The Olmsted Brothers and The Barton Hills Village
In 1905, Detroit's Edison Illuminating Company purchased Washtenaw Light and Power, which had been furnishing electricity to Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti from a hydroelectric plant on Dixboro Road. Edison also bought other properties along the Huron where hydropower could be developed or improved, including the river below Barton Hills.
In Kilowatts at Work, a 1957 history of Detroit Edison, author Raymond C. Miller writes that the company wanted the sites mainly to eliminate competitors like Washtenaw Light and Power. Even then, it was clear that hydropower couldn't meet the area's demand for electricity. Nonetheless, Edison went on to build the dams and generating stations that still define the river all the way from Belleville to Barton Hills.
The company's president at the time was Alex Dow (1862-1942), a Scottish immigrant who taught himself science. According to Miller, Dow was a well-read man with many interests. "No one could ignore the fact that the introduction of dams and power plants would assuredly alter the scene," Miller writes. "Dow himself was too much a lover of nature to do unnecessary violence to natural beauty, and the contemporary national emphasis on conservation and the protection of natural resources attracted his approval and interest."
Miller's book, commissioned by Detroit Edison, wasn't likely to portray Dow in any but a flattering light. But there's no question that Dow was a visionary. To obtain the property for its dams and flowage area, Edison often had to buy larger parcels, including entire farms. In 1913 the company combined all the excess property, totaling 2,000 acres, into one entity, the Huron Farms Company, and hired William E. Underdown, a 1904 Cornell graduate, to manage it.
The original idea had been to sell off the excess land, but soon Dow was full of plans to use it. He created a demonstration farm on Whitmore Lake Road, opened a resort for the company's women employees on Huron River Drive, and donated land on Argo Pond to the city for a boathouse and municipal beach. But his most lasting impact came when he hired the nation's leading landscape architects, Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts.
Frederick Law Olmsted and his then partner, Calvert Vaux, were the first people ever to describe themselves as "landscape architects." Their signature creation was the vast and innovative design of New York City's Central Park. The park's "natural design" was not natural at all: it was a carefully engineered replacement for what was then a swampy lowland. Beginning in 1857, Olmsted and Vaux changed it to a glorious centerpiece of the city by adding hills and meadows, massive plantings, curving pathways, and stone walls and bridges.
Olmsted founded his own firm in 1883. Driven by the conviction that beautiful settings would improve the health and welfare of ordinary people, he and his associates shaped such beloved American landscapes as Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.; Detroit's Belle Isle; the spacious grounds of Stanford University; and Boston's "Emerald Necklace" of linked parks. The firm even contributed early designs for Yellowstone National Park.
Under Olmsted's son and stepson, who took over in 1895, the firm continued to win high-profile assignments, including the National Mall and the White House grounds in Washington. (In 1918 Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. excused himself from a Barton Hills trip, writing that he was "continuously employed in Washington upon government work.") But during the "City Beautiful" movement of the early twentieth century, many smaller communities also sought guidance from the prestigious firm. Before World War I, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and the U-M all commissioned master plans from the Olmsteds. The firm's list of Ann Arbor projects also includes plans for nine east-side subdivisions and landscapes for an equal number of individual property owners. (Its landscape plan for Harry and Carrie Earhart's mansion on Geddes has been re-created by the building's present owner, Concordia University.)