Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. created only five park systems, the last of which was located in Louisville, Kentucky. Between 1891 and 1935, Olmsted and his sons, John Charles and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., were responsible for eighteen parks and six parkways throughout the city.
Louisville’s first public park was created in 1880, when Baxter Square was acquired by, and named after, then mayor John G. Baxter. Shortly thereafter, leather merchant Colonel Andrew Cowan promoted Olmsted to his fellow Salmagundi clubmen and by 1887, a movement was afoot to develop three large suburban parks in Louisville. The Kentucky legislature established the Parks Commission in 1890, the same year in which Louisville Mayor Charles Jacob purchased Burnt Knob, a 313-acre tract of land at the southwest end the city.
Olmsted submitted a prospectus to the Parks Commission in 1891, which included designs for three parks around the city’s perimeter: Iroquois, Cherokee, and Shawnee, with each reflecting one of the region’s distinct native landscapes. Iroquois Park to the south of the city is an old-growth forest on a knob or cone shaped hill; Cherokee Park lies within a rolling valley along Beargrass Creek to the east, in the then new suburbs of Louisville; and Shawnee Park, at the west end of the city, sits along the broad terrace of the Ohio River. The parks were also distinguished by the type of recreation available. Iroquois Park was designed for such social activities as picnicking; Cherokee Park was devoted to more relaxing activities such as horse riding, walking, and hiking; and Shawnee Park was utilized for athletic activities like ballgames.
In order to make the parks accessible to the masses, Olmsted also designed fifteen miles of parkways in the city, along which trolleys and later automobiles and buses would transport park enthusiasts to their destinations. Southwestern, Algonquin, Southern, and Eastern parkways are still the long, broad, tree-lined avenues that Olmsted first envisioned.
Among the parks that John Charles and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. later developed include Chickasaw Park (1923), south of Shawnee Park on the Ohio River, and Seneca Park (1928), immediately west of Cherokee Park. The Olmsted Brothers continued to consult on Louisville’s parks until 1935.
After the passage of segregation law in 1922, the 61-acre Chickasaw Park was designated for use by African Americans (along with other smaller parks throughout the city), while the larger parks, such as the 316-acre Shawnee Park, were designated for use by white citizens only. The city’s parks were desegregated in 1955.
In the late 1960s, the integrity of Cherokee Park and adjacent Seneca Park (1928, Olmsted Brothers) was threatened by plans for Interstate 64. Due to pressure from activists, two tunnels built for the interstate under Cochran Hill preserved the bridle trail and beech grove above. A 1974 tornado caused severe damage to the city’s parks, uprooting mature hardwood trees and increasing erosion. Concerned that Olmsted’s vision for the parks had seriously deteriorated, the Louisville Friends of Olmsted Parks was established in the late 1970s, which became the Olmsted Parks Conservancy in 1989. Partnering with Louisville Metro Parks, the Olmsted Parks Conservancy has been working since 1994 on a master plan for renewing the city’s Olmsted parks.
Haragan, Patricia Dalton. The Olmsted Parks of Louisville. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014.
Rademacher Susan M. “A Living Legacy: Louisville’s Olmsted Landscapes.” In Louisville Guide,edited by Gregory A. Luhan, Dennis Domer, and David Mohney. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.