Elmwood Cemetery: Finding Mr. Olmsted

Elmwood cemetery.His beard scraggly and long, his silver hair carefully brushed back, Frederick Law Olmsted walked the grounds of Detroit’s Elmwood Cemetery, pointing his slender cane at this and that.

“Have you considered substituting the turf here with thicket or bushes, of the sort natural to this region? Such plants require hardly any pruning, and the expense of keeping these should be much less than that for keeping turf. They shall take care of themselves and harmonize better with the rural aspect of this place. Would you agree, Mr. Lothrop?”

“Yes. As a matter of fact, Mr. Olmsted, I have made that suggestion to the Board numerous times, but certainly it would aid considerably if the suggestion was put forth by the man behind Central Park and our own splendid Belle Isle.”

Olmsted’s eyes, focused yet relaxed, turned away from the vista before him to Mr. Henry B. Lothrop, a decorated general and director of the First National Bank, among numerous other distinctions. Lothrop, charmed by Olmsted’s penetrating insight and intensity, waited deferentially for Olmsted to continue as the noonday sun glared down upon his hat.

“We need remember that this cemetery will soon be in the heart of a great town, Detroit. On all sides of it there will be haste and bustle, impatience and disquiet. This Elmwood, if it is to be preserved for posterity, must become a retreat, the soothing beauty of its natural scenery a relief from our ordinary cares. I believe that can be accomplished here, with some planning.”

That much said, Olmsted stamped his cane against the ground for emphasis, his mind wandering across the world in front of him in reverie.

The year was 1891. By now, Olmsted’s resume was beyond compare. His words held an unusual degree weight and power – surely the Elmwood’s Board of Trustees had paid handsomely for his consultation. And luckily enough, Olmsted saw great potential in Elmwood’s gently rolling hills, meandering stream, and old growth trees. Certainly, he cared little for the cemetery’s overly manicured lawn, pruned trees, and the unnatural embankments along the pathways, but that was fixable. His belief, as always, was that nature should be made to the lion’s share of the work, the hand of man to taking on an almost invisible presence. If Elmwood’s Board took his ideas to heart, perhaps the sublime was possible.

The ol' bridge.Of course, it’s hard to today to imagine a cemetery acting as a getaway from our cares, but in the industrial age, any green space in our urban centers was cherished. For a period, quiet strolls and picnics in the cemetery were even a fashionable pastime, an event you’d put on your Sunday best for.

Elmwood, in particular, provided visitors with a unique sense of identity, one indelibly tied in visible ways to the very history of Detriot. Probably half the street names of historic Detroit are buried in Elmwood, from Trowbridge to Larned, Canfield to Alger. Even the Stroh family, of Detroit beer and ice cream fame, rests at Elmwood, along with modern notables such as Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman A. Young, and MC5 guitarist Fred Smith. Here, as cliché as it to say, history lives, in obelisks and mausoleums.

Elmwood Cemetery.But what about Olmsted? Does he still live, here on the hallowed grounds of Elmwood?

Somewhat. To the Board’s credit, they clearly did what they deemed within their means, for instance damming Bloody Run Creek – named after a violent battle between Chief Pontiac and the British in 1763 – to make a pleasant pond, as Olmsted had tentatively mentioned in the closing of his advisory letter to the Board. Also per his recommendations, the Board smoothed out many of the embankments along the pathways and replaced the old wooden fence surrounding the cemetery with a fence of iron.

Elmwood cemetery.However, Olmsted’s further suggestion to plant creepers along the fence to cover it from view was strangely ignored, and the dreaded “shaved turf” that Olmsted hoped to see replaced with thickets still dominates the landscape – it was probably a hard sell to tell families that their grave sites would be better served by bushes than freshly cut grass. While Olmsted left an obvious mark on Elmwood, it’s a stretch to call it a reflection of his vision and spirit.

Despite all the comprises, Elmwood remains the only spot where one can truly catch a glimpse of what Detroit looked like before it was terraformed by generation after generation eager developers. In a tumultuous age of urban decay, suburbanization, and gentrification, Elmwood remains a gracious retreat from the impatience and disquiet of the metropolis surrounding it.

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One thought on “Elmwood Cemetery: Finding Mr. Olmsted

  1. I would never want to be buried in a cemetery. Let my body be cremated and enter back into the earth.

    This sounds ridiculous, I know, but I find the idea of cemeteries as inherently selfish. Why should anyone have the ETERNAL right to occupy a plot of land for their dead body that could otherwise be used to enhance life?

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