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Olmsted Brothers' Legacy Lives on at Indiana Estate
Landscape Architecture by William Esarey, ASLA, wee Landscape Architecture, Winchester, Ky.

By Michael Miyamoto | LASN

Five acres of a 140-acre farm in Austin, Indiana, were extensively renovated, but the project proved difficult because the site had been declared historically significant many years ago. John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920) and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (1870-1957), sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, designed the residence in the 1930s. These three Olmsted family members are considered pioneers of the landscape architecture industry. So the client wanted to revamp the site, but also "stay true," as much as possible, to the Olmsted brothers' original concepts, some of which were stored in archives. Everything was custom built, with the exception of the central fountain and the furniture for the pool patio. The gazebo was made with Indiana limestone columns and overlooks the slate quarry. Rough limestone ledge rock was used for the steps, and fieldstone was used for the walls and walkways.

When the owner of a residence in Austin, Ind., that was designed in 1938 by the famed Olmstead brothers, inheritors of the Frederick Law Olmsted landscape architecture firm, wanted to renovate his property, wee Landscape Architecture was hired to do the facelift.

The job proved difficult, but it was rewarding, said William E. Esarey, PLA, ASLA, owner of the firm in Winchester, Ky. After the estate had fallen into a state of disrepair, Esarey's client wanted to do a complete makeover -- while keeping the spirit and legacy of the Olmsted brothers alive, as much as possible.

"It was very important to Mr. Morgan (the client) to stay true to the Olmsted Brothers design," Esarey said. "In order to make sure this happened, a thorough site analysis and inventory of the site was completed."


"The Olmsted garden design was a series of garden rooms, as is the updated plan," William Esarey, ASLA, the landscape architect, said. "The turf panel garden room is open lawn," and was an element of the Olmsted brothers' concepts. The walkway is made of limestone dust with cobblestone edging.

Esarey pored through archival documents from the National Park Service, Fredrick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. His research was painstakingly involved and time consuming. Wee Landscape was hired to upgrade the five acres of the 140-acre farm that the Olmsted brothers had a hand in planning nearly 80 years ago. Esarey said the property has been declared a site of historical significance for quite some time.

"The problem was, there were four different conceptual designs, and none of them matched the existing conditions," Esarey said. In other words, there was very little left on the Morgan estate with any tangible ties to the Olmsteds.


Drawings in the Olmsted brothers' archives show this small body of water on the Morgan estate, and Esarey believes it was a slate quarry that was mined about 150-200 years ago. Because the walls and bottom are comprised entirely of solid slate, water in the quarry cannot drain or permeate the ground. The quarry is about 4-6 feet deep. A recirculation system was added to clean the water. "We're trying to get the water as clear as we can," Esarey said. At certain times and under certain conditions, the slate walls and bottom are visible from the water's edge. The gazebo was built near the old slate quarry, so people can "view this alluring feature," Esarey said.

"The place is historic, but the pieces just weren't there," he added. "There really is no way to figure out exactly what the Olmsteds wanted or did."

According to what Esarey learned in his research, the Olmsted brothers had mapped out a gazebo, a formal garden, an iris and peony garden, garden rooms, a central fountain and a pool for this particular site back in the 1930s.

"Really, the only thing existing was the swimming pool, and we tore it out and had a new pool built," Esarey said. "Everything else is new."


The turf panel is bordered by a lime dust walkway with a cobblestone edge. The pool area, in its historic location, is visible through the garden gate in the background. The limestone columned gazebo with slate roof is the focal point of the estate and sits on the edge of the slate quarry. The turf panel sees a lot of activity.

But whatever was built on the Olmsted area is as close as possible to the drawings and concepts Esarey found in the Olmsteds' archived documents.

For instance, Esarey found sketches of a gazebo in the archives, and a gazebo was built within the Olmsted area. While it is new, it is also patterned after the Olmsteds' concepts.

Esarey found several references to a "turf panel," essentially a patch of lawn area. "The Olmsted garden design was a series of garden rooms, as is the updated plan," he said. "The turf panel garden room is open lawn."


The pergola, a close copy of one at Frederick Law Olmsted's Biltmore estate, overlooks the formal garden and garden rooms. It has limestone columns and reclaimed timbers. The large beech tree was one of the few planting remnants.

So he had a similar turf panel installed within the Olmsted five-acre designated site. An iris and peony garden room was put in next to the turf panel, and the formal garden sits nearby. However, since a central fountain no longer existed, a new fountain was obtained from Authentic Provence, West Palm Beach, Fla. It is a standard piece the company sells, Esarey said, and came complete with a base. "The central fountain is flanked on each side by hidden garden rooms that surprise visitors."


The centerpiece of the Olmsted brothers' gardens was a central fountain. Since the fountain no longer existed, a similar fountain was purchased from Authentic Provence, a Florida company. Esarey said the fountain was delivered to the site as a package, base and all. It sits at the entrance to the garden rooms. Hicksii taxus is planted in the garden entry court. The central courtyard is lime dust with a cobblestone border.

John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. were sons of the eminent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1898, the brothers inherited the very first landscape architecture firm in the nation from their father. The Olmsted brothers were among the founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), and played major roles in the creation of the National Park Service. The brothers have completed numerous high-profile projects, and many of them remain popular even now. In 1938, the residence was a country home, Esarey said. But in 2012, the home was renovated as a retreat for the Morgan family and friends. Complicating matters a bit more was the fact Esarey's clients kept adding to the scope of the project, including outdoor entertaining, cooking, eating and entertaining spaces for large groups of people.


Tucked away in the woods is a "gem" that at first glance appears to be a small pond, Esarey said. It is actually the recirculation basin that helps clean the water for the slate quarry. It has flagstone edging, bubbling water and vegetation.

"As new program details arose, research of other Olmsted projects was completed and details borrowed," Esarey said, including that of a pergola Frederick Law Olmsted had designed decades earlier for his Biltmore estate. A pergola similar to the one Esarey found in the archives was constructed within the Olmsted site. Elements not considered in 1938 were built away from the Olmsted area to protect the integrity of the historic designation. This included the pool house, the pool house patio and spa court, an outdoor dining facility and a few other amenities.


The spa court features a seat-high, natural stonewall for ease of entry, and the curved top is for privacy. Cut limestone was used for the patio surface, and ledge stone steps lead to the pool area.

"The Morgan residence isn't an Olmsted restoration, but rather an interpretation and a labor of love," Esarey said. "It is a modern day update. The Morgans love the new place and have expressed many times how it has exceeded all of their expectations." And for all of Esarey's hard work, patience and due diligence, he earned a 2015 design award from the ASLA for the Morgan estate project.


The pool house patio area with fieldstone wall and fireplace retain the garden rooms above. The height of the custom-built ornamental fence varies with the garden grade beyond to provide protection of the pool area. Cut Indiana limestone with a bush-hammer finish in an ashlar pattern are details contained in the Olmsted brothers' design drawings.

Project Team
Landscape Architecture: William E. Esarey, ASLA, wee Landscape Architecture, Winchester, Ky.
Architecture and Construction Manager: Paul Jasper, EGC Construction, Newport, Ky.
Interior Design and Furnishings: Meg Vogt, MVP Design Incorporated, Louisville, Ky.
Landscape Contractors: Dwyer DesignScapes, Louisville, Ky.; Carl Ray Company, Louisville, Ky.
Stone Masonry: McAlister Stone, Lancaster, Ky.; Wayne Morris Masonry, Dry Ridge, Ky.
Arborist: Bob Ray Company, Louisville, Ky.
Lighting: Landscape Lighting, Louisville, Ky.
Irrigation: Stemler Irrigation, Louisville, Ky.
Iron Work: Bluegrass Iron Works, Ludlow, Ky.
Water Features: Rock & Water Creations Inc., Goshen, Ky.
Fountain: Authentic Provence, West Palm Beach, Fla.
Earthwork, Grading and Drainage: Coomes Excavating, Lexington, Ind.


The Olmsted brothers designed the pool area in a rectangular shape with ashlar pattern limestone slabs. The largest pieces are 36" square, and the smallest 18". The new pool was built in its historic location. The iron gate on the opposite side of the pool was found in a wooded area on the estate. The gate was refurbished and is original, and the rest of the fence and other gates were designed and fabricated in the same pattern. "No one knows the history (of the gate), but it is very old and was rusted," Esarey said. "We do not know if it was designed by the Olmsteds. It was on site, so we treated it with respect just in case."


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