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