|Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. conceived the design for the 59-acre Washington Cathedral Close. His design has been carried out in the years since 1907 and his design principles have for the most part been followed.
In 1898 Bishop Henry Yates Satterlee, first bishop of Washington, chose the site for the Washington National Cathedral on the top of a high hill overlooking the Federal city. The land was several miles from the site noted by Major L’Enfant on his 1791 plan of the Capital city for a church “for national purposes, such as public prayer, thanksgiving, funeral orations…” By 1907 the outline of the Cathedral was already marked out on the highest point of Mount Saint Alban, the first buildings for a school for choir boys and a girls’ school begun. Olmsted was called in to execute a landscape plan to site the roadways, the institutional buildings, preserve the extensive native woodlands, and plan open spaces and gardens to be the setting for the Gothic cathedral church that was rising on the hill.
Florence Brown Bratenahl, the wife of the first Dean of the Cathedral took an active role in carrying out the Olmsted plan. She took a great interest in the plans for the gardens surrounding the Bishop’s House and volunteered to raise funds for the needed plants. She began a garden guild, All Hallows Guild, in 1916 for this purpose and raised funds throughout the United States. By 1928 she was leading the effort to build more of the elements of the Olmsted plan. Link to Bratenahl’s 1930 Close Layout Plan
As the Cathedral neared completion in the mid 20th century, it was time to turn the west stone-cutting yard into a tree-shaded open lawn to enhance the great west entrance to the Cathedral. In recent years All Hallows Guild has revitalized the native woodlands and named them to honor Mr. Olmsted. The Guild has overseen the restoration of the natural amphitheater on the south hillside between the woods and the Cathedral. Terraced grass sitting walls gracefully set into the hillside carry out the original Olmsted concept for an amphitheater at this site and echo the earliest use of the hillside for outdoor summer services by Bishop Satterlee.
Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. created an appropriate setting for the Gothic cathedral church, based on Bishop Satterlee’s vision of the Washington National Cathedral. Using to the full all the physical aspects of the site, sculpting out spaces and shaping them with the fill from the huge excavation, preserving much of the native oak and beech forest, and sitting walled garden spaces, open playing fields and lawns, Olmsted planned a landscape that gave a feeling of ancient stability, peacefulness and contemplation to the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral. Later designers have respected Olmsted’s vision and have added their contributions to his plan.
Link to Olmsted Plan, 1924