Warren H. Manning was one of America’s most prominent landscape architects of the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and the creative mind behind the look of some of Mackinac Island and Michilimackinac State Parks’ iconic features.
Born in Reading, Massachusetts, he originally worked in his father’s nursery business. In 1888 he joined the firm, Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot, founded by the father of American landscape design, Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1896 he opened his own Boston-based firm and would go on to design over 1,700 projects across the nation including public parks, private estates, city plans, and college campuses. He worked on numerous projects in the western Upper Peninsula throughout his career, including the design of the industrial town of Gwinn.
Unfortunately, the written reports of Manning’s Mackinac projects have not survived. However, several maps for both projects have. From these plans, and a few comments in his memoir and commission minutes, we get a sense of what Manning’s recommendations were for the parks. Manning’s work for the Mackinac Island State Park Commission began in 1913 when, with Morgan Wright of Marquette, he created a map of Mackinac Island. The Morgan-Wright map became the base map used by the Park Commission until the end of the twentieth century. Later that year, the commission hired Manning under a two year contract to provide professional landscape planning for both Mackinac Island State Park and Michilimackinac State Park.
For Mackinac Island a Manning map entitled “Mackinac Island, A Plan for Its Future Development” details numerous proposed improvements to park property. The most significant of the suggested changes include expanding cottage rental lots throughout the park. Existing lots had existed on the East and West Bluffs since the 1880s. Another large development included creating public amenities, such as playing fields, a running track, and an amphitheater, in the former army pasture to the west of Fort Mackinac. The plan also shows expansion of the shoreline boulevard, begun by the commission in 1896. It is noted that the written plan included recommendations on forest management and scenic vistas.
None of the major components of the Manning plan for the island were ever implemented. The Park Commission ceased developing any new cottage lots at about this time and the army pasture was leased to Grand Hotel for use as a golf course within months of the presentation of the Manning Plan. Whether the commission followed any specific recommendations as to vistas, forest management, and the shoreline boulevard is unknown.
In his work on Michilimackinac State Park, Manning noted in his memoir that “the recommendations were “to have the old fort restored, to save the attractive forest growth about it, opening paths and trails, and provide for picnic parties.” Two surviving maps detail a new shoreline walkway with several outlooks and seats, a designated picnic areas, the location of the fort, and a place for a museum.
Unlike the island plan, several of Manning’s suggestions for Michilimackinac were carried out. The shoreline trail was established by 1918, just as envisioned by Manning. The park superintendent also reported that a picnic pavilion and other amenities were installed. By the 1920s the park developed along lines not foreseen by Manning, in particular becoming a popular campground. The forest growth however, was maintained to a great extent and in 1933 the first reconstruction of the fort was completed. This was replaced with the current reconstruction in 1957. Much of the park remains as Manning suggested with wooded areas, picnic grounds and the shoreline path.
Two additional smaller Mackinac projects were completed by Manning that remain unchanged today. The first is the “Woolson Memorial or “Anne’s Tablet.” Erected in the park on the bluff directly to the east of Fort Mackinac, the monument was funded by Samuel Mather of Cleveland. Manning did numerous designs for the Mather family, particularly Samuel’s son, William Gwinn Mather, and their Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company. The monument honors Mather’s cousin, Constance Fenimore Woolson, a Victorian novelist and travel writer, who set one of her novels on the island. Manning designed a sunken area with a stone curb and three granite benches surrounding a bronze plaque imbedded in a stone mound. Mather created a trust fund for the care of the monument, the draft agreement of which was entered in the commission minutes. This includes a detailed description of how the site should be maintained, with information clearly provided by Manning. It is very much in keeping with this philosophy of maintaining pre-existing flora through selective pruning to create a spatial structure.
The other project completed by Manning was the design of concrete benches, which were used throughout both parks beginning in1913. Their design by Manning is documented on a photograph taken by Manning of Park Superintendent Frank Kenyon seated on one of the benches. On the reverse is a typed label: “Seat designed by the office for Mackinac Island Park Commission…taken by W. H. Manning.” The massive benches are still in use today on the island and have been recently reintroduced at Michilimackinac.