viewing Fulford Place from the Olmsted gardens. Photo: George Fischer

Photo: Viewing Fulford Place from the Olmsted gardens. Photo: George Fischer


Romas Bubelis

Buildings and architecture

Published Date: May 06, 2010

An undiscovered legacy of work left by landscape architects Charles and Frederick Olmsted Jr. exists in fragments of landscape across Ontario. Their father, Fredrick Law Olmsted Sr., was the founding father of American landscape architecture – designer of New York’s Central Park, the Chicago and Boston park systems and numerous private estates. By 1900, his sons had inherited the firm and continued to expand its prominence in the United States and beyond. In its country of origin, the firm remains renowned and memorialized to this day. But its impact on landscape architecture in Ontario remains virtually unknown.

Olmsted Sr.’s earliest work in Ontario was St. Catharines’ Montebello Park (1870). Thirty years later, stepson Charles Olmsted designed the landscape of Fulford Place in Brockville, including the “Italianate” garden that was the subject of a 2004 restoration project by the Trust. Research of the Fulford project at the Olmsted Archives in Massachusetts provided the first clues to 27 other Olmsted projects in Ontario. Trust research intern Jennifer McGowan undertook the task of assembling Olmsted design drawings and correspondence for a range of park, recreational, city and regional planning projects, including proposals for the Toronto and Hamilton waterfronts and plans for Queen Victoria Park in Niagara Falls.

Using original client addresses gleaned from Olmsted-client correspondence, McGowan tracked down Ontario sites in the hope of finding remnant landscape features for these turn-of-the-century projects. The folio for J.W. Favelle (1901) includes plans for drainage, shrubs, feature trees and gates; Favelle House is now part of the University of Toronto Law Library. Large brick and carved-stone piers with wrought iron gates survive, as do the planted trees, now fully matured.

Detailed plans exist for the grounds of Toronto’s Benvenuto Place, the lavish residence built for S.H. Janes in 1890. Although the house was demolished long ago and the property subdivided, the massive stone retaining walls along Avenue Road survive, as do various landscape features incorporated into the surrounding subdivision. The Olmsted firm did significant work for J.B. McLean, for his Toronto residence and the family church, parsonage and farm in the hamlet of Crieff near present-day Cambridge. Their 1928 plans that range from cemetery plantings and reforestation to park development are discernable in the forested landscape remaining today.

The Olmsteds’ most lasting influence was arguably the training provided to young professionals employed to oversee local projects. Former Olmsted associates Frederick G. Todd, Gordon Culham, Thomas Adams and others put down roots in Canada to establish their own practices as pioneers in the emerging landscape architecture profession in Ontario.

Sparked by archival research, supported by on-the-ground detective work and documentation of fragments, the first step has been taken to identify this important and largely unknown aspect of Ontario’s heritage.