Mystery Stone Pile

Olmstead?
Olmstead?

An intriguing question recently came my way from a reader. Richard K. from Williamsburg, VA asks, “Could a pile of stones possibly aid in the identification of an individual in a 19th century photograph?” In the photo he included, the man sits in an open buggy holding the reins of a horse. The horse has its ears pulled back suggesting that someone is out of the frame startling the stead into a frozen stance while the film is exposed. The man also holds still, eyes cast down, expressionless, but attempting to appear animated by raising his hands to a driver’s position. A plush robe covers his legs and the platform next to him. There’s a layer of hay on the floorboards. Since there’s no seat back, the carriage was probably used for short utilitarian excursions. The young man wears a coat and floppy bowtie. He has a military style forage cap covering his thick head of hair.

Mustached, with a ruddy complexion and a cigar clamped in the corner of his mouth, he could have been an apprentice seaman, a failed farmer, a newspaper journalist (just back from reporting on conditions in the South before the Civil War), a landscape architect, or, all four if the man in the picture was Frederick Law Olmstead. As my correspondent points out, the figure bears a striking resemblance to the designer of New York City’s Central Park. But because the photo’s unverifiable, we can only conjecture, and look for clues that may reveal more about the man.

At the top of the frame is a pile of stone. Behind it are two hexagonal stone posts, and behind them, street curbing. The details of the posts and curbing suggest that the photo location was an established urban setting. It’s curious that the photographer intentionally placed his subject in front of a pile of stone, and not before the more formal backdrop that was available. The stone pile looks to be recently deposited due to the lack of vegetation that would otherwise be sprouting along its edges. The pile displays two types of clean stone; rubble and dressed blocks. The rubble may be the spoils from the production of the blocks but the casualness in the way the blocks are arranged makes it appear that they were dumped there and not produced at that exact location. To my builder’s eye, the stone pile looks like ready stock for a construction.

Because the blocks are all squares and not long rectangles it can be assumed that they would not be stacked as corner stones. As such, a long vertical joint would develope where they intersect the wall faces. More likely they would have been used as voussoirs in an arch bridge construction. For instance, there are twenty stone arches, many made with Manhattan Schist, in Central Park. The Gapstone Bridge is one example built with voussoirs similar in size and shape to the blocks in the photograph. The railing of the bridge is built out of stone not unlike the rubble. Central Park was Olmstead’s first commission. The young designer went on to lay out plans for many other parks and campuses across North America during his long career.

The photograph remains a mystery but is no less interesting for the fact. It has led to questioning, spurred inquiry and stirred the imagination. Was the man in the buggy to become a world famous landscape architect, or, was he in reality just some fellow proudly holding the reins of his prized trotter?