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American Society of Landscape Architects


July 2006 Issue

On The Side Of The Angels
Landscape architects restore the Olmsted Woods at the Washington National Cathedral.

By Linda McIntyre

On The Side Of The Angels H. Peter Von Pawel

High on a hill in a mostly residential neighborhood sits the Washington National Cathedral, a Gothic edifice at which much of official Washington gathers to mark occasions and mourn the loss of their own. While the cathedral itself, like so much architecture in the capital city, is staunchly traditional despite its relatively recent vintage, the renovation of a five-acre woodland on its grounds is using the best modern design and technology to help a historical landscape by legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. survive the vicissitudes of the twenty-first century.

Preservation of the site’s five-acre woodland—once a large stand of old-growth oak and beech forest—was part of Olmsted’s original master plan for the cathedral grounds, developed and refined over 20 years, starting in 1907. Olmsted envisioned visitors approaching the cathedral through a woodland walk and arriving refreshed. “The great charm of approaching the cathedral through and up a wooded hillside, having the city far behind and below, helping one to forget the hurly-burly, the busy-ness of a work-a-day world, must be taken advantage of to the fullest extent,” he wrote in 1932. “The great sweeping branches of the trees seem to brush off, as it were, the dust of the city, so that one at last reaches the cathedral cleansed in mind and in spirit.” Despite this inspiring vision, an inviting path luring visitors from the south side of the property up through the woods to the cathedral had never been fully realized—the only path was a mulch trail going halfway through the woodland.

The woods themselves had remained intact while the cathedral and its grounds, known as the Close, were developed over the ensuing decades. But they suffered considerable damage, both natural and man-made. During construction of the cathedral and its outbuildings, fill dirt and debris from excavations changed the topography of the site. Visitors and students from the three schools associated with the cathedral trod through the woodland and used the woods as a playground. The surrounding neighborhoods of Cathedral Heights and Cleveland Park changed dramatically over the years, from a sleepy area dotted with farmhouses to a fashionable area of large houses, apartment buildings, shops, and restaurants, and their roads bore increasingly heavy commuter traffic. As in urban landscapes throughout the country, exotic species escaped cultivation, depleting resources available to native trees and plants.

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