Of all the neighborhoods of Caracas, of Venezuela, and even of Latin America, the Caracas Country Club (*) treasures one of the most extraordinary stories, a story still very little known. This urbanization, far from being similar to others in the Caracas valley, is a “classified” project by the landscape architecture firm of Olmsted Associates, from Boston, Massachusetts, continuer of the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., the father of landscape architecture and defender of America’s natural beauty. This is the firm’s only work in Venezuela.
This circumstance, in itself, turns this neighborhood into a beautiful urban rarity: a treasure of the history of urbanism and of landscaping that simultaneously is the most successful homage to the valley of Caracas’ natural scenery, which thanks to this project survives there, practically intact. The Caracas Country Club is today the only place in the city were one can actually see how the valley’s original natural landscape was before the city was built.
For a long time it was believed that Olmsted Associates’ design was limited to the golf courses. This was a fantastic misunderstanding. The transformation in the 1920s of the old haciendas of Blandín, Lecuna, El Samán and La Granja was a job –No. 7947- of the most important landscaping architecture office in America at the time, which turned a simple residential golf club’s commission into a sensitive urban design and landscaping project that undoubtedly can be counted among the most notable American urbanisms of the Twentieth-century.
Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. (1822-1903), is needless to say, is the best known name in landscape architecture and planning of the United States of America. Since 1883 until the middle of the Twentieth-century, from his office and school of landscape design installed in his house in Brookline, in the outskirts of Boston, came out urban and state parks, university and college campuses, institutional terrains, zoos, arboretums, private properties and suburban landscaping communities… like the Caracas Country Club. The transcendence that his work was acquiring led him to specially educate his son Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (1870-1957) and his nephew, John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920), so that they would continue his ideal, with the same spirit for the preservation of the American landscape in its most genuine beauty. At his death, Frederick Law Jr. and John Charles turned into principal partners of the firm, changing its name for Olmsted Brothers. Between 1895 and 1920, the firm expanded rapidly.
Olmsted always maintained, like his father, a compromise with conservation. He was “primarily concerned with protecting the beauty, dignity and nobility of national park landscapes, and preventing excessive commercialism in the parks.” In 1916 he contributed to shape the legislation that created the National Park Service in the United States. A famous statement of his, that defined the spirit of the Law in 1916, contains already a lot of what he would do lately in the Caracas Country Club: (it is important)
“to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” (Olmsted: 1916).
His life as a landscape architect was increasingly interweaved with that of the planner. It is then when he formulated the concept of “Global Planning”, a fortunate mix of the Olmsted’s landscaping and preservationist saga, with the civic ornamentalism of the City Beautiful Movement, fused with the urge of bringing solutions for the growth of the American modern city. Between 1905 and 1915 he applied the principles of global planning for designing suburbs, “creating master plans for Roland Park, a Baltimore suburb; for Forest Hills Gardens, a model garden community in the outskirts of New York, and for the industrial city of Torrance, California.” (Whiting & Phillips : 1958) All of these suburban plans –especially Forest Hills and the Riverside neighborhood, in New Jersey-, already announced his ideas of what would be “Job No. 7947.”
By1920, when John Charles dies, Olmsted Brothers was the largest office of landscape architecture in the world. Meanwhile, in Caracas, in 1918, on a zone to the west of the city known today as Vista Alegre, was created the Caracas Golf Club. In December 14th, 1922, it changed its name for Caracas Country Club. Aiming to extend the golf courses and have a better club house, around 1926 some of its members founded the Syndicate Blandin, an association named after the Hacienda Blandin, a plantation nesting on the other side of the valley, in the location of Chacao, where the club would move. This hacienda was famous for having introduced in 1786 the culturing of coffee in the valley of Caracas, as for its magnificent trees and its beautiful hacienda house placed on the edge of a creek. The house was reached by a long avenue that went “along the channel that ran by the creek that watered the coffee plantation, making way for itself towards the Guaire river” (Duane : 1826). Part of its original architecture is now integrated in the actual Golf Club House.
The Syndicate Blandin took the pioneering decision of doing a new and singular urban experience, the first of its kind in the country, on the hacienda’s lands (to which soon were to be added the four other contiguous haciendas). In this way, they called the Olmsted firm, hiring it to do the urban design and the landscaping for the new urbanization. At the end of the 1920s, when the Olmsted firm accepts Syndicate Blandin’s commission, Olmsted was “advising on the preparation of a regional plan for the New York City area, was doing the great urban park of Fort Tryon Park, on Manhattan’s northern border on the Hudson River”, and was designing in parallel “two more notable suburban communities: Palos Verdes Estates in California and the Mountain Lake Club in Lake Wales, Florida.”
The Caracas Country Club golf courses would be designed by the American architect and golf course specialist Charles Banks in collaboration with the Olmsted firm. An international architectural competition was also called for the club’s building, enlarging the colonial house. It was won in 1929 by Californian architect Clifford Charles Wendehack (Wendehack Job Number 447), who would be assisted by Venezuelan architect Carlos Guinand Sandoz.
It is revealing to read again the philosophical basis that would give life to the Caracas project. Olmsted “summarized his philosophy about landscape architecture in the following terms: ‘In dealing with existing real landscapes, I have been guided by an injunction impressed on me by my distinguished father: namely, that when one becomes responsible for what is to happen to such a landscape his prime duty is to protect and perpetuate whatever of beauty and inspirational value, inherent in that landscape, is due to nature and to circumstances not of one’s own contriving, and to humbly subordinate to that purpose any impulse to exercise upon it one’s own skill as a creative designer’.”
Olmsted worry for the future of “the irreplaceable and unvalued domains of the past”, would preserve in Caracas a great deal of the original conditions of the place occupied by the haciendas. Thus, he maintained the natural topography of El Avila mountain’s foothills, privileging in the golf courses’ design wide views to the mountain and to the southern hills. The allotment’s irregular form that breaks with the reticular urban tissue, and the street pattern that winds “around great grass extensions under masses of trees”, were curved ex profeso following the express indications of his office. They were made to conserve intact the magnificent centenary specimens of “big Bucare trees, Mijao trees and Chaguaramo palms that grew on these lands”, which can still be seen surfacing among the lower tree-tops of the Caracas Country Club, as refers architecture historian Leszek Zawisza. The Avenida Principal de Blandín -the hacienda’s road-, once lined with Chaguaramo palms in the most illustrious Caraquenian Agrarian Style, was another element respected and assumed exactly in the design by the Olmsted firm… Something pretty uncommon in modern planning, so used to wipe out everything. But the persistence of memory went further from the vegetal and geographical elements: the bridge over the Chacaíto creek and the site of the house of Blandín, there since the beginnings of the Eighteenth-century, were reaffirmed in their traditional settings.
Also in Caracas we can appreciate how the Olmsted’s solutions grew from genius loci. Their respect and devotion for the original place succeeded in the Caracas Country Club. Today it is not only an ecological and environmental sanctuary: it is also a sanctuary of landscape’s memory. This is why today in Blandín the Caracas genius still reigns.
The first landscape architecture residential project in Venezuela is preserved as a great planning and landscaping work in its designer’s country of origin. The Caracas Country Club is preserved intact in paper, all of its 79 plans and drawings dated until 1930, plus an album with 112 historic photos from1928, in the Olmsted Archives of the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, in Brookline. Additionally, the client-architect correspondences (three folders that go up to 1941 of “Job No. 7947″) are treasured in the collection of the Olmsted Papers, Olmsted Associates Records, Series B, from the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, in Washington, DC. All the plans, the photos and the complete drawings of the Caracas Country Club’s urban design are safely kept there, along with the lamp posts designs, the plantation schemes and the details that bear witness of its relationship with the other Olmsted neighborhoods, reassuring it as a bastion of the history of Caracas and of landscape architecture. Still, despite all of the importance of its legacy, the issue of its preservation returns repeatedly as controversial.
In the year 2000 the first emergency arrived. “Due to the forces and appetites of the real estate market and to bastard interests”, the neighborhood was in severe danger of disappearing. Caracas was in danger of losing a crucial value of the quality of its urban life, its landscape and its history. Consequently, a private foundation, the Fundación de la Memoria Urbana, solicited in a letter to Venezuela’s highest patrimonial authority, the Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural, the protection of the urban and environmental site and of the architectural ensemble of the Caracas Country Club “as a milestone in the history of the city and of Venezuelan and of all America architecture and urbanism.”
The allegation presented to preserve the “analogous Caraquenian ‘Central Park’” was centered on the Caracas Country Club’s triple condition as architectural enclave, historical district and environmental retreat for the whole city, arguing that this territory has an unique environmental value in the valley of Caracas because of “its strategic central location, its big scale, and the fact that it is the only place where El Avila National Park descends practically to the Guaire river, letting the passing of the fauna and the flora from and to the mountain.” The neighborhood is not just a lung for the city, but a bird’s sanctuary and a green island that relieves the existing chaos, contributing to the aesthetical, visual and climatic quality of the capital.
Only with a landmark designation would it be possible to preserve “its park condition, without changing its original density, layout and urban design and the golf courses inserted within it, its natural ambiance, its landscape, its fauna and its flora, the street sections, the urban furniture, the vistas, the urban spaces and the gardens of the houses -which put together shape up an area even bigger than that of the golf courses themselves- and, likewise, the urbanization’s architectural works, inseparable part of the urban design, among which stand many works from the most notable Venezuelan and international architects” (Fundación de la Memoria Urbana : 2003). In the year 2005, within a vast national project called the First National Patrimony Census, the Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural designated the Caracas Country Club as a Good of Cultural Interest Cultural of the Nation.
At the end of 2007, nevertheless, the threat returned. This time under the form of a mayor’s populist aims, which placed again under the spotlight the issue of the golf courses’ use, proposing to proceed to its immediate expropriation in order to build social housing. After a lot of media noise, the mayor finally found out about the designation, and desisted of his intentions. Nevertheless, the economical power pressures from those investors who don’t love or understand the city and the saga of irresponsible destruction, remain there, trying to change the zoning and with it the patrimonial houses and their gardens into rentable apartment towers… Now maybe with the argument of its reconversion into a public park.
What is true is that this first rate modern patrimony claims for an analysis at the level of its history. It needs its own poetics of preservation, one that permits to preserve it, not “archeologically”, but considering the possibility of reconnecting the city without destroying it, reordering its borders to heighten their density (giving attention to the vistas over this beautiful 1920s designed landscape) and evaluating a fair path for the collective enjoyment of its green areas. The beauty of the Caracas Country Club’s urbanism, so aesthetically Olmstedian and, at the same time, so profoundly Caraquenian, is not and will never be a screaming beauty. It is, like all of the Olmsted’s’ solutions, a quiet beauty, grown from the land in a natural way. And thus it should be preserved “…by such means as will leave it unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
(*).The Caracas Country Club, its Golf House and the Valle Arriba Golf Club were listed in the I National Census of Cultural Patrimony 2004-2005 by the Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural, and declared as National Good of Cultural Interest in the GACETA OFICIAL DE LA REPÚBLICA BOLIVARIANA DE VENEZUELA Nº 38.234 from July 22, 2005.