Samuel B. Parsons Jr. (1844 – February 3, 1923) was an American landscape architect. He is remembered primarily for his accidental introduction of the fungus that led to the near extinction of the formerly widespread American chestnut tree.
New Bedford, Massachusetts
|Died||February 3, 1923|
New York City, New York
|Parent(s)||Samuel Parsons, Sr.|
American Chestnut Tree
Before the early 1900s one in every four hardwood trees in North America's eastern forests was an American chestnut. Together with oaks they predominated in 80 million hectares of forest from Maine to Florida and west to the Ohio Valley, reaching heights of up to 40 meters and growing two meters around the middle. Chestnuts sometimes piled so high on the forest floor that people would scoop them up with shovels. Both humans and a wide variety of animals relied on this abundant and easily gathered resource for food, particularly in winter.
Chestnut trees also had significant economic value. American carpenters preferred chestnut over other materials for making certain products. Lightweight, rot-resistant, straight-grained and easy to work with, chestnut wood was used to build houses, barns, telegraph poles, railroad ties, furniture and even musical instruments.
In 1876 Samuel B. Parsons imported Japanese chestnut trees which he then sold to customers in several states across the country. Some of these shipments concealed the pathogenic fungus Cryphonectria parasitica. The disease chokes the trees to death by wedging itself into their trunks and obstructing conduits for water and nutrients. Asian chestnut trees evolved a resistance but their North American relatives were highly susceptible to chestnut blight.
First discovered in New York State in 1904, the blight was soon spotted in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Within 50 years, C. parasitica killed nearly four billion chestnut trees. The species has been almost completely extirpated within its native range in one of the greatest ecological catastrophes in American history.
Samuel Bowne Parsons Jr. was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1844 to Samuel Bowne Parsons Sr. who himself was the son of Samuel Parsons, who moved to Flushing from Manhattan around 1800 and married Mary Bowne. Samuel Bowne Parsons Sr. was an accomplished and well noted horticulturist, who was the first to import Japanese Maples and propagate rhododendrons. Samuel received his practical training and knowledge of landscaping and landscape materials working for J.R. Trumpy, the manager of his father’s nursery in Flushing, Queens. Parsons then went to school at Yale University and graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy in 1862, after which he spent several years studying and practicing farming. When he returned home to the family nursery, a welcome surprise awaited him. The nursery was now in business with and supplying Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, two famous designers most notably responsible for New York’s Central Park design.
Parsons became an apprentice of Calvert Vaux from 1879–1884 and his partner from 1887-1895. When Vaux became the head landscape architect of the New York City Parks Department, with him came Parsons, who took over the unpaid position of Superintendent of Planting. After Vaux's death in 1895, Parsons became the new head landscape architect of New York City and remained there until 1911. During Parsons' partnership with Vaux, the two produced many notable designs, including: Abingdon Square and Christopher Street Park, both in Greenwich Village, the restoration of the Ladies Pond in Central Park (which at the time was infested with malaria carrying mosquitos), the siting of Grant's Tomb in Riverside Park, and the completion of Morningside Park. In collaboration with architect Stanford White, Parsons and Vaux also produced the Washington Memorial Arch in Washington Square Park and the Grand Army Plaza Arch near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Throughout their tenure together Parsons noticed that Vaux was a very passionate believer in naturalistic parks, but was reluctant to push himself forward.
After Vaux’s death, Parsons went on to design Balboa Park (then known as City Park) in San Diego, Albemarle Park in Asheville, North Carolina, St. Nicholas Park in New York City, a Dutch Garden for Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, and to re-design Union Square to accommodate the new subway station. New York City was the main beneficiary of Parsons' designs; they included numerous bathrooms, some designed to resemble Greek temples. In 1899, Parsons founded the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) in conjunction with ten other well established practitioners on a basis of three tenets:
- To establish landscape architecture as a recognized profession in North America.
- To develop educational studies in landscape architecture.
- To provide a voice of authority in the "New Profession".
From 1905 to 1907 Parsons served as the President of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
Parsons published numerous magazine articles and at least six books on landscape gardening throughout his life. He depended on media publicity to accomplish a goal only once; he sought help from local newspapers to help rid Central Park of shantytowns.
Throughout his professional career, Parsons was known for his ability to merge elegant plantings and the extensive knowledge he had gained from his father with the native environment without disrupting the Genius Loci (the spirit of place) of the sites he designed. He was able to maintain his design characteristics in all of his design projects without completely copying his earlier work. He remains a founding father of the modern day landscape architecture institution, and his designs are still visible throughout the United States, primarily in San Diego’s Balboa Park and New York City's Union Square.
Balboa Park/City Park
In 1902 the San Diego Chamber of Commerce formed a Park Improvement Committee to improve upon existing parks and develop new city parks. Kate Sessions, a committee member, convinced others that a professional landscape architect should be responsible for drawing up the plans for the new City Park, known today as Balboa Park. A local merchant, George W. Marston, who volunteered to pay a minimum of $4,000 and a maximum of $5,000 to the landscape architect who offered their services, arranged to meet Samuel Parsons during a business trip to New York City. The meeting went very well and Parsons was hired to design the park.
In December 1902 Parsons wrote down his first impressions of what he envisioned for the park. Parsons visited the site for the first time right after winter rains gave way to blooming wildflowers. He was able to record which type of native flowers grew on the land and where. He worked around this to create a sense of natural planting throughout the site. Parsons also discovered the site offered plenty of views ranging from mesas to the Pacific Ocean. His ultimate goal was to capture the outside world instead of blocking it like he did with previous park designs in New York City.
With the arrival of Samuel Parsons in San Diego came objections from the locals. Local business people, gardeners, politicians and clients for the project all objected to an outsider designing the city's largest park. They were convinced that only the locals knew the soil, climate, and plant conditions present throughout the site.
Parsons only visited the site four times, leaving the execution of his plans to his assistant, George Cooke. Parsons was able to do most of his work from his office in New York with the contour maps sent to him from the San Diego Bureau of Public Works. Throughout the construction and improvement of City Park, some locals called upon Parsons to design their private estates and grounds. 1911 was the last year Parsons was part of the project in San Diego. His initial plans weren't exactly matched and the result is a park that lacks what the designer initially had planned. With modern technology and the introduction of high-rise buildings many of the views the park initially offered no longer exist. Parsons had no idea what would be built on the City Park site in years to come. The 1,200-acre (4.9 km2) park is now host to numerous buildings including; a velodrome, administrative offices and buildings, a golf course, a zoo, restaurants, gift shops and public schools. These are only some of the occupants of the park land. Out of the 1,200-acre (4.9 km2) park only 263 acres (1.06 km2) are left as open spaces. Furthermore, most of the initial plants introduced by Parsons are dying or already gone. The City of San Diego has removed many of the trees and shrubs to decrease the number of transients living in the park. Balboa Park has left a lasting impression on the city of San Diego, although it no longer serves the romantic purpose Parsons had imagined.
- Abingdon Square Park, New York City
- DeWitt Clinton Park, New York City
- The Ladies Pond in Central Park, New York, New York
- Morningside Park, New York, City
- Washington Memorial Arch in Washington Square Park, New York (set location)
- the Grand Army Plaza Arch in Prospect Park, Brooklyn (set location)
- Balboa Park, San Diego, California
- Albemarle Park, Asheville, North Carolina
- St. Nicholas Park, New York City
- Union Square, New York City
- Landscape architecture
- History of gardening
- Garden real estate
- Landscape Design
- Calvert Vaux
- Frederick Law Olmsted
- Jabr, Ferris. "A New Generation of American Chestnut Trees May Redefine America's Forests." Scientific American, March 1, 2014. Retrieved September 22, 2015.
- Amero, Richard W. (Winter 1998). "Samuel Parsons Finds Xanadu in San Diego". The Journal of San Diego History. 44 (1). Retrieved 2006-10-30.
- Raynor, Vivian (March 26, 1995). "A Landscape Artist Who Left His Mark". The New York Times. Retrieved 2006-10-30.
- "American Architect's Biographies". Society of Architectural Historians. 4 February 1997. Archived from the original on 2006-10-01. Retrieved 2006-10-30.
- "American Society of Landscape Architects". 2006. Archived from the original on 2006-10-25. Retrieved 2006-10-30.
- Memories of Samuel Parsons; Landscape Architect of the Department of Public Parks, edited by Mabel Parsons, Putnam, 1926