Frederick Law Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s foremost landscape architect of the nineteenth century, was born on April 26, 1822. Son of a well-to-do Hartford, Connecticut, merchant, Olmsted spent much of his childhood enjoying rural New England scenery. Weakened eyesight due to illness forced him to abandon plans to attend Yale University. Instead, young Olmsted studied engineering and scientific farming, eventually putting his agricultural and managerial theories into practice on a Staten Island farm his father purchased for him.

“A park is a work of art…”

Frederick Law Olmsted, “Address to Prospect Park Scientific Association” (May 1868).1

Frederick Law Olmsted/engraved by T. Johnson; from a photograph by James Notman. Illus. in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, New York: The Century Co., Oct. 1893. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

A tour of England and the Continent inspired Olmsted’s Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England of 1852, and a new career in journalism. That year, the founding editor of the New-York Daily Times (soon renamed the New York Times), Henry J. Raymond, engaged Olmsted to report on conditions in the slaveholding states. His articles were subsequently published as A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856), A Journey through Texas external (1857), A Journey in the Back Country external (1860), and in a two-volume compilation of material from all three books, The Cotton Kingdom external(1861). Olmsted’s keen observations created the most complete contemporary portrait of the American South on the eve of the Civil War, wherein he concluded that slavery harmed the whole of Southern society.

By the late 1850s, a publishing house Olmsted joined had gone bankrupt, disappointing his hopes for a literary life. Encouraged to apply for the superintendency of New York City’s nascent Central Park, Olmsted embarked on a new career that tapped his managerial skills and his knowledge of engineering and horticulture while providing an opportunity to recreate the beautiful landscapes he had seen at home and abroad.

Olmsted was engaged in clearing Central Park’s 770-acre Manhattan site when architect Calvert Vaux suggested collaborating on a plan for the park’s design competition. Their winning “Greensward” plan (1858) allowed New Yorkers to experience the beauty and benefits of the countryside without leaving the island city.

Central Park, the Drive. [New York]: Currier & Ives, 1862. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division
The Mall, Central Park. B.J. Falk, c1902. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Creating such a pastoral landscape required shifting nearly 5 million cubic yards of earth and stone, blasting rock with 260 tons of gunpowder, and planting 270,000 trees and shrubs. First opened to visitors in 1859, when it was as yet very much under construction, Central Park today still offers vistas across the Sheep Meadow, strolling along wooded paths, climbing The Ramble, and people-watching on the terraces and promenades Olmsted and Vaux provided. The Greensward plan included innovative transverse roads that allowed cross-town traffic to pass through the park on lanes constructed below grade. Ample but distinct pedestrian paths and carriage roads likewise allowed visitors to move through the landscape without fear of collision.

After the outbreak of the Civil War, Olmsted requested a leave of absence from his work as architect-in-chief of Central Park to serve as chief executive officer of the newly formed U.S. Sanitary Commission. Responsible for assembling medical supplies and resources and directing them into combat areas, the Sanitary Commission was essential to transforming the military from a small professional force to a large and geographically dispersed volunteer army. Olmsted worked tirelessly to develop an organizational framework that would meet the needs of the soldier in the field. Despite the frustrations that eventually impelled him to resign, he considered his two years with the Sanitary Commission his most significant public service.

In 1863, Olmsted’s renowned administrative abilities brought an opportunity to manage California’s vast Mariposa Estate gold mines, formerly owned by John C. Frémont. Olmsted did not confine his activities to the Mariposa mines, however. When he was appointed one of the first  commissioners for the land that eventually became Yosemite National Park, his task was to protect, rather than create, an exquisite natural setting. In his Draft of Preliminary Report upon the Yosemite and Big Tree Grove, Olmsted developed the idea that democratic governments are morally responsible for preserving extraordinary landscapes for the benefit of the people. Later, his Special Report of New York State Survey on the Preservation of the Scenery of Niagara Falls (1880) played an important role in convincing New York legislators to purchase and hold Niagara Falls as a public reserve.

Prospect Park, N.Y. [Between 1860-1930]. Stereograph Cards. Prints & Photographs Division
Sheep in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. c1903. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

After two years in California, Olmsted returned to New York, Central Park, and his partnership with Calvert Vaux. Together they designed Brooklyn’s Prospect Park; the nation’s first comprehensive, integrated park system in Buffalo, N.Y.; and the Chicago suburb of Riverside, Illinois—a venture into urban planning. Although Olmsted officially dissolved his business partnership with Vaux in 1872, the two often collaborated on projects thereafter. Establishing his own landscape-design firm in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1882, Olmsted went on to design an astonishing range of projects, including parks and park systems in Detroit, Rochester, Louisville, and Boston; campuses for Stanford University and New Jersey’s Lawrenceville School; the suburb of Druid Hills near Atlanta; the grounds of the United States Capitol; the site for the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893; and—in a final undertaking—the setting for the nation’s first major effort in scientific forestry, at Biltmore estate near Asheville, North Carolina.

1874 Plan for the U.S. Capitol Grounds by Frederick Law Olmsted. USCapitol Flickr Photostream external. Architect of the Capitol

In 1874 Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to plan and oversee the renovation of the U.S. Capitol grounds. He had marble terraces constructed on the north, west, and south sides of the building to cause it to “gain greatly in the supreme qualities of stability, endurance, and repose.” He developed an architectural treasure known as the Summer House to give visitors a meditative place to rest; planted more than seven thousand trees and shrubs along with other vegetation; and laid curved footpaths and roads across the grounds. He also employed ornamental iron trellises, low stone walls, and light stands for functional and decorative purposes. Olmsted retired from supervising the terrace project in 1885 but continued until 1889 to direct work on the grounds.

After a working life that continued into his seventies, Olmsted began to suffer from what may have been Alzheimer’s disease and was eventually confined to McLean Asylum outside Boston, whose grounds he had designed. The founder of professional landscape architecture in the United States and one of its most brilliant, visionary, and democratically-committed practitioners, Frederick Law Olmsted died on August 23, 1903.

  1. In Writings on Public Parks, Parkways, and Park Systems. Vol. 1 of The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Supplementary Series, edited by Charles E. Beveridge and Carolyn Hoffman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 155. (Return to text)

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Shakespeare and the Folger

William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, England. As customary, the entry in the baptismal registry of Holy Trinity Church announces the event in Latin: “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere.”

The poet’s birthday is traditionally celebrated on April 23 because babies generally were baptized about three days after birth. Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, and is buried in the church where he was christened.

Folger Library Copy Work. Portrait of Shakespeare and First Page of text of a Biography. Theodor Horydczak, photographer, ca. 1920-ca. 1950. Horydczak Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Although contemporary references to William Shakespeare and his family abound, the first biography of the playwright appeared in the early 18th century. In 1714, Nicholas Rowe published Some account of the life, &c., of Mr. William Shakespear External, one of many rare books in the collection of the Folger Shakespeare Memorial Library.

A Library of Congress neighbor on Capitol Hill, the Folger Shakespeare Library External was built and endowed by Henry and Emily Folger to house and maintain a valuable Shakespeare collection they bequeathed to the American people. Completed in 1932, the building is made entirely of American materials, including a neoclassical exterior of marble from Georgia and a Tudor interior of Appalachian oak. Shakespearean scholars come from all over the world to use the Folger’s rich holdings related to Shakespeare and his times.

Folger Library. Front of Folger Library, Washington, D.C., Theodor Horydczak, photographer, ca. 1920-ca. 1950. Horydczak Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

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  • Search on Folger in the Horydczak Collection for pictures of the Folger Library building and its architectural decorations, rare items in the collection, and people associated with the early days of the Library’s founding. This collection includes an image depicting a scene from Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth as it is carved along the exterior wall of the Library.
  • There are several images of the Folger Shakespeare Library in the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection.  A search on Shakespeare will yield those images as well as photos of the Shakespeare Festival and Academy in Stratford, Connecticut.
  • Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, was produced by John Houseman and directed by Orson Welles for the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1936. See the Today in History entry for July 25 or visit the collection The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939 for more information about that historic production featuring an all African-American cast.
  • Search on the keyword Shakespeare in Map Collections to locate a 1908 tourist map that provides a cartographically accurate bird’s-eye view of the Bard’s hometown. Click on the map then zoom into landmarks such as Shakespeare’s birthplace and Holy Trinity Church, the site of his baptism and burial.
  • Read the blog post “Finding Shakespeare at the Library of Congress” to learn more about Library of Congress holdings about Shakespeare.