Belle Isle and Olmsted's forgotten legacy

Detroit's Belle Isle was designed by the noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, most famous for Central Park and the grounds of the 1897 world's fair in Chicago. Unless of course it wasn't.

Local historian and Belle Isle enthusiast Joel Stone created a minor scandal last year when he wrote an article in The Free Press titled, "Everything You Know About the Birth of Belle Isle is a Lie-Well, Almost." In it, Stone says that the island park owes far more to local designers, activists, and politicians over Olmsted. Among the bombshells he drops in the piece is Olmsted’s response when asked about Belle Isle: "I know nothing of this place." Undoubtedly, this statement expressed his disaffection with his work and not a failure of memory.

Stone gives more credit for Belle Isle's makeup to such people as parks commissioner Edward Heckel, who oversaw the expansion of the island's geographical footprint and the installation of the Scott Fountain, island superintendent William Ferguson, who helped create its lagoons and gardens, and Detroit News editor Michael Dee.

For most of us, questions of authorship won't effect our next barbecue on the island. That many of the public restrooms seem to be both clean and open for use thanks to the Department of Natural Resources is of more immediate importance. However, the reaction that Stone’s article caused within a small set of historically-minded island enthusiasts is notable and could affect the way we see and use the park at a critical moment in the island’s history.

"The Park for Detroit"

Boating on the Grand Canal in the early 1900s

Belle Isle was socially, ecologically, and geographically significant long before it became a park. We don't have much information on how it was used by Native Americans, but Chief Pontiac did conquer the island during the siege of Detroit. French settlers used it as a commons where they kept pigs safe from wolves, giving it the name Ile aux Cochons or "hog island."

For years people have felt the island to be special place. One memoir from the 18th century says, "It has the finest timber in the world and prairies without end." The island was inhabited -- albeit sparsely -- throughout the nineteenth century, and has always been a popular setting for picnics. The City of Detroit finally acquired the island in 1879 and contracted Frederick Law Olmsted to design and develop it as a public park.
From the beginning, Olmsted showed more investment in the park than many Detroiters. He waved his normal visitation fee for cities, agreeing to charge only expenses. To show their gratitude, Detroit's Common Council subsequently denied his invoice for $70.25. When local officials challenged the feasibility of docking ferries on the western end of the island, Olmsted chartered a boat himself and landed it there. After completing his plan for the park and publishing it at his own expense, Olmsted, frustrated with the bureaucratic wrangling over the park, resigned from the project.

This was not the first time Olmsted left a project. Sometimes he still managed to wield impressive influence over designs he abandoned. Belle Isle, however, is notable for how little of his plan was implemented and, even more so, how much of it has been contradicted by subsequent developments.

The plan itself is remarkably simple: "The Key to all Improvements of Belle Isle must be found in the Character of the Existing Wood," he writes in the policy paper, "The Park for Detroit." To this end, he planned to leave most of the woodland on the island untouched, instead focusing on infrastructure, like his never completed 600 ft. sheltered ferry dock at the western end of the island. A wide Central Avenue would connect this area to the wooded east of the island with "parade grounds," now the athletic fields, to the south.

Olmsted believed firmly in the value of nature, especially as a counterpoint to life in the city. "The park should as far as possible, complement the town," he writes in "Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns." "Openness is the one thing you cannot get in buildings. Picturesqueness you can get. Let your buildings be as picturesque as your artists can make them. This is the beauty of a town. Consequently, the beauty of the park should be the other. It should be the beauty of the fields, the meadow, the prairie, of the green pastures and the still waters. What we want to gain is tranquility and rest to the mind." 

Olmsted forgotten
Today, Belle Isle is peppered with structures that have little to do with Olmsted's vision. Many of these, like the Aquarium, the Conservatory, the lighthouse, and the Scott Fountain, are architecturally significant and popular draws. And this is perfectly acceptable. As contemporary theorist John Beardsley writes, "Whatever their flaws, parks remain among the most reliable places we have for the unscripted interactions that oil the creaky machinery of democratic life." It shouldn’t concern us much that some auxiliary arrangements were established on the island that aren't to everyone's taste.

The Belle Isle Park Driving Range parking lot

Then there are other uses that are totally inimical to the values Olmsted championed, but which many visitors enjoy. The Detroit Grand Prix, an annual summer car race that overtakes the island, comes to mind.

Without a set of principles, a park could be used for almost anything, thus risking its very park-ness. That's how libertarian developers advocate turning the park into a 
futuristic city state, among other things.

"One thing about Belle Isle that is particularly true is that lots of institutions ended up there," says Ethan Carr, head of the National Association of Olmsted Parks. "It became almost like a fairground for the city of Detroit." Currently, the island houses a number of such institutions, some of them exclusionary in nature, including the Yacht Club, Coast Guard station, nature center, and golf course. Some of these are well-loved and help bring people to the park.But as Elizabeth Rogers from The Central Park Conservancy points out, it's much easier to put something in a park than to remove it.

"The first thing people need to remember is that the real purpose of large public parks is accessibility," Carr says. "If you believe that, then things like having car races or charging entrance fees is contrary to that purpose. The public park is itself the institution."

Why Olmsted still matters

Because of all the non-Olmsted sanctioned additions, one can rightly wonder if he even deserves the distinction of Belle Isle's designer. Carr believes he does, as Olmsted's mark on the island has as much to do with the values embedded in it, and of the larger historical moment, as it does with the design itself.

As much as he believed in cities, Olmsted saw how stifling they could be and envisioned the need for green-space as critical for both mental and physical release. "We want, especially," he writes, "the greatest possible contrast with the restraining and confining conditions of the town, those conditions which compel us to walk circumspectly, watchfully, jealously, which compel us to look closely upon others without sympathy. Practically what we most want is a simple and open space of greensward, with sufficient play of surface and a sufficient number of trees about it to supply a variety of light and shade.”"

We are living under very special circumstances with Department of Natural Resources (DNR) leasing and managing the island. It is still a City Park owned by the City of Detroit, but the DNR’s lease of the island means that it is effectively being managed as a State Park, which is recreation passports are required of visitors. A spokesperson for the DNR says they are currently working with Detroit Department of Transportation to restore bus service to the island.

This wouldn’t be an issue if Belle Isle were not an island, an irregularity that has long complicated access to the space. Landscape designer Erin Kelly says that Belle Isle was one of the few places where a person can really get close to the water, which is strange considering how much Detroit’s identity -- indeed, it's very name -- relates to the river. For these reasons, we must find a more equitable way for residents to visit the island.

Nature trail in Belle Isle

The special ecology of Belle Isle should also be observed. A number of rare plant species make their home there. Various animals, including the endangered blandings turtle, bald eagles, and common terns, have made a return.

Perhaps this is the area where Olmsted's influence can be most useful in charting the course for the island's future. Stone agrees on this point: "Central to Olmsted’s plan was simplicity and indigenous nature," he says. "Native plantings and a simpler infrastructure are elements of Olmsted's plan that could be leveraged in the future, to the island's advantage."

But the woodlands on the island's east end can hardly be left as is. A certain sense of wildness is desirable, but much of the park is inaccessible in its present condition. Unfortunately, landscaping, new plantings, and changes to the hydrology to help manage flooding, would require significant financial investment. People can easily grasp and appreciate investment in a wonderful building like The Aquarium, but money spent on the landscape is harder to notice because, if done correctly, it's so natural as to appear invisible.

For Olmsted and others, this neglected landscape is the park's true value. The DNR says they will release a master plan in the fall detailing a trail system and new plantings on the east end of the island. They're also working with The Friends of The Detroit River on “blue trails” -- protected waterways open to canoeing, kayaking, wildlife viewing, and other low-impact uses -- in the Blue Heron Lagoon and Lake Okonoka for boaters and kayakers.

All this is good news. Lori Feret, one of the thousands of island volunteers from the Belle Isle Conservancy, Friends of Belle Isle, and other organizations, says, "The thing that I find really super about that end of the island is you would never know you were in a big city. You run into people, but not a ton. It’s so quiet. You have to stop and tell yourself, 'I'm in the middle of Detroit'! It’s great."

This magical condition of being in a great American city while simultaneously feeling yourself to be somewhere far away is something that Olmsted grasped all those years ago. And it’s one reason to give his plan another look today.
Brian Allnutt is a Detroit-based writer and a co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.

Read more articles by Brian Allnutt.

Brian Allnutt is a Detroit-based writer and a co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.
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