As the only surviving son of the world-renowned landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. fully embraced and furthered his father’s extraordinary contributions to American landscape design. His father, considered the founder of landscape architecture, was a leader in the “City Beautiful” movement— made famous by Chicago’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893— which was a reform philosophy in North American architecture and city planning. Its purpose was to create and preserve the natural beauty and monumental grandeur in urban planning so residents in crowded cities, rich and poor alike, could be uplifted by nature and accessible green space. The Olmsted firm became the world’s most popular landscape design firm, responsible for many city parks, among them New York City’s Central Park, the U.S. Capitol Grounds, the National Mall, and Boston’s Emerald Necklace. During their combined careers, Olmsted Sr. and Jr. dominated the field of landscape architecture for over a century (1858 -1957) and created designs for over 6,000 landscapes in cities, parks, campuses, and suburbs in North America.
Both Olmsteds had a deep love of natural beauty and believed in its restorative powers as well as its capacity to create harmonious communities. They were responsible for the creation and preservation of America’s most beloved National Parks, such as Niagara Falls, Yosemite Park, Maine’s Acadia Park, and the Florida Everglades. Indeed, Olmsted, Jr. wrote the mission statement for the National Park Service Organic Act (1916) which established the US National Park Service. For decades, he advised the Park Service on the conservation and management of water and scenic resources.
Olmsted, Jr. (known as Rick) apprenticed in the Olmsted firm even before he graduated from Havard in 1894. After his father’s retirement in 1895, Rick soon became a partner in the firm (1897). He stepped into the national leadership roles his father had performed. In 1901, Congress appointed Rick to the Senate Park Commission on the District of Columbia, known as the McMillan Commission, to create a comprehensive plan for the nation’s capital. The McMillan Report, with “City Beautiful” principles guiding its approach, aimed to transform Washington into a work of civic art, by emphasizing its “monumental core” along with parks, parkways, and recreational green spaces. It also provided comprehensive plans for its future growth. Serving on both the US Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Park Planning Commission, Olmsted contributed to many D.C. landmarks, including the Capitol Grounds, the White House groups, the Jefferson Memorial, Roosevelt Island, and Rock Creek Park and Parkway.
Besides founding the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), Olmsted, Jr. also developed and taught the first professional landscape architecture program at Harvard. In 1917, he was a founding member and the first president of the American Planning Institute for the nascent profession of city planners. As stated by late Cornell professor and author John W. Reps in The Making of Urban America. A History of City Planning in the United States:
“Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. was the intellectual leader of City Planning in the early 20th century.”
After Olmsted, Jr.’s death in 1957, ASLA created a Committee on Olmsted Memorial with the charge “to recommend…a specific site in the vicinity of the National Capital for a memorial to Frederick Law Olmsted, father and son.” (1)
This committee soon discovered its roots had actually begun in 1928 when ASLA wished to create a memorial to Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., acknowledging his seminal contributions to landscape architecture. A 1933 letter from Olmsted, Jr. to the committee’s chairman states, “I can not get away from the feeling that if there is to be a memorial to my father at the National Capital…it ought to be a landscape…of very outstanding distinction…There is one great natural landscape feature in the vicinity of Washington which has such outstanding distinction to a unique degree— the Gorge of the Potomac River. When acquired and protected, it will express in a most notable manner, far more than anything else near the National Capital, one of the ideals which inspired my father’s work— that of preserving, perpetuating, and making available for human enjoyment precious qualities in landscapes created by Nature and by circumstances not of our own making.” (2)
In 1959, the ASLA board approved the committee’s recommendation to rename the 35-acre Falls Island in Potomac River “Frederick Law Olmsted Island” and “to place on this island at one of the promontories overlooking the Great Falls of the Potomac River a suitable memorial, perhaps a bronze plaque, upon which would be inscribed the outstanding accomplishments of the Frederick Law Olmsteds, father and son.” (3.) The U.S. Board of Geographic Names approved the change to Olmsted Island in 1960 on the joint recommendation of the ASLA and the National Park Service. (4)
This new memorial was reported by John F. DeLay, ASLA, of the National Park Service in Landscape Architecture Magazine, October 1960:
“Falls Island, a natural rocky island adjacent to the Great Falls of the Potomac on the Maryland side, has been renamed Olmsted Island in the memory of Frederick Law Olmsted, Senior and Junior, landscape architects, whose influence here for about a century has contributed greatly to the orderly expansion of Washington, D.C. and its park system. The Great Falls of the Potomac is by far the most spectacular natural feature of this entire region and is widely known and visited by thousands of visitors each year. The spot recommended for the memorial plaque is one of the most important and spectacular ones in the entire Gorge of the Potomac and the one most accessible.”
It is unclear why, in the next few years, the Olmsted Memorial committee dropped the desire to memorialize Olmsted, Sr. but on April 22, 1965, the Society unveiled the memorial plaque to Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. that it presented to the Department of the Interior on Olmstead Island. It reads as follows:
Named in honor of
Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.
Illustrious landscape architect and advocate
of the preservation of natural scenery who
as an original member of the National Capitol Park
and Planning Commission from 1926 to 1932 was
instrumental in preserving the Great Falls and Gorge
of the Potomac for the use and enjoyment of the people.
Presented by the
American Society of Landscape Architects
Olmsted Island, small and rocky, has steep cliffs overlooking the dramatic Great Falls of the Potomac River, and its bedrock terrace supports rare, threatened, and endangered plant species. A tourist walkway now protects the island’s wildlife, one of the most biologically diverse habitats in the National Park Service. Situated in the C & O Canal National Historical Park, it continues to be one of the most visited, beloved sites in the National Park Service.
- American Society of Landscape Architects, Bulletin, June 19, 1959, 170
- ASLA, Bulletin, June 10, 1960, 272.
- From Acts of the Board of Trustees, Summary: September 10, 1958 to October 31, 1959. Published in ASLA, Bulletin, November 6, 1959, 214
- John F. DeLay, “Olmsted: New Name at the Falls,” Landscape Architecture Magazine 51, no. 1, October, 1960.
Carol Cooke is a member of the Perennial Garden Club in Washington, DC.