Frederick Law Olmsted, nineteenth-century America’s foremost landscape architect, 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 forced him to abandon plans to attend Yale. Instead, young Olmsted studied engineering and scientific farming, putting his agricultural and managerial theories into practice on his own Staten Island farm.
“A park is a work of art. . . .”
Frederick Law Olmsted, “Address to [the] Prospect Park Scientific Association [May 1868],” in Writings on Public Parks, Parkways, and Park Systems, vol. 1 of The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Supplementary Series,
ed. Charles E. Beveridge and Carolyn Hoffman
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 147-57 (quotation on 155).
A tour of England and the Continent inspired Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England (1852) and a new career in journalism. Later 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). Together Olmsted’s keen observations created the most complete contemporary portrait of the South on the eve of the Civil War, concluding that slavery harmed the whole of Southern society.
By the late 1850s, the 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 considerable managerial skills and his knowledge of engineering and horticulture while providing an opportunity to recreate many of the beautiful landscape effects he had seen at home and abroad.
Olmsted was engaged in clearing the 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.
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 the grade of park thoroughfares. Equally thoughtfully, Olmsted and Vaux provided ample but distinct pedestrian paths and carriage roads so visitors could 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.
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; and ventured into urban planning with a design for the Chicago suburb of Riverside, Illinois. 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.
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.
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.
- Many more photographs of Olmsted’s landscape designs, and of the designs of his son Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., appear in the collection American Landscape and Architectural Design, 1850-1920: a Study Collection from the Harvard Graduate School of Design External link. Use the names index to see examples of Olmsted’s work, two of his sons’ work, and that of some of his architectural collaborators such as Calvert Vaux and Henry Hobson Richardson.
- Two important design projects dominated Olmsted’s final years: his design for the grounds of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and the landscaping of Biltmore, George Washington Vanderbilt’s extensive North Carolina estate. Search across the Library’s pictorial collections on World’s Columbian Exposition and Biltmore to access photos and plans related to these projects.
- View films made in turn-of-the-century Central Park. Skating on Lake, Central Park, is available through Early Motion Pictures, while Sleighing Scene and Mounted Police Charge can be seen through the collection Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies.
- Search on the term Central Park in Small-Town America: Stereoscopic Views from the Robert Dennis Collection, 1850-1920 External. See, for example, a group of 102 stereographs taken by photographer Thomas C. Rochefor during the summer of 1863.
- Explore the development of American landscape design in the collections American Landscape and Architectural Design, 1850-1920: a Study Collection from the Harvard Graduate School of Design External link and Architecture and Interior Design for 20th Century America: Photographs by Samuel Gottscho and William Schleisner, 1935-1955. Browse the Gottscho-Schleisner collection’s subject list for terms such as Gardens, Parks, and Landscape photographs to find images of landscape design.
- Visit the collection The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920 to learn more about early efforts to preserve the American landscape.