Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.
By Susan L. Klaus
Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (1870-1957), born on Staten Island, NY, was the son of Frederick Law Olmsted, the forefather of the profession of landscape architecture in the United States, and Mary Cleveland Perkins Olmsted, the widow of Olmsted’s brother. From his earliest years, young Olmsted was aware of his father’s fervent desire, bordering on obsession, to have him carry on both the family name and profession. In a telling act, the elder Olmsted renamed the child (who had been called Henry Perkins at birth) Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. thus making his only biological son his namesake.
In the waning years of his life, the father enjoyed including his son in the culminating projects of his own career. While still a student at Harvard, young Olmsted spent a summer working in Daniel Burnham’s office as the “White City” of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition arose in Chicago. After graduating in 1894, Olmsted spent 13 months on site at Biltmore, the 100,000-acre estate being developed for George Vanderbilt in Asheville, NC. In December 1895, he entered the Olmsted firm in Brookline, MA. Following his father’s formal retirement in 1897, he became a full partner with his half-brother, John Charles Olmsted, in the family business.
As bearer of the most renowned name in landscape architecture, Olmsted was chosen for positions of prominence from the very start of his career. In 1899 he became a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects and served two terms as its president (1908–1909, 1919–1923). The following year, he was appointed instructor in landscape architecture at Harvard, where he helped create the country’s first university course in the profession.
A Name for Himself
Olmsted emerged on the national scene in 1901, when he assumed what would have been his father’s place, had he been well, on the Park Improvement Commission for the District of Columbia, commonly known as the McMillan Commission. Charged with interpreting for the 20th century Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s vision of the nation’s capital, Olmsted worked with his father’s colleagues from the Chicago World’s Fair to transform Washington into a work of civic art and to devise a comprehensive plan for its future development. For decades Olmsted steadfastly guarded and promoted the McMillan Plan, serving on the two federal oversight bodies for planning in the capital city, the Commission of Fine Arts (1910–1918) and the National Capital Park Planning Commission (1926–1932). As adviser or designer, he worked on many prominent Washington landmarks, including the White House grounds, the Federal Triangle, the Jefferson Memorial, Roosevelt Island, Rock Creek Parkway and the National Cathedral grounds.
The McMillan report, with its promise that the City Beautiful could be achieved through the art and science of comprehensive planning, had a galvanizing effect on municipal art societies and civic improvement associations in cities and towns around the country. Olmsted found himself in great demand to advise new quasi-official planning boards and citizen associations on civic improvement; between 1905 and 1915 he produced planning reports for Detroit, Utica, Boulder, Pittsburgh, New Haven, Rochester and Newport. During the same period, he also applied the emerging principles of comprehensive planning to suburban settings, creating master plans for new sections of Roland Park, a Baltimore suburb; Forest Hills Gardens, a model garden community outside of New York City; and the industrial town of Torrance, CA (largely unrealized). Many of the features of his suburban plans have had enduring influence, including the concept of neighborhood-centered development, the differentiation of streets by function, the importance of common open and recreational spaces, and the need for continuing maintenance and aesthetic oversight to preserve the quality of the community.
In 1910, Olmsted’s colleagues asked him to lead the first organization of the nascent planning profession, the National Conference on City Planning. One of the few planners to practice successfully in both the City Beautiful and the “City Efficient” eras, Olmsted in his presidential addresses to this body over the next nine years helped lay the theoretical foundation for the new discipline. In 1917 he was instrumental in organizing the American City Planning Institute, a professional society for planning practitioners, and he was elected its first president. As this organization’s representative, he offered the planning profession’s services to the government during World War I, serving as manager of the Town Planning Division of the U.S. Housing Corporation, which oversaw the first direct federal participation in building worker housing.
With his brother’s death in 1920, Olmsted became the senior partner in the Olmsted firm, then the largest office of landscape architecture in the world. In 1921 he was asked to advise on the preparation of a regional plan for the New York area. His plan for Fort Tryon Park, a great urban park on the bluffs of Manhattan’s northern border overlooking the Hudson River, also dates from this period. Olmsted designed two more notable suburban communities in the 1920s: Palos Verdes Estates in California and the Mountain Lake Club in Lake Wales, FL.
In the latter part of his career Olmsted devoted much of his time to public service, consulting on issues of the conservation and preservation of the country’s state and national parks and remaining wilderness areas. The key language in the 1916 bill establishing the National Park Service, setting aside park lands for all time as places protected from development and preserved for human enjoyment, was Olmsted’s. For 30 years he advised the National Park Service on issues of management and the conservation of water and scenic resources. He left this mark on national parks from coast to coast, including Maine’s Acadia National Park, the Florida Everglades and Yosemite. In 1928 he prepared a guide for the selection and acquisition of land for the California park system which became a model for other states. Olmsted also devised a master plan for saving the California redwoods.
Olmsted remained a partner in the Olmsted firm until his official retirement in 1949, eight years before his death in Malibu, CA. For over a half century, Olmsted had been a preeminent practitioner and spokesman for landscape architecture and comprehensive planning, both interested in the interrelationship of people and their environment. His concerns for balancing aesthetics and practicality, harmonizing use and beauty, and preserving both natural and manmade landscapes are again at the forefront of the two professions he helped guide and nourish.
*Taken from: Birnbaum, Charles A., FASLA, and Robin Karson, editors. Pioneers of American Landscape Design. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2000.
Klaus, Susan L. “All in the Family: The Olmsted Office and the Business of Landscape Architecture.” Landscape Journal 16 (Spring 1997), 80–93. A historical overview of the operations of the Olmsted office, with details on the young Olmsted’s role.
Olmsted, Frederick Law, Jr. “City Planning. An Introductory Address.” In Proceedings of the Second National Conference on City Planning (1910), 15–32. Olmsted’s presidential address expresses both awe and apprehension for the “appalling breadth and ramifications of real city planning.”
Olmsted, Frederick Law, Jr. “Landscape Architecture in Connection with Public Buildings in Washington.” American Architect and Building News, January 19, 1901, 19–21. Olmsted’s views on the treatment of public spaces in the national capital, as well as the need for landscape architects to deal with broad elements of the cityscape.