Olmsted and Vaux’s Riverside: Pitching In to Preserve a Historic Landscape (2013)
In his ten years of living in Riverside, Illinois, one of America’s earliest planned communities, Tim Ozga has seen local residents’ awareness of its history grow. Laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1869, on the heels of their success with Central and Prospect Parks, Riverside combined the conveniences of the city and the restorative benefits of the country. “The town draws people who would be attracted to an Olmsted plan,” says Ozga, “even though they may not know it.” Ozga now serves as president of Riverside’s Frederick Law Olmsted Society, which seeks to sustain Olmsted’s vision for Riverside for generations to come. “Although many of the people who move here are architects or designers drawn to the historic landscape, others come because of the parklike scenery but don’t understand its history and intent. Later, they learn that the design intentionally created that feeling of a rural atmosphere to ease the stress of urban life. It’s an added bonus to know this significant history.”
In Ozga’s view, the bonus yields more than greater individual appreciation of a lifestyle underpinned by design: the very preservation of Riverside, he believes, depends on a community-wide effort to learn and promote its unique design history. “The luxury of living in a large greenspace means that we lack the tax base of a more densely built community, so we lack the funds to properly maintain the public greenspaces that define Riverside’s identity,” he says. To resist the continual pressure to build “more and bigger” houses to boost the tax revenue, says Ozga, “we need to capitalize on our history.”
That history began in 1868, when Emery E. Childs formed the Riverside Improvement Company to develop a residential suburb within commuting distance of Chicago. The company bought 1,600 acres of oakhickory forest along the Des Plaines River. An existing rail line ran through the property, which would allow commuters to ride the eleven miles into the city. Riverside Improvement Company hired Olmsted, Vaux & Company to lay out the community. The designers shared with the Riverside developers their vision of the community as an ideal suburb “in which rural and urban advantages are agreeably combined.” Their “General Plan of Riverside” (1869) placed the river at the suburb’s center, buffered on both sides by forestland. Curving streets outlined organically shaped lots of roughly 20,000 square feet. Patches of forest were interspersed throughout the residential areas, including triangles of land where streets intersected. These various greenspaces, set aside for public use, occupied almost half of the land area. For carriage commuters, a winding, tree-lined parkway linked Riverside to the city.
Olmsted and Vaux hired William Le Baron Jenney (1832–1907), a Chicago-based engineer, landscape gardener, and architect, to supervise the construction of Riverside. Now better known for designing Chicago’s first steel-framed skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building (1885), Jenney, with partners Louis Schermerhorn and John Bogart, was then in charge of developing Chicago’s West Side park system. Olmsted and Vaux resigned the Riverside project in 1870 after disagreements with the developers. Jenney, Schermerhom & Bogart finished executing the Riverside plan. (Author Christopher Vernon, in the LALH book Graceland Cemetery: A Design History, notes that Jenney had met Olmsted during the Civil War and worked briefly for Olmsted and Vaux in New York City in 1866. Schermerhorn and Bogart were also former Olmsted associates.) Jenney designed as well several individual houses and landscapes for Riverside residents, as had Olmsted & Vaux and Frederick Withers, a former partner of Vaux’s.
The Great Fire of 1871 ravaged Chicago. Two years later, the Riverside Improvement Company went bankrupt during an international financial panic; but by this time the village—including the infrastructure, several public buildings, and more than fifty houses— was largely finished. Affluent Chicago residents began migrating to the suburb in the ensuing decades, commissioning houses by some of the period’s notable architects: Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan, as well as Prairie School architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert C. Spencer, and Horace S. Powers (who became partners in 1905), William Drummond, and Charles Whittlesey. Wright’s houses for clients F. F. Tomek (1905) and Avery Coonley (1908) are among the state’s National Historic Landmarks. In addition to those by Olmsted & Vaux and Jenney and his partners, landscapes were designed by Jens Jensen (1860–1951) for the Coonley residence as well as Sullivan’s Babson house (1907). The Riverside Landscape District became a National Historic Landmark in 1970.
Today Riverside is a community of approximately 9,000 people on 1,200 acres, about 40 percent of which is parkland. Village forester Michael Collins agrees with Ozga’s assessment that the village is “resource constrained” when it comes to maintaining this vast amount of historic public space. “Fortunately, the Riverside plan established setbacks and other provisions that preserve the openness of the landscape,” says Collins, whose job includes organizing volunteers to help maintain the public greenspaces. “Also fortunately, Riverside has an active volunteer base. We devise a plan for mulching and weeding, I get them started, then they keep it up. We also run a program to help beautify the downtown. And I work with the Olmsted Society to schedule work days in the park areas, including burns in the wilder areas along the river to clear out invasive plants. Then volunteers replant with native species.” Collins also works with Riverside’s volunteer landscape advisory commission, which is creating a master plan to guide maintenance and preservation of the public spaces. “We’re basing our master plan on previous plans by landscape architects,” says commission member Cathy Jean Maloney, a magazine editor and author who writes about historic landscapes. “The idea of this master plan is to keep the village landscapes evergreen. The commission can periodically reassess its condition, using worksheets we’ve developed for each type of parkland,” Maloney says. The worksheets rely not only on the three recent plans, but also on Olmsted’s writings. “We know, for example, that Olmsted liked to see trees with foliage layering to the ground,” adds Maloney. Worksheets also contain criteria to assess the health and care of plantings and the presence of invasive species.
The landscape’s current threats include the emerald ash borer insect. “About 10 percent of the trees on public land are ash,” says Collins. “As they become infested, we’re looking at replacing them with black maple, catalpa, gingko, linden, bald cypress, and hackberry, most of which are native to Illinois.” Although no Riverside plant list has ever been found, these choices draw on the Olmsted Papers and other original documents that form the basis for village preservation ordinances.
In the big picture, says Ozga, “spaces and trees may change, but the sense of overall design and community elements are at the core of the experience of living here.” He hopes to see Riverside become a destination for history-minded tourists, such as those who visit neighboring Oak Park to explore its Frank Lloyd Wright legacy. “We’ve recently endorsed bike trails to extend through Riverside, and we’d like to create art fairs, farmers markets, and small businesses that people want to visit—all to maintain our basic services and schools,” Ozga says.
Meanwhile, he gets satisfaction from showing up on landscape work days. “There’s nothing like digging side by side with your neighbors to feel like we’re all pitching in together,” he says. “After we’re done, we can see that we actually did something to make Riverside better.”
—Jane Roy Brown