Kay, Jane Holtz, The Nation
I won't say he was solid as an oak. For there was nothing druidic about Charles Eliot, the planner and landscape architect who died in March. Yet his staunch presence seemed a force of nature. Even in his 70s and 80s his bearing--his impassioned being-- lent the imprimatur of old values, values rooted in the ethics of history and design on the land as a public place. Where an issue arose, there he appeared: His visits to this or that worthy or controversial project were legion and legendary in many neighborhoods. Part curmudgeon, part seer, he was a spokesman, statesman and ethical prophet' for planning and landscape architecture until mere days before his death at 93.
A crusader who made his mark nationally as the first (and last) head of the first (and, lamentably, last) national planning board, Charles W. Eliot 2d was as local as the crocuses that followed the snowdrops in the front yard of his family's Cambridge home. Nephew of the Charles Eliot who rounded the nation's first metropolitan park system, the greencry circling Boston, the younger Eliot was icon, creator and conduit; by birth and training,. he was the transmitter of the principles of a humane and sensitive treatment of the land inherited from the nineteenth century, voiced in the New Deal and languishing thereafter.
"It was all decided before I was born" Eliot once said. As standard-bearer for his generation of Eliots, "Charlie" was ordained by family decree and personal disposition to carry on the work and mind-set of public design. Through a career that spanned two generations, he conveyed the heritage of the profession to the public, a public ever more estranged from those calculated values. For all Eliot's stewardship, the notice of his death was as little observed as the hundred boxes of archival material deposited in the library of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he last taught. More sorrowfully, few observe the loss of his view of shaping the environment. The loss of his perspective in these days of a would-be New Deal is the nation's.
Born just before the new century, Eliot entered a field encompassing "design, engineering, architecture, horticulture and geology," as S. Herbert Hare described the expansive profession of landscape architecture in 1926. "A little study of the definitions will show that the field is a broad one, exerting an influence, in one way or another, on the life of nearly fiery person living under civilized conditions:' The word "civilized" and/or "civic" one may note, is absent from the pages of today's would-be stimulators of the economy through the updated "makework" of infrastructure jobs.
Eliot had a lobbying mentality but a longer memory in his art. From first to last, he broadened the intellectual and aesthetic legacy of his uncle in his fight for "the preservation of natural scenery." After apprenticeship in the thriving office of the Olmsted Brothers, heirs to Frederick Law Olmsted Sr's parkmaking and planning in countless communities, Eliot took this sensibility to Washington, D.C. In 1926, the year that Hare defined the profession, the young landscape architect was drafted by Frederick Olmsted Jr. to implement the urban plan for the city. After a washroom conversation in which Olmsted Jr. proffered the 'little-sought, half-pay job of city planner for the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the modest 27-year-Old who had just stepped off the express train from Boston signed on for life. The humor of Eliot's recounting of the above tale of where and how he received the 01mstedian coronation was typical of his patrician, but never arrogant, approach to public life.
In this post until the New Deal, the director of planning for the commission carefully considered the way to beautify the nation's core, stopping intrusive structures in Virginia across from downtown Washington and inaugurating the 1901 McMillan plan. He sought to beautify and preserve the banks of the Potomac River "to preserve and make available the remarkable inspirational values along some twenty-eight miles," combining history, scenery and recreation, Eliot wrote at the end of his tenure in 1933. …