Even before the paths in the restored Olmsted Linear Park were completed, they attracted walkers and joggers. Pathways were integral to the parks Olmsted created. Routes were carefully devised to allow the visitor to enjoy the most scenic vistas, the bend in the path repeating the curve of the landscape. A parkway was another Olmstedian component, used in the residential suburbs he designed. He intended Ponce de Leon Parkway (its original name) not only to connect Druid Hills to the city but to provide space for recreational riding and carriage-driving. The traffic that hurries along Ponce de Leon Avenue today is more utilitarian, but as commuters enter the winding green corridor, they find release from the pressures of the city. “We want a ground to which people may easily go after the day’s work is done,” Olmsted wrote. A century later, his artistic vision is still bringing pleasure to Atlantans.
The area known as Druid Hills was developed by Atlantan Joel Hurt of the Kirkwood Land Company. In 1890 Hurt persuaded Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., who was then working at Biltmore Estate, to travel south to see the 1,500-acre tract he had purchased. Olmsted subsequently agreed to prepare a plan for a residential suburb.
Olmsted submitted a preliminary plan to Hurt in 1893 in which the linear park was first laid out. The firm produced a final plan in 1905, two years after the death of its founder. Olmsted’s sons remained involved with the project until 1908, when the property was acquired by the Druid Hills Corporation. This group of investors, which included Coca-Cola magnate Asa G. Candler, completed development of the suburb and park.
Though the original park design remained intact, plants and installations inconsistent with Olmsted’s aesthetic were added over the years. Poor maintenance and the effects of erosion also contributed to a decline. In the 1980s, the park was threatened by a proposed freeway, though community opposition eventually blocked its construction. To rehabilitate the park, a coalition was formed that included the Olmsted Parks Society, Druid Hills Civic Association, Park Pride, the city of Atlanta, DeKalb County and Fernbank. Representatives drafted a master plan for restoration, aided by specialists in Olmstedian preservation. The Olmsted Linear Park Alliance was created in 1997 to implement the plan.
Springdale is the westernmost segment, the gateway to the Linear Park from Atlanta. Maps reveal a densely developed grid of straight streets running outward from the city center, but at the intersection of Ponce de Leon Avenue and Moreland Avenue/Briarcliff Road, a very different landscape unfolds. The visitor encounters a green knoll and a mature stand of oaks, followed by a sweeping pastoral dell.
Virgilee is the only segment of the Olmsted Linear Park which is named for an individual; the names of all other segments of the park reference natural features found in them. Virgilee was Joel Hurt’s daughter; this park is her memorial. The landscape of this segment continues the pastoral scheme of the Springdale segment—open space with groves of trees, paths, and smaller plantings on the periphery.
Oak Grove does contain an oak grove but is essentially a pastoral park which extends the design of the first two segments. For many years, it was maintained by the Druid Hills Garden Club. During those years, some elements which were not consonant with Olmsted’s pastoral style were introduced. The garden club has been supportive of the return to that Olmsted style.
Shady Side is named for the heavily wooded section on the southern side of its western end. This section of the park is mainly pastoral but has picturesque elements. A WPA project of the 1930’s added a well, a waterfall, a bridge and a pool to the park. While not strictly in keeping with Olmsted principles, these elements have been preserved because of their historic importance. Shady Side was also the staging area for those working to save the park from a proposed freeway in the 1980’s.
Dellwood is named for the natural depression at its eastern end—a dell. It is a continuation of the pastoral style—open space with scattered groups of trees. It is graced with some particularly fine large trees. The ownership of this park is shared by the City of Atlanta and Fernbank, Inc.
Deepdene, the largest segment, forms the eastern end of the Linear Park. Unlike the five pastoral segments, it is a wooded tract with a stream winding through its 22 acres and a topography that ranges from steep slopes to a flat meadow. Deepdene is the property of Fernbank, which leases it to the DeKalb County Department of Parks and Recreation.