Doug Stern on ‘Origins of Louisville’s Olmsted Parks’: From private ‘pleasure grounds’ to peerless public parks

IMG_1745Imagine a small group of successful businessmen. A mix of Louisville’s old-liners and non-natives. Most of them, do-gooders. Meaning, they’re in it for the right reasons.

The group meets privately for months, discussing a big-ticket idea.

They eventually develop a vision for a high-profile civic improvement project. Something that will help Louisville and its citizens in just about every way you can think of for years to come.

Then they back up their plan with lots of time and political capital. They even engage the world’s top consultant.

The airport improvement program? 21st Century Parks? Computers in classrooms?

Good guesses, and all partly true.

But, no, that’s not what I’m thinking of.

This was how Louisville’s magnificent park system came to be way back in the late 1880s and early 1890s. It’s the story of how a resettled leather merchant and Gettysburg veteran from New York, Andrew Cowan, teamed with distiller Temple Bodley, Thomas Speed (of the Farmington Speeds), engineer Charles Hermany and other members of The Salmagundi Club, a private men’s conversation society, to birth and nurture the idea of a comprehensive park system for the city.

It’s how the group leveraged a long local tradition of largely private “pleasure grounds” into one of the city’s most-loved and most-used civic assets, with Henry Watterson and The Courier-Journal cheerleading every step of the way.

Historian Sam Thomas

Historian Sam Thomas

It’s now a story lavishly researched and painstakingly pieced together by Louisville’s greatest urban historian and antiquarian, Sam Thomas, who passed away almost one year ago.

Sam, who worked on the topic for years, left a nearly-finished manuscript titled, “The Origins of Louisville’s Olmsted Park and Parkways.”

Here’s where the story picks up with the team at Holland Brown Books – the ubiquitous Gill Holland and Augusta Brown Holland.

Partly as a tribute to Sam, the couple turned to Debbie Thomas, Sam’s widow and a talented writer and historian herself, to finish the edits, build an index and otherwise wrap things up.

Gill Holland says that he was motivated partly as a tribute to Sam, who wrote 18 books on local landmarks, neighborhoods and institutions. Sam had an uncanny knack for unearthing one-of-a-kind letters, diaries and photos and using them to shed light on our past.

(In the process, Sam often corrected the record. He did that with Louisville’s Olmsted, too. But I won’t spoil it for you. Buy the book.)

It seemed only right and just to finish what Sam started.

Gill says he was also motivated by civic pride. When he read Laura Roper’s seminal 1974 biography of Olmsted, he was irked that Louisville’s park system was barely mentioned.

Publishing Sam’s book (and kickstarting other Olmstedian projects), was Gill’s way of righting a wrong and putting Louisville’s parks in the conversation about the world’s great civic achievements, where it belongs.