Olmsted’s Hill

Each element in a park landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted exists with purpose and reason. Tall oak and pine trees frame the visitor’s view; pink and violet blooms sit deliberately like dabs of oil paint. Paths of dirt or stone reach over the meadow at delicate angles crafted to fill the visitor with vim and delight as he turns a corner and enters a new realm, where he finds himself standing at the top of The Hill, the centerpiece of Olmsted’s Darien Park in St. Louis. Olmsted hauled in one-hundred-and-eighty carloads of dirt by train from New Jersey to construct the gorgeous spectacle, reaching ninety-seven feet into the sky. From the precipice, the visitor enjoys a stunning view of the park, the city, and the Mississippi River, but not, notably, of the edge of The Hill. Exactingly designed at a clifflike 85-degree angle, The Hill’s garden of tall switchgrass and feathertop misleads the visitor into believing there is more ground than there is. Before he is aware of what’s happened, the path abruptly ends but the visitor takes one more step, tumbling over the side of The Hill and falling like a stone. His flailing body smashes into the calculated path, steep as a wall, and picks up speed as he slams against its Italian quarrystones over and over, rolling through The Hill’s purposeful nadir before momentum carries his body up the sloped grass ramp at sixty-miles an hour and he shoots like a cannonball, screaming for help, over the neat beds of verbena and indigo and milkweed, finally cracking against a docked steamship, breaking his ribs and legs and arms before sinking to the bottom of the Mississippi. Sketched in a mad rush late one night after Olmsted had been double-charged for a bowl of porridge by a café owner who frequented Darien Park, critics hailed The Hill as Olmsted’s most savage and full-throated work to date, praising his unrivaled ability to bring passion and fury to the staid world of landscape architecture.