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Collection Frederick Law Olmsted Papers

The Olmsted Firms, 1858-1979

This essay provides a brief overview of the major projects undertaken by Frederick Law Olmsted and the evolution of the firms with which he, his sons, and successors were identified.

Introduction

Approximately six thousand landscape architecture and design projects have been identified as involving Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. (1822-1903) and his various collaborators, or as undertaken or supervised later by his stepson John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920), son Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (1870-1957), and their various associates.

The Olmsted firm underwent several transformations and reflective name changes, beginning with the awarding of the "Greensward" plan for New York's Central Park in 1858, continuing on through Olmsted's many collaborations with Calvert Vaux and others, and on into the next century with the work of the successor Olmsted firms. The names used by Olmsted firm partnerships during Frederick Law Olmsted's lifetime and following, during the "legacy" period of professional activity of the Olmsted Brothers firm, are listed below, along with some selective representative projects undertaken or completed in those time periods.

Chronological Overview

Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., first collaborated with architect Calvert Vaux in 1857, when the two began work on the plan proposed for Central Park, and in the years following the April 1858 award for their design proposal, Olmsted was also closely associated with Vaux's architecture firm of Vaux, Withers, & Co., which dissolved in 1872.  When Olmsted began operating independently of Vaux in New York City, he was assisted by Thomas Wisedell and worked with a variety of other architects and engineers, including the landscape gardener Jacob Weidenmann. His stepson John Charles Olmsted began working in landscape design with Olmsted by 1874, and wife Mary Cleveland Perkins Olmsted also assisted in secretarial and administrative tasks.

Olmsted left the New York City parks department in 1878. He moved his family and the headquarters of the Olmsted firm to Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1882.  In 1884, John Charles Olmsted became a full partner, with the firm based at the Olmsted family "Fairsted" home.  Henry Sargent Codman served as an important protégé, and in 1889, a partner and planned successor. After Codman died a sudden and unexpected death in 1893, at the age of twenty-nine, the firm continued with work on the Boston Emerald Necklace and park systems in other states. Another important protégé and potential successor, Charles Eliot, joined the firm as partner in 1893, only also to die tragically and prematurely, of meningitis, in 1897, at the age of thirty-seven.

As Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., (known as "Rick") grew to maturity and graduated from Harvard in 1894, he was subjected to a rigorous training in observation and real-life exposure to major art and landscape features, as well as scientific and botanical study, by his father. He apprenticed with the firm in the latter years of Olmsted's professional involvement, and became a full partner with his older stepbrother in 1897.  The firm was renamed Olmsted Brothers in 1898, and maintained that name until 1961.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.'s major commissions late in his career included the Niagara Reservation (with Vaux), at Niagara Falls, New York; the World's Columbian Exposition, in Chicago, Illinois; the Stanford University campus, Palo Alto, California; Biltmore, the Vanderbilt private estate in Asheville, North Carolina; and the suburban development of Druid Hills in Atlanta, Georgia.

In the 1890s, Olmsted and those around him became increasingly aware that he was experiencing serious exhaustion, bouts of depression and sleeplessness, cognitive difficulty and memory loss. Olmsted effectively stopped participating in the business of the firm or meeting with clients by 1895, leaving the active operation of the firm to his sons.

After Olmsted's death in 1903, John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., worked with the firm for the remainder of their professional lives. By the 1910s, the firm employed a staff of approximately fifty assistants and associates. After John Charles Olmsted died in 1920, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., continued to uphold the family legacy in landscape architecture, public and private design, and urban and suburban planning. Under his leadership the Olmsted Brothers firm perpetuated a strong commitment to, and involvement in, the formulation of local, regional, and national conservation and preservation policies.

The Changing Names of the Olmsted Firms

The Olmsted firm operated under the following names and with varied partnership collaborations from the time that Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., began working in 1858 with architect Calvert Vaux in design and management of Central Park, New York, through his retirement from active work in the 1890s (and death in 1903), and the continuing involvement of his sons John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., until their respective deaths in 1920 and 1957.

Olmsted and Vaux, 1858-1863, and Olmsted, Vaux & Co., 1865-1872 (partnerships of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux) and later collaborative projects of Vaux and Olmsted

Selected projects with Vaux included:

  • Central Park, New York, N.Y.
  • Asylum grounds in Hartford, Conn., and New York
  • Hillside Cemetery, Middletown, New York
  • College of California at Berkeley, Calif.
  • Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, Washington, D.C.
  • Prospect Park and other parks and parkways, Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
  • Riverside residential development, Riverside, Ill.
  • Riverside Park, New York;
  • Parks system of Buffalo, N.Y.
  • South Park, Chicago
  • New York State Asylum for the Insane, Buffalo, N.Y.
  • Morningside Park, New York
  • State Reservation at Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Landscape Architect, 1872-1884

Selected projects in this time period included:

  • Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, Calif.
  • Staten Island Improvement Commission, N.Y.
  • McLean Asylum grounds, Waverly, Mass.
  • Parkside development, Buffalo, N.Y.
  • Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.
  • Mount Royal Park, Montreal, Canada
  • Tacoma Land Co., Tacoma, Wash.
  • Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
  • U.S. Capitol grounds, Washington, D.C.
  • Sudbrook development, Baltimore, Md.
  • Back Bay Fens, Franklin Park, and Arnold Arboretum, Boston, Mass.
  • Belle Isle recreation area, Detroit, Mich.
  • Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville, N.J.

F. L. and J. C. Olmsted, 1884-1889, and F. L. Olmsted & Co., 1889-1893 (with John Charles Olmsted and Henry Sargent Codman)

Selected projects in this time period included:

  • Brookline Hill subdivision, Mass.
  • Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.
  • Wilmington Parks, Wilmington, Del.
  • Druid Hills development, Atlanta, Ga.
  • National Zoological Park (the National Zoo), Washington, D.C.
  • Genesee Valley Park, Rochester, N.Y.
  • Biltmore Estate, Asheville, N.C.
  • Smith College, Northampton, Mass.
  • Bloomingdale Asylum, White Plains, N.Y.
  • World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Ill. 

Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot, 1893-1897 (with John Charles Olmsted and Charles Eliot), and F. L. and J. C. Olmsted, 1897-1898 (after Eliot's death)

Selected projects in this time period included:

  • Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Penn.
  • Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Mass.
  • Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
  • Audubon Park, New Orleans, La.

Olmsted Brothers, 1898-1961 (John Charles Olmsted, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., 1893-1903; and later with associates and legacy partners, including James Frederick Dawson, 1904-1941, Edward Clark Whiting, 1920-1962, Percival Gallagher, 1906-1934, Henry Vincent Hubbard, 1921-1947)

Selected projects in this time period included:

  • Brown University, Providence, R.I.
  • University of Chicago, Chicago, Ill.
  • Seattle parks, Seattle, Wash.
  • New Haven Improvement Commission, New Haven, Conn.
  • Boulder Improvement Association, Boulder, Colo.
  • Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle, Wash.
  • Battery Park, Charleston, S.C.
  • Forest Hills Gardens development, Queens, N.Y.
  • Pittsburgh Civil Commission, Pittsburgh, Penn.
  • Dayton Parks, Dayton, Ohio
  • San Diego Exposition, San Diego, Calif.
  • Newport City Improvement, Newport, R.I.
  • Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, R.I.
  • Palos Verde Estates development, Palos Verdes, Calif.
  • Philadelphia Exposition, Philadelphia, Penn.
  • Harvard Business School, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Haverford College, Haverford, Penn.
  • Duke University, Durham, N.C.
  • Fort Tyron Park, New York
  • Notre Dame University, South Bend, Ind.
  • Morris Arboretum, Philadelphia, Penn.

Olmsted Associates, Landscape Architects, 1962-1963, and Olmsted Associates, Inc., 1963-1979

Researching Olmsted Firm projects

Landscape architectural plans and drawings, models, planting lists, photographic prints and negatives, financial documents and other records for Olmsted projects are held at the Olmsted Archive, at Fairsted, the Olmsted National Historic Site, administered by the National Park Service, in Brookline, Massachusetts. Those records span from circa 1839 to 1980. See, in particular, the Olmsted Archive Series I, Records Related to Design Projects.

The Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress maintains the bulk of the extant Olmsted firm correspondence and administrative documents, in the Frederick Law Olmsted Papers (60 microfilm reels, now digitized) and the closely related Olmsted Associates Records (531 microfilm reels).

The Olmsted Associates Records at the Library of Congress are arranged in ten series:

  • Letterbooks, 1884-1899
  • Job Files, 1863-1971
  • General Correspondence, 1884-1895
  • Special Correspondence, 1874-1899
  • Business Records, 1868-1950
  • Scrapbooks and Albums, 1893-1917
  • Miscellany, 1883-1964
  • Family Papers, 1868-1903
  • Oversize, 1889-1952
  • Digital Files, 1906-1911

The Job Files in the Olmsted Associates Records include correspondence, memoranda, and other material related to projects undertaken by the firm, as well as administrative records, a numerical listing, and a small amount of personal papers.  The files include landscape designs, layouts, and work arrangements.  More detail is provided in the Scope and Content Note in the finding aid to the Olmsted Associates Records.

To find information on job numbers and different types of Olmsted projects over time, see The Master List of Design Projects of the Olmsted Firm, 1857-1950 edited by Lucy Lawliss, Caroline Loughlin, and Lauren Meier (Boston: Massachusetts Association for Olmsted Parks, 1987; 2nd edition 2008), available electronically through HathiTrust External.

Also useful in researching by job number, site, or geographic area are the National Park Service Olmsted National Historic Site's Olmsted Research Guide Online (ORGO) External and the closely related Olmsted Online: Projects of the Olmsted Firm. External  The latter is an electronic resource of the National Association of Olmsted Parks and associated partners.  An interactive map External indicating the location of Olmsted firm projects across the nation is available through the Olmsted Online web presentation, searchable by project name, location, job number, or project type.  Related plans, documents, and images may also be available electronically through the website for given projects. The Olmsted Online website includes some attached electronic records, and this aspect of the site continues to be developed as more materials become available.

For further guidance, including the use of local and community sources, and consideration of the National Register of Historic Places, see the essay "Researching an Olmsted Landscape" by Lucy Lawliss, Caroline Loughlin, and Lauren Meier, in the 2008 second edition of The Master List of Design Projects of the Olmsted Firm, 1857-1979.

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