Touring Fairsted, Frederick Law Olmsted's Home

Project: Bob's Shingle Style Home, Episode 20, Part 2

The landscape hardscape is underway: a special retaining wall product provides an elevated terrace, and the lower back yard terrace gets paved with bluestone. We visit the home of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect responsible for most of this country's great public parks.

Part 1: Installing a Retaining Wall
Part 2: Touring Fairsted, Frederick Law Olmsted's Home
Bob visits Fairsted, the Brookline, MA, home of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect responsible for most of this country's great public parks. The tour focuses on the landscape, much of it unchanged since Olmsted's day, but Bob points out the historic house itself — an example of early Federal-period architecture from 1810—and its color scheme, similar to that of his own house.
Part 3: Installing Bluestone Pavers on the Terrace
This project centers around the remodel of Bob Vila's own gracious Shingle Style home in Cambridge, MA. It's a house with a lot of history and beautiful architectural details, many of which were obliterated in remodels of the 50s and the 70s. On the centennial of the house's construction, Bob gets together the best talents in the business to recreate and renew it to its former glory, making some important modifications along the way that will transform this into a dream house for today.

Also from Bob's Shingle Style Home

I'm Bob Vila.

Welcome home again.

It's another rainy day in Cambridge and we are working outside we will show you how to install a beautiful blue stone terrace in the back of this house, also a trip to the Frederick Law Homestead historic site in Brookline, Massachusetts.

He was the famous nineteenth century landscape architect, who designed Central Park in New York City.

You'll also note this similarity in color between his house and my house.

And when we are back here, in the back yard again.

Construction of a retaining wall using Allen blocks.

Stick around, and it's good to have you home again.

Bob Vila's Home Again.

The challenging part of a landscape installation is what they call the hard scape which involves retaining walls and that is what we are building right here.

Lets get together with Mike, who is from all island supply down on Long Island, New York.

How are you?

You got a full crew here today. Yeah.

Now what we are dealing here, rather than pouring a traditional retaining wall system with concrete is we're using this product called Allen block, right?

Right. It's an interlocking concrete retaining wall system.

And so, it technically you can do a job like this, in a day if you've got a four man crew.

Everything has arrived and there's no concrete pouring at all, right?

You were just running this tamping machine here.


On what is essentially the footing for the retaining wall.

Exactly. It's a recycled concrete product, that we use for the base to stabilize the ground.

So, its nothing more than (xx) from old sidewalks.


That's it. And then you don't have to worry about winter, or freezing and thawing.

Right, because the Allen block system is a flexible system. As the ground, heaves and thaws in the freeze thaw cycles, the block will give and come back into it's normal position.

Yeah. like a concrete retaining wall system which will crack from the force of the, the heaving.

And then you've got a crack.


Have you got the plans.


So we understand what we're doing here.

I know we're creating a square retaining wall for what it is essentially a secondary level of terrace.

Here we go, this is, this is the back the deck and the house is back here.

And what we're doing is putting in a square retaining wall that will allow us to back fill and create a secondary level before we dig get down to the actual gray.

That's correct.


And so there's planting involved here too, right?

Correct. There is, as a steps come down in this area over here.

There's going to be 2 planting areas.

One which is gone follow in an L-shape over into this direction,


And the same in L shape over here.

Right so that you literally don't see too much of the actual retaining wall at all, expect perhaps a little bit form the neighbor side.

Right, this is going to be a practical use retaining wall system. Its really for the, for a

Its not an aesthetic thing?


Lets just watch them put it all together. Now what kind of material is this, you're pouring in to the block?

Ok, this is a crushed stone product that we use and that happens to be one of the local stones, but there's depending on your location it could be a number of different products just to have drainage. And it also helps in the locking of the block.


So we have been lucky enough to get Anthony Michael Landscaping from North Port, Long Island to come out and install all the allen block for us and it's looking pretty good. Ok. That sure makes quick work out of it.
Now there is no still reinforcing in any of these pieces right?

No, that's correct.

So, you just cut them freely. Must be a pretty impressive sawThat goes there. This fits right in. Now, I was just noticing, as we laid this in, there's actually like a dove-tail joint here, isn't there?


This business right here.

That's right.

And that's one of the keys in keeping this corner...



In fact, we have a corner over here that I could show you how is goes together.

Right. That's nice.

All this is is regular dove-tail, just like you would with wood-working.

So in the casting it comes out nice and sharp like that.

Right, and you just slide them.

And you slide them into place. And boy, that's just, that's not going to move anywhere.


That's great. Now, this gets back-filled up to this height, which is basically a secondary terrace that we've created as a transition from the wood deck to the big terrace back there.

That's right.

And we were going to have a big planter in the middle, as well as the L-sheped planters, but I've changed my mind about them. Middle we just wanna have the side planted. But then here is where we need to have three steps, right.

Correct, it's gonna be probably four steps in this location right here.

Okay, and they will be blue stone.

Right they are going to be done in the blue stone, which will be on the top terrace here as well as lower terrace.

Okay, but this you know this is a very handsome a rusticated finish that you end up with, which I think is going to look very, very nice with that violet blue stone. Alright, we really appreciate your efforts Mike its gonna be beautiful.


Okay we're going to have to break for some messages. When we come back we'll be visiting Frederick Law Olmsted's historic site in Brooklyn, Massachusetts. Don't go away. we are in the Green Hill historic district in Brookline, Massachusetts just outside of Boston, truly one of the most beautiful towns in America.

We're visiting the Frederick Law Olmsted Historic Site, which is now managed by the National Park Service.

Olmsted was a landscape architect in the nineteenth century.

You may have not heard of him, but you have certainly heard of Central Park in New York City.

And maybe the Emerald Necklace Park System here in Boston, and the Chicago lake front. And countless other cityscapes, that were created by Frederick Law Olmsted and his architectural practice. Let's get together with our friend Lauren Meier, who is the historical architect here, right?

Historical landscape architect.

Landscape architect, exactly. And although we're here to talk about landscape architecture, there is a beautiful example of early Federal period architecture right behind us, tell me a little about the house.

Well, the house was built originally around 1810, and when Olmsted arrived here in 1883, he immediatly began making changes both to the landscape and the structure.

So he bought it f rom the original family.

That's correct.

And as I understand it, he tripled the size of it and created a landscape architecture practice right here.

That's right. It was really the first full scale, professional landscape architectural office in America .

And I know because I lived in this neighborhood up until just a few years ago that this was not just a shrine to landscape architecture, but there was also a treasure trove of original drawings and manuscripts and photographs and records kept here, right?

That's correct. In fact when the national park's service arrived in 1980 there were a 150 thousand plans and drawings that represented the design work on about a five thousand design projects in 50, in 45 states nationwide.

Amazing. Laura, as I understand, much of the work that actually goes on here today is preservation of these documents, is that right?

That's correct. In fact national park service is undergoing a comprehensive stabilization program To make the drawing collection available to researchers who are working in Onstead in nationwide.

Yeah, it's got to be the most important collection of its kind in the country.

I think That's true. The process includes very interesting, it includes surface cleaning, humidification flattening and mending using natural materials.

Wonderful. Now let's talk about the landscape that we look at here, because when I think of Victorian landscape design, I think of very clipped and ordered gardens. And here, it's kind of like looking at the New England jungle, if you will. This is the tree growing out of these rocks. What's the story?

Well, this is a very typical of Onsteads work. He planted this hemlock and accentuated the landscape around this natural, I've cropping a rocks by putting stone if we right here.

Okay so this tree has been here for a century and he planted it.

That's correct.

Did he alter the topography in this area to create this drive?

This was one of the first major moves that Onstead did when he arrived. He first To move the entrance from around the corner to this location.

To this side of the house.

That's right.


And filled this area which had historically had a natural slope to look to it, to create the dry.

So that's how they created this, this hollow down here as well, right?
That's correct.

I don't mean to offend but this doesn't look terrific.

Well, what you see is a landscape restoration in process. We had removed a lot of volunteer growth that happened in the last century and are in the process of replacing missing plants. So we do have some of the plants that were what here doing on this time?

I notice vines running all over the place in top to this stone. That is something as typical of late 19th century planting?

Well certainly in particular Onster's work. He used to find to cover every thing.They covered the fence, they covered this terrific out roxbury.

Yeah this it's all roxbury pudding stone with, with, is that you them on Euyonomous Fortunia?

Yes, it's called Euyonomous Fortunia.

Yes, the creeping winds winter creeper.


Now the really beautiful part of the property is on the other side of the house I believe.

That's true.

Lauren, is any of the plant material here surviving from Olmsted's day?

Yes, most of what you see here today was here.

What's this, for example?

This is a yew, Taxus cuspidata.

My gosh! We are used to seeing yew bushes in the nursery and you can create hedges with them.

But this one is actually a gorgeous tree, isn't it?


And this flowering shrub over here.

This is mock orange.

Yes, sure. It's fabulous. It's so fragrant. And this is a very typical plant used by the Victorians, isn't it?

That's correct and you can buy it today.

What's this tree overhead?

This is a cucumber magnolia, and this is a tremendous specimen. This is a very historic tree.

It's got to be fifty feet height. It is wonderful. And then you have a path running right here. What do you call this?

This is a Euonyms find in a local nursery, but this is a very old specimen.

So this has probably been here for a century. Yeah.

That's true.

And this is magnificent. And what you call this tree?

This is a native mountain laurel, it's Kalmia latifolia.

I'm used to thinking of it as a shrub and this is actually almost a tree here, isn't it?

Well, they're very old specimen.

But this is something that you can go out and buy today at a home center, right?

That's correct. They're commercially available.

Gosh, this almost looks like a Bonsai garden here. Doesn't it not?

This is a terrific. This is part of the rock garden and you can see the native Roxbury puddingstone again, and this natural moss.

Now, what are some of the real important specimens here.

Well our most important plant on the entire property is this magnificent American Elm.

Lauren, the American elm is an endangered species, isn't it?

That's correct. American Elms are disappearing from the American landscape because of the Dutch Elm Disease.

This is a spectacular specimen. So this has been here since Fredrick Law Olmsted's day?

in fact, it was here when he arrived, and he used it as an organizing principle around which the entire landscape was created.

Now, haven't they created a hybrid, or something, out of this tree that is resistant to the disease?

Yes, it's called Liberty Elm. But we're very interested in the original species which is Ulmus americana.

And so you're propagating it?

That's right. The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University has propagated this tree, so that we can replace it, in kind, with an exact genetic replacement.

Maybe some day we can all get seedlings. Sounds great. Now, the Center is open to the public on weekends throughout the year?

That's correct. You can visit the Olmsted National Historic Site on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays year round, and other times if you call ahead.

On Warren Street in Brookline. Thanks for the tour.

Thank you.

We've got to break for messages, don't go away. Well, that visit took place a couple of weeks ago, when the sun was shining, and things around here are getting very wet. But let's meet Mark Marini from Schumacher Landscape Construction. Hi, Mark.

How ya doing, Bob?

Well, it's been better, right? This is not the ideal weather for landscape construction but you've already done all the preliminary work, right?

Yes. We removed all the loam from the back yard. About 12 inches or so. We brought back some crusher run gravel as a base material for the blue stone pavement.

So how deep is that?

It's 12 inches deep.

So there's 12 inches of crusher run, and then how much stone dust do you put down?

We put down about an inch of stone dust as the base for the blue stone paving.

Okay, so you don't want to have more than an inch?

Well, you can go to an inch and a half or so, but you want to keep it a pretty thin layer.

Right. Now, the plan is for a rectangular terrace that runs the whole width of the house but there is a cut out here for for some plantings a square this five by five, right?


And another one down there for a little tree?

That's right.

And you have gotten started here. It looks beautiful.

Well, we got a start on it before the weather. But the bluestone is starting to go in, but we had to stop. The rain is just too much for it right now.

Yeah. When everything gets saturated like this, obviously you can not do the installation because it wouldn't come out right.

It just doesn't sit right.

What kind of bluestone is this? I know it's a lilac color, right?

It's a lilac color, comes from New York. Usually bluestone is a blue-gray color, but this is a nice change.

It'll be very pleasant against the house when it's finished. But what are we going to do? Are you going to have to break for a day or so?

Yeah. We're going to have to let it dry out for a day. See what happens and hopefully get back to it in a day or so.

Well, thanks Mark. I know we'll be here to watch.

Okay, it's taken Forty eight hours for the rain to stop and the site to dry out, but you can see just today, we've made a lot of progress laying out this area.

And before we continue, I wanted to kind of take a close look at what you've done here, because this is the blueprint that the landscape architect gives you, from which you put together a bit on the work as well as figure out how the works going to be done. Can you explain what you've done here with all the colors and stuff?

Well sure. When we get the plan from the landscape architect, of course, we bring it in the office, and we review it. Every corner of the site has to be detailed so that we can plan the project and start at the hard-scape in the furthest corner, and work our way through this back terrace here.

Yeah. This is the whole back terrace, back here. We just walked across over in this direction. We're standing right here now.

Yeah. When we're in the office, we'll color up the plan for the foreman in the field so he can pick out each item of work quickly, and easily and identify everything. as he goes through the projects so he can plan is work for each day.

And right now, we're still in Hardscape. We've been delayed by weather. Next week, hopefully, we'll be putting in beautiful plant specimens. But, right now, lets, lets look at this cause its, it's what called random pattern. Is there, is there some logic to it?

No, only you start on an edge as you work your way in. You just want to watch your joints to make sure you don't have no joints that are too long. You want to watch to make sure you don't get four corners to come together anywhere.

And in some areas it does, lay out 4 against 1. You've got 1 stone here with four stones up against it.


Is that just coincidence or is that...?

No. You have to make up some of these points every once in a while with a smaller stone so that you're not carrying long joints for too, for too long.


And of course, we reviewed earlier how you've got an inch, inch and a half of the stone dust And the pieces get put down, shall we grab another one?

Sure. They're not, if they're small they're not too heavy.
No, this is not right.

No, it's not going to work, because the 4 corners come together here.


And it really doesn't give a good look, so we'd gonna want to turn this a little bit.

So, you want to turn it the other way and now, will it actually tamp down that much there's a good quarter inch difference there, right?

Yeah, once you get it to a about eighth of an inch, you'll be able to tamp it down with a setting hammer. Sometimes it'll work when you first set the stone in, but many has to take some of the material away.

Okay. And one of the things I remember discussing with the landscape architects, was the width of our joints in between and we talked about a pencil width kind of, and the idea being that I, I like the effect of the weather and moss starting to grow in between and stuff as the years go by and the best way to encourage that is to have a good quarter inch joint.

Right. If you leave a joint in there, you can set in some stone that sleeping into the joint and you do get mass growing in the joint later on.

Good, that's going right down, lets pick up another one. How about that big one over here, OK?

This way?


OK, and we've made quite a bit of progress.
Now, this get's back to what we were talking about in the plan.
What have you done here?

Well, there's a planting event for the Thundercloud Plum, and it's going to be coming in next week. So we got to excavate the hole four feet deep and put in loam.

And fill it up with loam, nice green loam. OK. OK, well we're almost at the end of the terrace, and what are we doing here?

Well, we found a stone that has a bad corner.

And we don't want to waste anything, so we're going to use it. We just have to make a cut on it.

We can still use the best part of the stone and come back to this joint here, and just make this one cut.

Alright, is that just a carborundum blade that Manny has there?


OK. Let's watch.

Boy, this is exiting.

We've just condensed that but in real time it really only took about two minutes for Manny to cut right through there, and now it just has to be fitted out a little bit.

But we're almost done here, aren't we?

Yes, I mean we'll be done in about another hour, finish the last few pieces.

The last few pieces that go in here. And then do we have to add stone? Dust to the top of it and sweep it around to get it into the cracks.

Yes, after we arrange the joints, we'll sweep in stone dust.

And this should last for centuries, right?

Right, thanks a lot Mark. Okay, We are running out of time. Next week I hope you'll be able to join us because we are going be busy out in the landscape again. We're going to be planting this wonderful plum tree. And looking at some other material, I hope. Also taking you down to Andler, Pennsylvania, where we'll be visiting the Burpee Trial Gardens, where they have all sorts of exciting stuff to look at. And inside the house the kitchen cabinets are in place so we are going to be talking about it installing soap stone counters. Till then, I am Bob Vila. We are running out of time. Its good to have you home again.



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