In May 1873, Frederick Law Olmsted was requested to design improvements to the United States Capitol grounds by Senator Justin Morrill, chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds. Olmsted began work early in 1874. The Capitol itself had been significantly expanded with the addition of the new dome and the Senate and House wings. Olmsted’s plans for the grounds included monumental marble terraces on three sides of the building, a new system of carriage drives and walks, extensive regrading, tree and shrub plantings, new utilities and lighting, a unique (and always) cool Summer House, and many other features. Olmsted supervised the landscape work until 1889, and the improvements were finished by 1895. Until recently, the original landscape retained a high degree of integrity.

The Letter from Mr. Olmsted to Whitelaw Reid is in Volume Seven of the Olmsted Papers, “Parks, Politics and Patronage,” 1874-1882. This volume features many other important documents relating to the Capitol grounds project.

The letter is from a manuscript in Olmsted’s hand in the Whitelaw Reid Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. In the fall of 1874, the removal of trees and other disruptions necessary to create the Capitol Grounds landscape caused enough public concern that Olmsted wrote this description of the project. The result is a succinct summary of the designer’s intentions, written for a general audience.

Whitelaw Reid was editor of the New-York Daily Tribune, and supported Olmsted’s work in New York parks in the early 1870s. In October 1874, Olmsted offered to write a piece for Reid’s paper describing his ideas for the Capitol grounds. A month later, the New-York Times published its own article on the Washington project, which Olmsted felt was misleading. In November 1874, Olmsted sent the following letter to Reid, who published it in December.

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