Frederick Law Olmsted was born in Hartford, CT, a member of the eighth generation of his family to live in that city. His mother died when he was four, and from the age of seven he received his schooling mostly from ministers in outlying towns, with whom he lived. His father, a successful dry-goods merchant, was a lover of scenery, and much of Olmsted’s vacation time was spent with his family on “tours in search of the picturesque” through northern New England and upstate New York. As he was about to enter Yale College in 1837, Olmsted suffered severe sumac poisoning, which weakened his eyes and kept him from the usual course of studies.
He spent the next 20 years gathering experiences and skills from a variety of endeavors that he eventually utilized in creating the profession of landscape architecture. He worked in a New York dry-goods store and took a year-long voyage in the China Trade. He studied surveying and engineering, chemistry, and scientific farming, and ran a farm on Staten Island from 1848 to 1855.
In 1850 he and two friends took a six-month walking tour of Europe and the British Isles, during which he saw numerous parks and private estates, as well as scenic countryside.
In 1852 he published his first book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England. That December he began the first of two journeys through the slaveholding south as a reporter for the New York Times.
Between 1856 and 1860 he published three volumes of travel accounts and social analysis of the South. During this period, he used his literary activities to oppose the westward expansion of slavery and to argue for the abolition of slavery by the southern states.
From 1855 to 1857 he was partner in a publishing firm and managing editor of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, a leading journal of literature and political commentary. He spent six months of this time living in London with considerable travel on the Continent, and in the process visited many public parks.
Olmsted’s Political Values
Thus, it was that by the time he began work as a landscape architect, Olmsted had developed a set of social and political values that gave special purpose to his design work. From his New England heritage he drew a belief in community and the importance of public institutions of culture and education. His southern travels and friendship with exiled participants in the failed German revolutions of 1848 convinced him of the need for the United States to demonstrate the superiority of republican government and free labor. A series of influences, beginning with his father and supplemented by reading such British writers on landscape art as Uvedale Price, Humphry Repton, William Gilpin, William Shenstone and John Ruskin convinced him of the importance of aesthetic sensibility as a means of moving American society away from frontier barbarism and toward what he considered a civilized condition. To learn more about his southern travels and research on the institution of slavery, click here.
Olmsted’s Later Work
In the fall of 1857, Olmsted’s literary connections enabled him to secure the position of superintendent of Central Park in New York City. The following March, he and Calvert Vaux won the design competition for the park. During the next seven years he was primarily an administrator in charge of major undertakings: first (1859-1861) as architect-in-chief of Central Park, in charge of construction of the park; then (1861–1863) as director of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, charged with overseeing the health and camp sanitation of all the volunteer soldiers of the Union Army and with creating a national system of medical supply for those troops; and finally (1863-1865) as manager of the Mariposa Estate, a vast gold-mining complex in California.
In 1865, Olmsted returned to New York to join Vaux in completing their work on Central Park and designing Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Over the next 30 years, ending with his retirement in 1895, Olmsted created examples of the many kinds of designs by which the profession of landscape architecture (a term he and Vaux first used) could improve the quality of life in America. These included the large urban park, devoted primarily to the experience of scenery and designed so as to counteract the artificiality of the city and the stress of urban life; the “parkway,” a wide urban greenway carrying several different modes of transportation (most important a smooth-surfaced drive reserved for private carriages) which connected parks and extended the benefits of public greenspace throughout the city; the park system, offering a wide range of public recreation facilities for all residents in a city; the scenic reservation, protecting areas of special scenic beauty from destruction and commercial exploitation; the residential suburb, separating place of work from place of residence and devoted to creating a sense of community and a setting for domestic life; the grounds of the private residence, where gardening could develop both the aesthetic awareness and the individuality of its occupants, and containing numerous “attractive open-air apartments” that permitted household activities to be moved outdoors; the campuses of residential institutions, where a domestic scale for the buildings would provide a training ground for civilized life; and the grounds of government buildings, where the function of the buildings would be made more efficient and their dignity of appearance increase by careful planning. In each of these categories, Olmsted developed a distinctive design approach that showed the comprehensiveness of his vision, his uniqueness of conception that he brought to each commission, and the imagination with which he dealt with even the smallest details.
His principal projects in each category are:
Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove (1865) and Niagara Reservation (1887).
Major Urban Parks
Central Park (1858); Prospect Park (1866); Delaware Park, Buffalo (1869); South Park (later Washington and Jackson Parks and Midway Plaisance), Chicago (1871); Belle Isle, Detroit (1881); Mount Royal, Montreal (1877); Franklin Park, Boston (1885); Genesee Valley Park, Rochester, NY (1890); Cherokee Park, Louisville (1891). Also notable were Riverside Park (1875) and Morningside Park (1873 and 1887) in New York and Fort Greene Park (1868) in Brooklyn. In smaller cities, Walnut Hill Park in New Britain, CT (1870); South (now Kennedy) Park in Fall River, MA (1871); Beardsley Park in Bridgeport, CT (1884); Downing Park in Newburgh, NY (1887), and Cadwalader Park, Trenton, NJ (1891).
Eastern and Ocean parkways, Brooklyn (1868); Humboldt and Lincoln, Bidwell and Chapin Parkways, Buffalo (1870); Drexel Boulevard and Martin Luther King Drive, Chicago (1871); the “Emerald Necklace” (1881 on), Beacon Street, and Commonwealth Avenue extension (1886) in Boston; and Southern Parkway, Louisville (1892).
Buffalo-Delaware Park, The Front, The Parade, South Park and Cazenovia Park, and connecting parkways. Boston-the “Emerald Necklace”: Charlesbank, Back Bay Fens, Riverway, Leverett Park, Jamaica Pond, Arnold Arboretum, Franklin Park, and Marine Park, and connecting parkways. Rochester-Genesee Valley, Highland, and Seneca Parks and several city squares. Louisville-Shawnee, Cherokee, and Iroquois Parks, Southern Parkways and several small city parks and squares.
Riverside, IL (1869); Sudbrook, MD (1889); Druid Hills, Atlanta (1893).
Stanford University (1886); Lawrenceville School (1884); Buffalo State Hospital for the Insane (1875); Hartford Retreat (1860); Bloomingdale Asylum, White Plains, NY (1892).
U.S. Capitol grounds and terraces (1874); Connecticut State House (1878).
Olmsted designed a number of large estates, and with some of these he introduced projects with public significance, particularly scientific forestry and arboretums. The outstanding examples are Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, and Moraine Farm in Beverly, MA.
Throughout his career, Olmsted emphasized the importance of collaboration with professionals in other disciplines – especially engineers, horticulturists, and architects. A prime example of such collaboration was Olmsted’s role as site planner of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. He worked cordially with the eastern architects of the buildings on the formal Court of Honor while creating profuse naturalistic plantings on the Wooded Island and the shores of the lagoons, the setting for the more informal structures of Chicago architects.
Purposes of Landscape Architecture
Olmsted believed that it was the purpose of his art to affect the emotions. This was especially evident in his park design, where he created passages of scenery in which the visitor would become immersed, experiencing the restorative action of the landscape by what Olmsted termed an “unconscious” process. To achieve this result, he subordinated all elements of the design to the single purpose of making the landscape experience most profound. Olmsted always sought to look beyond current taste and fashion and to base his designs on fundamental principles of human psychology. In particular, he drew from the analysis of earlier British theorists of naturalistic landscape and their emphasis on the special qualities of “pastoral” and “picturesque” scenery. The epitome of pastoral landscape was the English deer park, with its sense of extended space and its gracefully modulated ground and smooth, close-cropped turf. This style he found to be a special antidote to the ill effects of urban life. The “picturesque” style he applied to steep and broken terrain, planting thickly with a variety of ground covers, shrubs, vines and creepers in order to achieve an effect of bounteousness, profusion, and mystery. His own most intense experience of this effect was on the Isthmus of Panama during his passage to California in 1863. Both styles shared the quality of indefiniteness, of lack of individual objects for specific examination.
As Olmsted expressed it, the term “scenery” does not apply to any field of vision in which all that is to be seen is clear and well defined in outline. It must contain either “considerable complexity of light and shadow near the eye, or obscurity of detail further away.” These qualities were essential for the unconscious action of scenery on the psyche. They were also a crucial element of his designs as a training ground for aesthetic sensibility. The quality of “delicacy,” which involved variety, intricacy, and fine gradation of texture, tint, and tone, was fundamental to Olmsted’s artistic and civilizing purpose. The final test of civilization, he taught, was this delicacy, shown by “the willingness of the people to expend study and labor with reference to delicate distinctions in matters of form and color.”
Landscapes and Climate
Although the scenery Olmsted most loved required considerable rainfall to achieve its effect, he recognized that most of the United States possessed a different climate. Accordingly, he set out to develop a separate and distinct landscape style for the South, while in the semiarid west he saw the necessity of a new water-conserving regional style. He laid the basis for this approach with a half dozen projects in the San Francisco Bay area and in Colorado, most visibly on the campus of Stanford University.
Olmsted carefully trained a handful of talented young men to carry on his design principles, but only his stepson, John C. Olmsted, lived to serve this role. Both Henry S. Codman and Charles Eliot, his students and then his partners, died before him.
More than 500 Commissions
During his career, Olmsted and his firm carried out some 500 commissions. They included 100 public parks and recreation grounds, 200 private estates, 50 residential communities and subdivision and campus design for 40 academic institutions. Olmsted was a prolific author despite the difficulty he experienced in expressing his ideas in writing. Six-thousand letters and reports that he wrote during his landscape architecture career have survived, dealing with 300 design commissions. Several times he paid for the publication and public distribution of important reports. The full list of his publications, including letters describing his southern journeys and various documents published by the U.S. Sanitary Commission, contains more than 300 items.
Beveridge, Charles E., and Paul Rocheleau. Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape. New York: Rizzoli International, 1995; paperbound ed., Universe Press, 1998. Comprehensive discussions of Olmsted’s design concepts and career; contains many recent photographs, commissioned for this publication, of Olmsted’s landscapes.
Beveridge, Charles E., et al. The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 2015 (11 of 13 volumes in series published to date). A selected edition of the most significant of Olmsted’s writings, with informative volume introductions and extensive annotations of documents; generously illustrated.
Roper, Laura Wood. FLO: A Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973; paperbound edition, 1983. The most fully researched and complete biography of Olmsted.
Zaitzevsky, Cynthia. Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982; paperbound ed., 1995. The best study of Olmsted’s work in a single geographical area; excellent illustrations, both plans and historical photographs.
*Taken from: Birnbaum, Charles A., FASLA, and Robin Karson, editors. Pioneers of American Landscape Design. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2000.