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Collection Frederick Law Olmsted Papers

About this Collection

The papers of farmer, writer, reformer, landscape architect, urban and suburban planner, and conservationist Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) consist of approximately 24,000 items (roughly 47,300 images), most of which were digitized from 60 reels of previously produced microfilm. The collection, spanning from 1777 to 1952, with the bulk dating 1838-1903, contains materials on both Olmsted's private and professional life.

Items, including family journals, family and personal correspondence, and biographical and genealogical data, chronicle Olmsted family history and personal ties between Olmsted and his brother, father, step-mother, wife and children, as well as relationships with influential friends, colleagues, and mentors. Work-related materials similarly include correspondence and collaborations with clients and partners, instructions to workers, proposed projects, reports, recommendations on site locations and designs, consultations, drawings, maps, pamphlets, and other material concerning the numerous parks, private grounds, educational institutions, and public facilities for which the Olmsted firm offered advice and proposals or created landscape designs. In addition, the papers include drafts of articles and books, speeches and lectures, legal and financial records, scrapbooks, and other items.

Personal correspondence includes exchanges with father John Olmsted, brother John Hull Olmsted, wife Mary Cleveland Perkins Olmsted, son Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and stepson John Charles Olmsted as well as communications with colleagues who were also trusted personal friends and collaborators, such as Katharine Prescott Wormeley, Calvert Vaux, Charles Loring Brace, Henry H. Richardson, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, Charles Eliot and Henry Sargent Codman. In addition to travels and work connections within the United States, Olmsted and family members also spent time visiting or living in England and parts of Europe, and Olmsted networked with fellow professionals abroad.

Olmsted knew or was friends with many prominent American reformers, architects, writers and critics, publishers, municipal authorities, public artists and designers, as well as patrons of architecture and the arts. Other prominent correspondents include Henry W. Bellows, Samuel Bowles, Daniel Hudson Burnham, Horace W. S. Cleveland, George William Curtis, Charles A. Dana, Charles Eliot, Edwin Lawrence Godkin, Andrew H. Green, Edward Everett Hale, William James, Clarence King, Frederick John Kingsbury, Frederick Newman Knapp, Charles Follen McKim, Charles Eliot Norton, Whitelaw Reid, Charles N. Riotte, Carl Schurz, Charles F. Sprague, Amasa Leland Stanford, George Templeton Strong, George Washington Vanderbilt, Henry Villard, and George E. Waring, Jr.

Some early Olmsted family materials document the life of Olmsted's father, John Olmsted, a businessman in Hartford, Connecticut, as well as of Olmsted's childhood, notably the period from 1838 and later when the young Olmsted was gaining an education and being mentored by acquaintances of his father, learning surveying and civil engineering, enjoying the company of his brother John Hull Olmsted and friends, and developing an interest in business, travel observations, and scientific farming.

The materials continue through Olmsted's brief stint as a sailor on a voyage to China, his development as a published writer and involvement in the New York publishing and newspaper world, his travels to England and as a journalist in the South, and his partnership with architect Calvert Vaux, as a designer and manager of Central Park in New York. The collection spans Olmsted's marriage to his brother's widow, Mary Cleveland Perkins Olmsted, his work with the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the American Civil War, in gold-mining management in California, and his formative influence in the conservation of Yosemite and advocacy of the idea of public and officially protected wilderness parks.

Documented as well is Olmsted's postwar heyday as a famed and sought-after landscape architect of public parks, municipal park systems, recreational spaces, campuses, residential developments, caretaking facility grounds, and private estates. The collection charts the Olmsted family's relocation to the Boston area and the Olmsted firm's operation from Olmsted's Fairsted home in Brookline, Massachusetts. It includes materials on Olmsted's work on the U.S. Capitol grounds, his later-life collaborations with architects Henry H. Richardson and Calvert Vaux; his mentorship of Charles Eliot and Henry Sargent Codman and of his own sons in the business of landscape design; and his crowning achievements in the 1890s with the Biltmore estate in North Carolina and the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

In these postwar years, the Olmsted firm's many landscape architecture projects, reflecting Olmsted's personal commitment to the healing, transformative, aesthetic and restorative effects of natural environments upon the lives of Americans of all social classes, helped to shape the green-space character and urban planning of many cities and geographical regions across the country, from the Emerald Necklace of Boston, to the Stanford campus in California, or residential communities and public spaces in the South, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and New England.

Olmsted worked in many different capacities as a writer over the course of his varied career. The papers include examples of his letters and diary notations, journalism and articles, travel literature, investigative work in the pre-Emancipation South, planning documents and reports, speeches, book manuscripts, memoir material, records and reports. Of special note are Olmsted's drafts and notes for an intended, but never published, book on the history of civilization in the United States, and autobiographical fragments, including a manuscript entitled "Passages in the Life of an Unpractical Man" in the Speeches and Writings file. The papers also include material on Olmsted's various ventures into and connections with the editing and publishing profession and his contributions to periodical literature.

Although Olmsted remained professionally active through the early 1890s, the collection chronicles the increasing involvement of sons John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., (known as "Rick") and other protégés, leading up to, and following, Olmsted's death in Waverly, Massachusetts, in 1903. The continuing work of the Olmsted firm, and Olmsted's wide-reaching legacy of influence in landscape design and conservation, are further documented in the Olmsted Associates Records, a separate Library of Congress collection.  For more information, see the essay The Olmsted Firms.

Olmsted's papers were acquired by the Library of Congress chiefly as a gift from Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and other members of the Olmsted family in 1947-1948 and 1968-1969.  In 1975, one of Olmsted's first biographers, Laura Wood Roper, gave the Library approximately three thousand additional items, and two items purchased in 1981 were transferred from the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection to the Olmsted Papers in 1996.

A finding aid (PDF and HTML) to the Frederick Law Olmsted Papers is available online with links to the digital content on this site.

Description of Series

The collection is arranged in eight series noted below.

  • Journals, 1777-1888
    Diaries and related material related to select members of the Olmsted family. Includes three journals by Frederick Law Olmsted covering brief periods in 1843, 1863, and undated. Arranged alphabetically by name.
  • Correspondence, 1838-1928
    Personal and business letters, including letterbooks from 1860 to 1865, and general correspondence from 1838 to 1928.  Arranged chronologically.
  • Subject File, 1857-1952
    Correspondence, maps, drawings, reports, newspaper clippings, printed matter, and other papers relating principally to Olmsted's practice of landscape architecture and his partnerships and firms. Arranged alphabetically by subject and chronologically therein.
  • Speeches and Writings File, 1839-1903
    Handwritten, typewritten, galley proof, and printed copies of speeches, lectures, articles, essays, reports, and books with notes and other material, some fragmentary. Arranged chronologically.
  • Miscellany, 1837-1952
    Biographical material, correspondence list, name index, clippings, drawings, sketches, maps, financial and legal papers, notebooks, scrapbooks, calling cards, membership certificates, memorial material, and other printed and handwritten matter. Arranged alphabetically by type of material.
  • 1975 Addition, 1821-1924
    Correspondence, diary (1896), memorandum book (ca. 1888-1899), financial papers, reports, genealogical notes, newspaper clippings, printed matter, and other items. Subject file includes materials on Central Park, New York; Mount Royal Park, Montreal; and the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago. Arranged alphabetically by type of material.
  • 1996 Addition, 1880-1881
    Charles E. Norton correspondence. Arranged chronologically.
  • Oversize, 1886
    Organized and described according to the series, folders, and boxes from which the items were removed. Includes Niagara Falls material, 1886 and undated.