The eyes in this haunting portrait is one of the things I remember most about a visit to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville shortly after having been drawn to Durham, North Carolina for the concluding half of my career in community marketing.
Half again taller than I am, it was hanging, at least back then, in the salon, a sort of bridge across the front of America’s largest mansion between the music room and breakfast room. It depicts Fredrick Law Olmstead, America’s first and foremost landscape architect.
Tragically, shaping the estate around Biltmore would be his last landscape project, while Central Park in New York City was his first. We know now that Olmsted was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and I believe it is apparent in his eyes when compared to earlier portraits.
His son, whose career in the same field wouldn’t end until the late 1950s, just as I was in my tenth year, stood in for his father while the portrait was finished. The firm that Olmsted founded was still going strong well into my career and didn’t shut down until the last of my four-decades as a guardian for sense of place.
But Biltmore wasn’t his first assignment in North Carolina. In 1852, a few months after Olmsted turned 30, he was hired by the co-founder of the newly established New York Times to travel incognito throughout the South reporting back first hand accounts of slavery in states such as North Carolina, his first of two journeys.
He left a “gradualist,” meaning he felt the South should be permitted to bring slavery to an end on its own terms with insistence from his publisher that he be objective. He returned a fervent “abolitionist” and five years later backed his way into landscaping with a contract to create Central Park.
Olmsted also turned his dispatches on slavery into a book in 1861 entitled, The Cotton Kingdom, including a fascinating snapshot of North Carolina at the time. Anyone interested in Olmsted’s biography can do no better than journalist Justin Martin’s extraordinary book entitled Genius of Place.
Another incredible snapshot in time of North Carolina is an encyclopedic volume assembled and written between 1935 and 1939 as part of a FDR relief project to keep 7,000 writers, illustrators and historians employed during the Great Depression (see the documentary, Soul of a People).
Coupled with a 6,000-mile statewide visual assessment from its roadways published in 1930, the guide provides an incredible resource of the state and individual cities such as Durham.
Spanning a time during the creation of Duke University in Durham, it includes history, flora, fauna, physiography, climate, demographics, trends, ethnicity, religion, aboriginal origins, events, prices, economy, transportation and much more.
I first stumbled on the 600+ page guides, which were created for each of the 48 states at the time as well as those still territories such as Alaska when researching for my first destination marketing post in the early 1970s in Spokane.
While at the invitation of a lifelong resident of Spokane I was sorting through her great grandfather’s collection of historic visitor literature, I came across a copy of the WPA American Guide Series on Washington State as well as an even more historic visitors guide I have framed.
It is what gave me the template from which we would substantively differentiate guidebooks there and in two other communities during my career from the superficial, wafer-thin guides common even back then.
The guidebooks in this series are particularly insightful because many communities were responding to the fact that automobile tourism went mainstream in the 1930s and the generation that had come of age after the Civil War was investing in sense of place.
The 6% fragment of the original Biltmore Estate left in 1930, a mere 8,000 acres, was opened to the public, and an extension of the Blue Ridge Parkway through North Carolina was underway, a concept Olmsted had pioneered.
Durham had just opened the Carolina Theater, one of four performance halls here by 1939. A Unity Monument had been erected here at the site where the Civil War ended. Washington Duke’s granddaughter had bought his historic homestead and the university was restoring it.
Wallace Wade Stadium was hosting its first games with football powerhouses. Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke Chapel and Duke hospital opened giving Durham access to the state’s reputation for medical tourism.
Historic Durham Athletic Park had been newly upfitted for the Bulls, and with a population of just over 52,000, Durham had eight hotels, including two for African-Americans, two of the state’s leading golf courses and five major events on the state’s calendar.
At the time, nearby Raleigh had climbed above 35,000 and Chapel Hill was reaching for 3,000 (smile.) Greensboro was about the size of Durham, Winston-Salem reaching toward 80,000 and Charlotte near 90,000.
These historical documents also provide clues as to the authentic roots of sense of place and appeal, the emergence of blight and poverty, as well as a premonition of the the cookie-cutter architecture and mainstream facilities common after WWII.
The WPA guides also provide data useful to fill in gaps in research and trend lines such as competitive analysis including various types of visitor related facilities and events.
The information also helps put accolades in perspective. The guide notes that at the end of the Civil War, a blacksmith here, Lewis Pratt, was the only African-American to own a business in Durham.
Even by 1887, blacks owned two lots in the city and 1,366 acres of farmland in the county.
But by 1935, African-Americans here held $4 million in holdings and business assets of $7 million, including major corporations on Black Wall Street, an entrepreneurial enclave, a teaching university and a library.
Olmsted’s legacy is that he taught North Carolina that the economic value of its signature forests was far greater than mere timbering, something policy makers entrusted with public roadsides seem to have forgotten.
The turnaround Biltmore symbolized occurred just as public officials and timbering interests had stripped North Carolina of its appeal, appalling those who came expecting trees to ride former logging trains through desecrated mountain sides for views.
Olmsted had met George Vanderbilt when he was a boy growing up on Staten Island where at one time Olmstead farmed. Once at the estate, he encouraged Vanderbilt to assemble 125,000 acres, establish a nursery and sustainable agriculture, plant millions of trees and establish a forestry school.
There has always been a tension in North Carolina between those focused on exploitation, such as a few legislators who recently enabled large-scale roadside deforestation and the vast majority of Tar Heels, who value scenic preservation.
It can be said that Olmsted’s work here first revealed to us the greater economic and psychological value of the latter.
Whatever we do today to further North Carolina tourism, which has grown far too commercial, blighted, brittle and faddish, must strive once again to live up to this legacy.