By Gregory Wallace

Olmsted Linear Park has endured as one of Atlanta’s most visible and beautiful landmarks. Over the years, the Ponce de Leon Avenue park’s nonstop usage, combined with inadequate maintenance, had resulted in its gradual decline.

To help recapture its former grandeur, concerned citizens launched a grassroots effort more than a decade ago. In 1997, the Olmsted Linear Park Alliance (OLPA) was established to ensure the rehabilitation and preservation of the park for future generations. With support from individuals, foundations and government agencies, OLPA raised more than $9 million for the park’s reconstruction.

Five of the park’s six segments – Oak Grove, Shadyside, Virgilee, Dellwood and Springdale  – have been completed. The final segment, Deepdene, is nearly complete.

A celebration of the park’s completion will be part of the seventh annual “Dream in Green” gala at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History on Sunday, March 6, from 7 to 10 p.m.

“It’s open to the public, so anyone can come,” explains gala co-chair Rhonda Mullen. “It’s become a neighborhood party, in a sense, but it’s not just the neighborhood in Druid Hills, it’s the whole Intown community that it draws on. This is a public resource, so it’s very much a public event.”

Highlights will include live jazz, hors d’oeuvres, and a specialty cocktail developed for the gala by Affairs to Remember. Live and silent auctions will run side by side, with gifts Mullen describes as ranging from “the practical to the beautifully aesthetic.” Luxury items set to be auctioned off include Air Tran tickets, a weekend at the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Asheville, and high end wines, as well as photography and artwork by local artists. On the more practical side, Decatur-based Oriental rug dealer and restoration service Sharian has donated a free rug cleaning.

According to Mullen, the gala will accomplish more than simply celebrating the completion of the park. The funds raised will also help to ensure its future.

“We [OLPA] are at the point with the parks where we’ve done a lot of the restoration, and now we want to start building an endowment because we want to make sure that they keep going,” she say. “Because every year, you have plants die or things that come up that need attention. So even when this first phase is finished, we’re trying to really preserve them for the next hundred years.”

In 1890 Atlanta businessman Joel Hurt engaged Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., to prepare a plan for developing the area now known as Druid Hills. The designer of parks and public spaces, including Central Park in New York City, the Emerald Necklace of Boston, the Biltmore Estate in Asheville and the nation’s Capitol Grounds, Olmsted approached the Druid Hills project as a mature artist late in his career.

Although Olmsted died before his 1904 design for park was complete, his touch is visible throughout. Olmstead’s sons completed the work, creating promenades to allow for easy access, and widening and narrowing vistas create a sense of movement. His design was inclusive enough to allow for an extra wide road that would accommodate buggies and mules and cars, as well as a streetcar that ran from downtown Atlanta to the suburb.

In August 1995, interested citizens and non-profit organizations joined forces to plan for the stabilization and rehabilitation of the Olmsted Linear Park. OLPA, a public-private partnership, was founded two years later, tasked with implementing a master plan by the city of Atlanta, DeKalb County and Fernbank, Inc.

To interpret the plan, OLPA turned to Atlanta-based landscape architect Spencer Tunnel. Sticking to Olmsted’s original 1904 plan wherever possible, Tunnel, began with the northernmost segments of the park. Tunnel tried to use native plants that Olmsted preferred, and made changes only as necessary, such as to accommodate the narrowing of Oak Grove, which had been sacrificed to the widened Ponce de Leon Avenue.

Tunnell’s interpretation of the plan has been extremely well-received. Charles Beveridge, who has edited nine volumes of Olmsted’s papers and consulted on Olmsted restoration projects throughout the nation, went so far as to call the project “the most thorough and comprehensive replanting of any Olmsted project undertaken in the last 25 years.”

For more information on Olmstead Park and the gala, visit atlantaolmstedpark.org. Tickets to the gala may be purchased by emailing olpa.atl@att.net or by calling (404) 377-5361.

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