Parkitect: Carl Freund and Organic Modernism in Cincinnati’s Public Landscapes


Open Shelter Pavilion in Burnet Woods

Open Shelter Pavilion, Burnet Woods, Clifton, Cincinnati, OH, by R. Carl Freund, 1936. Photographed by Elizabeth Meyer, 2017.

Cincinnati Architect R. Carl Freund (1902-59) worked for the Cincinnati Park Board for three decades, from the 1930s -1950s, and furnished the city’s parks with a delightful array of small buildings designed in Freund’s creative interpretation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Organic Modernism.

Bellevue Hill Park Pavilion

Bellevue Hill Park Pavilion, Clifton Heights, Cincinnati, OH, by R. Carl Freund, 1955. Photograph by E. Meyer, 2018. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

Stone Steps Shelter at Mount Airy Forest Park

Stone Steps Shelter, Mount Airy Forest Park, Cincinnati, OH, by R. Carl Freund, 1950. Photograph by E. Meyer, 2018. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

Born in Appleton, Wisconsin, slightly over 100 miles from Taliesin, Freund surely saw buildings by Wright, though Wright began training pupils only in 1932, too late for Freund to study with him. Freund studied architecture in the early 1920s at the University of Cincinnati and the Ohio Mechanics Institute—perhaps attracted by the developing co-operative education program that provided students with work experience in the offices of practicing architects. Freund worked for several Cincinnati architects, including John S. Adkins, Crowe and Shulte, Fechheimer and Ihorst, and Zettel and Rapp. Early in his career Freund specialized in religious buildings and schools, eventually establishing his own practice.

Oak Ridge Lodge at Mount Airy Forest Park

Oak Ridge Lodge, Mount Airy Forest Park, Cincinnati, OH, by R. Carl Freund, 1948. Cincinnati Park Board Archives

In 1930, with the Great Depression deepening and architectural work declining, Freund began contract work for the City of Cincinnati, soon becoming staff architect and building superintendent for the Board of Park Commissioners. Freund’s work corresponded with an influx of public funding and labor from Depression-era New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that resulted in extensive construction in the city's public parks. Cincinnati's park system is one of the best in the United States, encompassing over 5,000 acres and including some of the city’s most varied and dramatic landscapes. Freund ultimately designed over three dozen park structures, ranging from shelter pavilions, to comfort stations, to lodges, and including the Park Board administration building in Eden Park. Cincinnati politician Murray Seasongood, Mayor of the city from 1926-30, was an advocate for the city and county park systems and a great admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright [see Reviving Frank Lloyd Reviving Wright in Cincinnati]. It is possible that Seasongood encouraged the Wrightian quality of Cincinnati’s park architecture.

Park Board Administration Building, Eden Park, Cincinnati, OH, by R. Carl Freund, 1955

Although Wright's Organic Modernism seemed a perfect match for American park landscapes, Wright himself ironically designed few structures specifically for parks. This forced Freund to study Wright’s organic design principles and other Wright building types as creative inspiration for Cincinnati’s park structures. Freund’s park buildings tend to be small and programmatically simple but, like landscape pavilions from the 18th-century onward, his park buildings are sensitively sited to function both as objects within the landscape and as "viewing cameras” for heightening visitors' experiences of the natural landscape. Freund’s park pavilions often capture dramatic views of Cincinnati and the Ohio River Valley.


Pavilion at Fernbank Park

Pavilion, Fernbank Park, Cincinnati, OH, by R. Carl Freund, 1947. Photograph by Erin Connelly. 2009. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

Freund’s designs for his park structures evolved from an Arts and Crafts / WPA “rustic style" into ever more bold and modern “Wrightian-organic” compositions. From the mid-1930s through the 1950s, Freund paid close attention to Wright’s organic principles. Wrightian “features” embraced by Freund included:


• The use of natural and local materials such as stone, brick and wood,

• Cruciform plans,

• Long, low and sometimes asymmetrical compositions,

• Shallow, overhanging, hipped or flat roofs,

• Large chimneys with fireplaces deep inside the masonry

• Openness to the outdoors—a Wrightian characteristic that Freund could exaggerate, because his park

pavilions seldom needed glass or other climate control features.

Open Shelter Pavilion at Mount Echo Park

Open Shelter Pavilion, Mount Echo Park, Cincinnati, Ohio, by R. Carl Freund, 1940. Photograph by Erin Connelly. 2009. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries


The Organic Evolution of Freund’s park buildings


As early as 1936, when he designed the Open Shelter Pavilion in Burnet Woods, Freund showed an awareness of Wright’s buildings and principles. This pavilion, sited in a valley and approached from above, has a long, low hipped roof, its truss-work supported on evenly-spaced stone piers. The impression is that of looking down upon an open, simplified, and regularized version of a Wright house.

Open Shelter Pavilion in Burnet Woods Park

Open Shelter Pavilion in Burnet Woods Park, Clifton, Cincinnati, OH, by R. Carl Freund, 1936. Photograph by E. Meyer, 2017

In 1939, Freund designed the more complex Trailside Museum in Burnet Woods. It included museum spaces for the interpretation of plants and animals, classrooms and lecture rooms for the teaching of schoolchildren and visitors, employee offices, and restrooms. Its composition included Wrightian features such as textured stone walls, steel-sash corner windows, and flat, cantilevered concrete roofs.

Trailside Nature Museum in Burnet Woods