Imagining Uplands

Imagining Uplands recounts the efforts of the American landscape architect John Charles Olmsted to create an ideal and enduring subdivision on the suburban frontier of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Laid out at the height of the early-20th century real estate boom, Uplands was the first large-scale Canadian subdivision to break away entirely from the rigid geometry of the rectangular grid. Fashioned in the naturalistic or modern style, Uplands is marked by artistry and practicality. For John Olmsted personally, of all his subdivision projects, Uplands was “unquestionably the best adapted to obtain the greatest amount of landscape beauty in connection with suburban development.”

Imagining Uplands tells also of John Olmsted’s upbringing and training, and about other projects he initiated in Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest before World War I. Key chapters focus on his productive working relationship with the developer William Gardner of Winnipeg from 1907–1911 to make Uplands a masterpiece of residential design.


Among major themes woven into the narrative are the land dealings of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the corporate take-over of Gardner’s interests by the Paris-based Franco-Canadian Company, the chance making of Uplands Park, and ways in which Uplands has shaped Oak Bay’s politics, zoning, and middle-class identity.

Specially commissioned artwork, as well as over 150 historical and contemporary maps and photographs, are integrated closely with the text. These images capture the intrinsic beauty of the Garry oak landscape, the artistry of John Olmsted’s design, and the domestic architecture of “Victoria’s Celebrated Residential Park.”

7.75 x 10.25 inches / 362 + xxii pp. / 169 illus., cloth
ISBN 978-0-9950663-0-4 / $55CAN, $50US

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The “Eyes” of the Tail Feathers


Unquestionably the Best


John Olmsted, Landscape Architect


John Olmsted at Uplands Farm, April 5th, 1907


Artistry, Practicality, and a Habit for Work
Oak Bay, Philadelphia, Winnipeg and Calgary


The Plan Should Be an Ideal One


The Spirit of Loyalty to the Original Plan


A Dream in the Beginning, an Accomplished Fact

Suggestions for Home Builders
The Architectural Landscape
Abbreviations, Terms, and Sources
Select Bibliography

John Olmsted

John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920) stands as one of North America’s leading landscape architects of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Based in Brookline, Massachusetts, he was the stepson of Frederick Law Olmsted and the older brother to Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. He designed and planned hundreds of landscapes from coast to coast to coast across Canada and the United States—from Truro, Nova Scotia, west to Victoria, British Columbia, and south to New Orleans, Louisiana. His landscapes grace major cities and small communities: Boston, Chicago, Montclair in New Jersey, Dayton in Ohio, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Winnipeg, Calgary, Seattle, and Portland, among many places.

Known chiefly as a designer of parks, park systems, and parkways, his complete body of work extends to all zones of the modern city. His design repertoire includes campuses for schools, colleges and universities; the grounds of fairs, expositions, hospitals, and asylums; and layouts for private estates, industrial villages, and of course, residential subdivisions. 

John Olmsted was a dedicated professional who was loyal to family, friends, and clients. His legacy lives on where people today experience the beauty and practicality of the landscapes shaped by his artistic vision and conscientious attitude to work. His overarching achievement has been to design and plan long-lasting landscapes that sustain the quality of community life across North America.

Olmsted Family photograph 02931 provided courtesy of the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, MA.

“So with the picturesque landscape of “The Uplands,” the basis of the design is to make the best possible use of the more important features of the local scenery for a human purpose in which the element of beauty is recognized to be essential, for will not all who go there to live take much anxious thought not only as to the appropriateness and beauty of their improvements, but as to their harmony with the natural beauties surrounding them?”

Click image to enlarge.

McGregor’s Topographical
or Surveying Plan
of Uplands, 1907

To design and plan Uplands, John Olmsted required a “a topo map at a scale of 200 feet to the inch with 5 feet contours and showing the rocky ledges, outlines of woods, and groups of trees.” While not perfectly executed, this surveying plan guided the landscape architect’s efforts at shaping the curves of roads to harmonize with local terrain. It was also used to plot irregularly-shaped lots that preserved the “grandest oaks” and captured “far outlook” views of the sea and distant mountain ranges.

To complete the survey, McGregor used a variation of the squares method of contouring. A grid of 200 x 100 feet spaces was superimposed across an outline map of the property. This yielded over 1,500 full or partial areas. The elevation of some 10,000 surveying points was measured. These points were interpolated to determine the site’s 5-foot contour lines.

McGregor’s original surveying map has not survived. This version is a copy used by John Olmsted in July or September of 1907 to complete a preliminary plan of the street and lot layout. Besides the layout, the map reveals areas of tree coverage, cultivated land, the HBC’s derelict slaughterhouse near Spoon Bay, and various paths, trails, and wagon roads.

Plan 3276-3-[tc1] for Uplands Subdivision provided courtesy of the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, MA.

Click image to enlarge.

General Plan
for Uplands, 1908

The “General Plan for Uplands” was completed in the Brookline, Massachusetts office of Olmsted Brothers late in 1908. For John Olmsted, the plan was the culmination of a design and planning process that involved “going to the ground” many days at the Uplands Farm. Five separate visits, tallying some thirty days, were made to Victoria during 1907 and 1908. Working with the topographical map prepared by the surveyor Herrick McGregor, the landscape architect created various preliminary plans before the subdivision’s layout was finalized. This layout, set against the contour lines of the 465-acre site that “sloped gently to the sea,” depicts a street and lot system designed in the naturalistic or modern style. Curved roads, irregularly-shaped homesites, and a grand streetcar and boulevard entrance harmonize agreeably with Garry oaks and ledgy areas, some of the physical features that John Olmsted called the “natural beauties” of Uplands.

The “General Plan for Uplands” was first shown publicly on May 15th, 1911 in Philadelphia. The occasion was a meeting of the National Conference on City Planning. A simplified version of the plan, drafted by Herrick McGregor to meet the requirements of British Columbia’s “Land Act,” was presented to Oak Bay’s Municipal Council for subdivision approval in January 1909. The distinctive shape and pattern of Uplands was portrayed on “Gore’s Map of Victoria, British Columbia,” published in January, 1912. A subdivision plan and bird’s eye view for marketing lots were released by The Uplands Ltd. in April, 1912.

Plan 3276-11 for Uplands Subdivision provided courtesy of the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, MA.

A Bird’s-Eye View of Uplands

This 1912 Bird’s-Eye View of Uplands was produced for the Franco-Canadian Corporation in the Calgary studio of the Chicago-based, Gibson Catlett Company and printed in Paris, France by the Société Générale D’Impression. Catlett’s regional studios were located across North America. Local artists were hired to produce an evocative “landscape painting” that was used to promote a city, a residential subdivision, or other types of development. To reference the landscape, artists relied chiefly on topographic maps and photographs. On occasion, Catlett employees would fly over a city in a bi-plane to sketch or photograph a landscape. City paintings sometimes stretched to twenty or more feet in length. The Uplands painting was about 3 feet by 5 feet in size. The layout of Uplands is not drawn to scale, but the bird’s-eye view does capture the suburban setting of Uplands in relation to ocean straits, downtown Victoria, the distant Olympic Mountains, and the nearby Sooke Hills. The artwork was photographed and printed at a reduced scale in both colour and black and white for distribution to potential lot purchasers.

Plan 3276-21 for Uplands Subdivision provided courtesy of the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, MA.

Click image to enlarge.


About the Author

Larry McCann is a Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of Victoria. Educated in Oak Bay’s schools, he earned a BA (Honours) degree from the University of Victoria and the MA and PhD degrees from the University of Alberta. He has published many articles, book chapters, and books, including Heartland and Hinterland: A Geography of Canada. He has served on various local, national, and international committees such as Oak Bay’s Advisory Design Panel, the National Capital Planning Commission (Ottawa), and the Advisory Council of the National Association of Olmsted Parks (USA). For his various research and professional contributions, he was awarded the Massey Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. He is also a recipient of awards from the Association for Canadian Studies, the British Columbia Heritage Society, the Hallmark Heritage Society of Victoria, and the Killam Foundation; and a teaching award from the University of Victoria.