Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Druid Hills Historic District also incorporates in its entirety the previously listed Druid Hills Parks and Parkways Historic District. Druid Hills, its beautiful linear parks and wooded lots designed and laid out at the turn of the century by Frederick Law Olmsted, stands today near the center of Atlanta’s sprawling metropolitan area.
Some find it hard to believe that this magnificent urban neighborhood was conceived and executed as one of Atlanta’s first suburbs. Yet it remains today essentially unchanged and was recently described by the U.S. Department of the Interior to be
“significant as the finest example of late 19th and early 20th century comprehensive planning and development in the Atlanta area, and one of the finest period suburbs in the Southeast.”
In the early 1890’s, Atlantan Joel Hurt was an innovative developer who had already been involved in several prominent projects in the city. He assembled a large tract of land to be developed for residential use and hired Olmsted, America’s premier landscape architect, to plan his “ideal residential suburb.” To view correspondence regarding the creation of Druid Hills between The Olmsted Firm and the Kirkwood Land Company click here.
By the time Olmsted began to design Druid Hills in 1893, he had already completed many projects, the best-known being Central Park in New York City. His other works include the grounds of the United States Capitol, the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the Stanford University campus, and numerous park and parkway systems in cities such as Boston, Buffalo, and Chicago.
Early in his career Olmsted had planned, with Calvert Vaux, the community of Riverside, Illinois, to be the prototype of a planned suburb. Druid Hills, designed near the end of his career, demonstrates the evolution of his ideas about the relation of suburbs to the city.
Olmsted expressed his philosophy of suburban living in an 1890 letter to Joel Hurt; he envisioned the homeowner returning hot and tired from the city through a park to homes
“well shaded by handsome, umbrageous, permanently thrifty trees” in a neighborhood with a “pleasing rural, or, at least, semi-rural, character of scenery . . . to be permanently enjoyed.”
Olmsted’s vision of suburban living was eventually realized in Druid Hills, but after he had made several trips to Atlanta to confer with Hurt and had begun the design phase, financial setbacks halted the project for several years. Before work resumed, the aging Olmsted retired, and Hurt hired the successor firm of Olmsted Brothers to develop the objectives proposed by the elder Olmsted.
Landscape and urban scholars have established that Druid Hills represents a major innovation insuburban design. Its central corridor, Ponce de Leon Avenue, with its separated vehicular and pleasure drives, functions as the central promenade of the community—a linear version of the traditional village green. Each of Ponce de Leon’s median parks is distinct in its landscaping; the parks range from relatively open greenswards to nearly impenetrable woods.
In an early proposal, Olmsted had written of “roads of moderate grace and curves, avoiding any great disturbance of the natural topography.” The suburb’s streets do follow the natural terrain, and its open spaces enhance the picturesque vistas integral to late 19th-century landscape planning.
Later development in Druid Hills preserved the environment of pleasing vistas, parks, and parkways in the spirit of Olmsted’s original concept. Authorities believe the area fulfills the three major components of his vision of 20th Century suburban living: a park or public space as the central focus of the suburbs; a parkway, conceived as both a connector and pleasure drive; and residences on large acreages that differ from the typical narrow town lot. Many well-known Atlanta architects including Neel Reid, Philip Trammel Shutze, Ernest Ivey, and Lewis Crook, Jr. designed homes facing the parks and winding streets.
Through the years, Olmsted’s design for Druid Hills has exerted a powerful influence on suburbanplanning in Atlanta. Associates who gained their experience from Druid Hills later worked on Ansley Park, Morningside, Garden Hills, and Avondale Estates. Design elements were emulated in Brookwood Hills, the West Paces Ferry area, and more recent communities around the city, including office parks that emphasize green space and natural terrain. In fact, some scholars maintain that had it not been for Frederick Law Olmsted’s Druid Hills, Atlanta would not be the park-like city it is today.
Because of the vigilance of the Druid Hills Civic Association, Olmsted’s last major suburb retains its original lot configurations and open spaces. The Druid Hills National Register Historic District, about 1400 acres, was designated in 2 stages in 1975 and 1979. “In a national context,” the Department of the Interior has attested, “Druid Hills is a rare example of Olmsted’s design intentions intact in its principal features.”
Frederick Law Olmsted’s ideas of suburban living endure today in the rolling landscapes and winding roadways of Druid Hills, still cherished by residents for its eclectic architecture, pleasing vistas, and beautiful parks.
Learn more about Frederick Law Olmsted and the Olmsted Brothers: go to www.olmsted.org