Frederick Law Olmsted

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The dominant and justifying purpose of Central Park was conceived to be that of permanently affording, in the densely populated central portion of an immense metropolis, a means to certain kinds of REFRESHMENT OF THE MIND AND NERVES which most city dwellers greatly need and which they are known to derive in large measure from the enjoyment of suitable scenery.1

The special value of the Central Park to the city of New York will its comparative largeness. There are certain kinds of beauty possible to be had in it.. .because on no other ground of the city is there scope and breadth enough for them.2

Among the many fields in which he excelled, Frederick Law Olmsted, as a noted journalist, travelled through the pre-Civil War Southern states from 1852 to 1856, reporting on the social abuses of apartheid to the New York Daily Times. In his books, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856), A Journey through Texas (1857) and A Journey in the Back Country (1860), Olmsted exposed the social and economic deprivation of negroes in America. His writings became rallying documents for the repeal of slavery. In 1855, Olmsted became the managing editor of Putman's Monthly Magazine, a journal on social, political, scientific and aesthetic issues. In 1866, he was to become one of the founders of The Nation, a national intellectual monthly.

Olmsted also was a 'scientific' farmer, from 1844 to 1852, utilizing new agricultural methods and advanced horticultural cultivars on his successive farms at Hartford, Connecticut, and Staten Island, New York. In his travels, he observed the latest innovations and recorded them in his many writings for the Horticulturist, a monthly journal. His book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, was published in 1852.

Olmsted too was a great reformist public administrator. He became the first Superintendent of Central Park in New York City in 1856 and skillfully manoeuvred between Republican and Democratic patronage to prepare the site for the park. During the Civil War, Olmsted founded and directed the American Sanitation Commission, which became the blueprint for the American Red Cross.

Olmsted was also a social critic of America's cities. Joining the Century Association in New York City in 1856 and while living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Olmsted banded together with a group of radical artists, writers and religious leaders—William Cullen Bryant, Jacob Reis, Asher Durhan, Rev. Henry W.Bellows, Washington Irving, Peter Cooper and Andrew Jackson Downing—to discuss strategies to alleviate poverty, poor sanitation and lack of organization in services to the poor. He was an early champion of providing large-scale 'pleasure ground for all citizens' which would become the central park of the city.

As significant as these achievements were, Frederick Law Olmsted's most noted accomplishments were the creation of public parks and the establishment of a new profession—landscape architecture. Landscape architecture, which he founded with Calvin Vaux, a collaborating architect who had trained under the landscape artist A.J.Downing, was founded for the purpose of creating a specific type of urban open space. Olmsted and Vaux, in 1857, entered the design competition for the new park for New York City. They named the project by its advocacy and location, 'The Central Park of New York'. Of thirty-two entrants, their 'Greensward Plan' won. The first 'Commission of the Park' which voted for Olmsted and Vaux's design included such noted reformers as William Cullen Bryant, David Dudley Field, Parke Godwin, Cornelius Grinnell, Charles H.Marshall, Henry Jay Raymond and Russell Sturgis. Without the unflagging support of these literary and artistic reformers, the park would never have been realized.

The design of Central Park was uniquely American. Central Park broke all precedents. It was revolutionary in social response, power and control, in layout and organization and in emotional content. Until then, no other city had such a park. In Europe, parks were either remnants of royal preserves or parks built for the privileged few, with limited access. Central Park broke all traditions in size alone. Its 770-acre expanse was enormous, greater than any park that had ever been proposed and was an enormous undertaking in terms of expenditure of money and manpower. It was promoted for many reasons: scientifically, for the prevention of malaria and for clean air; economically, to provide employment at low wages at a time of recession; and to increase land values for real estate profit. More practically, it provided the city with a new reservoir and water delivery system. It converted polluted and derelict pig farms with clean fill and erosion control vegetation. It provided improved positive drainage and storm water management through new streams and seemingly natural water courses. And it provided much needed public infrastructure for the future growth of the city. In its infrastructure, it was visionary, providing for grade-separated cross-town through traffic and grade-separated internal park circulation for carriages, pedestrian and equestrian traffic. Like all parks since Central Park, the project was proffered to the public on issues of health, safety and welfare.

So revolutionary was the design that it was often criticized by public officials as being too ambitious, but as it was built, enthusiastic approval attracted unprecedented numbers in great social and economic diversity. Its landscape character replicated, in well-defined areas, the very landscapes that the Hudson River School painters had captured on their canvases. The painters, Frederick E.Church, Asher B.Durand, John Frederick Kensett and George Innes, were exhibited in the Century Association's galleries in New York, one of the few venues for American artists at that time—works depicting nature in just this manner. Through this new park development, and for the very first time, a park was designed for the average citizen. It was democratic. Even the most indigent of New York City's citizens were able to experience the beauty and pleasure of the scenic natural settings available previously to only the most wealthy. The park would provide activities for citizens of all classes and it would be open and accessible to all, by design and location, in the centre of the city. Central Park was dubbed the People's Park. Unlike any European model, this was a park for a democratic society, a truly American Park.

Citizens who would take excursions in carriages, or on horseback, could have the substantial delights of country roads and country scenery, and forget for a time the rattle of the pavements and the glare of brick walls.

William Cullen Bryant

The construction of Central Park proved enormously beneficial. New York gained in reputation in Europe where, previously, the city was thought to be foul and unrefined. The park proved very useful to politicians as well, as the recession of 1857 had left many unemployed and park building provided employment for many at low wages. The park provided an upgraded image and viewing space for the city's cultural institutions, which competed for a place within, or on its perimeter. It accreted New York's most significant civic institutions: the Metropolitan, Guggenheim and Frick Museums, the Museum of Natural History, the City of New York Museum and many others. And, it proved very successful for the property owners adjacent to the park, as their property values escalated overnight.

Central Park's reputation quickly spread world-wide. Every American city wanted a park of this type. The American Park Movement was born. The city of Brooklyn was the second to commission Olmsted and Vaux to design a new public park on an abandoned brick quarry. 'Surely nothing will grow here' many politicians said of the idea. Frederick Law Olmsted brought to the task his farming skills, combining them with techniques of large-scale earth moving that he learned in the building of Central Park. He refashioned the central part of the quarry into the Long Meadow, an undulating sloping green expanse with an axis of a curvilinear valley similar to those of the Hudson River paintings. All walkways were designed along the perimeter of the space. Plantings were added for depth and layering of distant views. It was a magnificent composition in total. Years later, after completing hundreds of parks, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr stated that his singular most successful landscape space was that of the Long Meadow of Prospect Park, as it encompassed all the attributes of the picturesque style.

Olmsted's ability to make every natural feature a design asset enabled him to produce brilliant regional parks and solve many urban problems at once. As his public works commissions grew larger and more extensive, they became park systems organizing an entire city. Boston's 'Emerald Necklace' of 1875 became a planned park system that would organize the existing city and connect it to several of its affluent small suburban neighbouring communities such as Brookline and Newton. Here Olmsted's plan strung together widely differing parks. They were: (1) the Commons, a traditional New England pastoral space; (2) the Garden, a Victorian public park; (3) Massachusetts Avenue, a new tree-lined, median-divided boulevard; (4) the Fens, a degraded marshland that was bioregeneratively reconstituted as a spatial centrepiece for cultural institutions such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Isabel Gardener Museum, etc.; (5) the Muddy River Run, a transportation corridor and linear park along an unsightly urban stream—this would contain five differing circulation types within its narrow 100 foot width; (6) the Arnold Arboretum site, a hilltop site cleared for research; (7) Jamaica Pond, a public reservoir for drinking water; and (8) Franklin

Park, a large regional park at the terminus, modelled after Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Olmsted, no longer in partnership with Calvin Vaux, brought in the noted Boston architect, Henry Hobson Richardson, to design the park's numerous bridges and crossings. The Emerald Necklace established America's first green corridor, created a unified park space—a serpentine connection from natural feature to natural feature, through existing regional settlements, and tying Boston proper with its newly annexed suburbs. It has guided all urban development throughout Boston's hundred years of growth. During the 1890s, Olmsted's disciple and partner, Charles Elliot, expanded the park system as proposed by Olmsted and developed new parkland acquisition criteria based on five new scientific principles: safeguarding drinking watershed; providing tidal estuaries to protect the urban populace from diseases; preserving unique scenic resources; designing for river flood planes; and establishing barrier beaches. The latter two were especially important to prevent massive flood damage to property. The full concept of a uniquely American urban park system was formulated around naturalistic, scenic and conservation design parameters.

From this beginning, the profession of landscape architecture grew in multiple directions, justifying its broad definition as 'architecture of the land', or as the 'design of land and the objects placed upon it' or as the 'design of all exterior spaces'. The design competition for Central Park drew thirty-two entrants. Among the others, there were a number of entrants who were architects, planners, engineers and landscape engineers. For some, it was the beginning of a new career in a subject and profession that had no name, definition or direction for future growth. Olmsted himself groped for a name before combining two words, prevalent at the time, to best describe the profession—'architecture' from the art of building, and 'landscape' from the art of painting. Olmsted thought that building parks was closely related to the art of building the landscape scenes of paintings and gave the profession its name, 'landscape architecture'. Through park projects in other American cities, still others became acquainted with the new potential of this profession.

Frederick Law Olmsted,.. .this man who designed Central Park in New York, Riverside Drive, Rockaway, Morningside Heights, the Arnold Arboretum, the Boston Parkways, Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, the Chicago Parks, the Brooklyn Parks, the National Cemeteries, Mount Royal Park at Montreal, the grounds of Yale,

Princeton, Lawrenceville, the University of California, Groton and the National Zoo, [also designed] twenty-five hundred other parks.3

The most written about project in America after Central Park must surely have been the great Chicago's World Columbian Exposition. It was a watershed for architecture, planning and landscape architecture. In his 1894 Chicago Fair plan, Olmsted managed to create a master plan that responded perfectly to the widely divergent design philosophies of the Prairie and Classical schools of design. For the Classical, eclectic buildings of the east coast's group, which included McKim, Mead and White and Daniel Burnham, Olmsted proposed a central formal water basin around which the building would form an imposing unified urban/ civic space. For the organic American Prairie Architecture School of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Daniel Burley Griffen, Olmsted proposed the Lagoon area, with softened edges and romantic islands. And for his own naturalistic and American park landscape, he proposed the lake-front barrier beach areas. The Midway was an unusual development linking the main Fair site, Jackson Park, with a Fair expansion site, Washington Park. Together, the Fair's landscape composition embodied not just answers to specific problems Olmsted encountered, but it created a system of connected park types which had applications to many varied urban conditions. The principal positive contribution of the Fair was that it represented a total cohesiveness of design from section to section in spite of varying architectural styles, uses, commercial enterprises and land forms. The Fair was distinctly urban and presented a new urban ideal of beauty, codified in America as the City Beautiful Movement.

In the City Beautiful philosophy, formal landscape architecture became a powerful counterpoint to the informal pictorial, naturalistic landscapes. Its design philosophy drew from the architecture and art of the classical periods and used art construction terms as the basis for its rational design methodology. The rational aesthetic was firmly established among eastern architects, especially the most influential firms of New York City. It also captivated many landscape architects who collaborated with these architects or with landscape architects who were engaged in planning the urban expansions of America's cities. The resultant combination of Olmsted Sr's urban parks combined with City

Beautiful boulevards, local parks and natural riverway conservation corridors have given these cities a uniquely American green infrastructure. The designs of all American parks were a distinct break from the European parks of England, France and Italy. Olmsted loved the natural scenery and began to introduce systematically ecological processes within his parks. Olmsted's parks were works of nature. In place of water basins, there were natural water bodies such as lakes, ponds, meandering streams and cascades—all representative of natural water courses. Instead of flat planes of grass or manicured rolling hills, one discovered rugged ravines, buttes, rock outcrops of all geologic forms—all representative of the surrounding regions.

The trees of Central Park were not trimmed bosques of singular types of trees nor ornamentals as in European parks, but were complete collections of species, of differing vegetation types and differing ecological associations, all representative of the region's ecology. An Olmsted park always provided a wilderness area. In Central Park it was the Ramble, an area where the forces of nature were left to define the parkland in complete, perfect representation of the natural environment. Brooklyn's Prospect Park contained the Bramble; Boston's Franklin Park, the Wilderness; and Boston's Emerald Necklace, the Fens.

Olmsted, in the prime of his professional life, approached the problem of the conservation of scenic areas. He realized the extreme uniqueness of America's majestic landscapes and witnessed the encroachment by commercial developments. In 1865, while in California working as manager of the Mariposa mines, Olmsted visited the scenic valley of Yosemite Falls. Included in the tour was the stunning Mariposa Big Tree Grove featuring some of the most mature Giant Sequoia trees in America. Enthralled by the majestic scale of the valley and its delicate waterfall suspended high above the valley floor, he envisioned its despoilment by commercial loggers, miners and other resource-extracting enterprises. With support from leading American conservationists, he successfully petitioned the United States Congress to set these lands aside, 'granting the Yosemite Valley to the State of California as a public park' and to create a commission to manage this 'land grant'. In turn, he became the preserve's first Commissioner and set in course the concepts and the basis for America's National Park System. This action is considered to be the centrepiece of the American Conservation Movement, which is generally placed in the period 1850 to 1920. This movement, led by such American conservation notables as Henry David Thoreau, Asher Durand, Samuel H.Hammonds, James Russell Lowell, Albert Bierstadt, John Muir and George Perkins Marsh, began the unprecedented public and private initiatives intended to insure the wise and scientific use of natural resources, and the preservation of wildlife, forestry and landscapes of great natural beauty.

In 1880, Olmsted visited Niagara Falls with the intent of rekindling boyhood memories. He was shocked and disheartened by the rampant commercialization of both the American and Canadian sides. Armed with the support of Canadian colleagues, he strove for the first international park to organize the visitor experience of this scenic wonder. After many years of political battles in the State of New York legislature, a limited conservation 'land reserve' was formed. In 1887, Olmsted submitted his plan to remove all commercial enterprises from the reserve and provide visitor facilities open to the general public. His plans for parklands on the American embankment and on Goat Island were carried out and the natural ecology restored. While the Canadian side was approved quickly and the removal of commercial enterprises swift, their landscape development was that of the formal European Park. Olmsted's effort at Niagara Falls was the first park of a state-wide park system established for a state, New York. It was also instrumental in establishing the need for regional and state parklands across America.

To Frederick Law Olmsted Sr no land-oriented problem seemed out of bounds for his professional interest. Olmsted, the social reformer, took on the design of numerous new social institutions. In Buffalo, he planned the State Asylum, a mental health facility; in Hartford, the Insane Retreat; in Waverly, Massachusetts, the McLean Asylum; and in Boston, Massachusetts General Hospital. He worked on America's most distinguished universities' campuses. He also remodelled many, such as Yale University, planned the expansion of others, and designed whole new institutions, including Stanford University in California, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Florida at Gainesville. Olmsted rethought the typical American residential subdivision, giving new order to commercial centres, street patterns, housing mixes by densities and, most importantly and unique for its time, Commons as public open space. These projects, along with parks and park systems, city plans and private estates, formed the scope of landscape architecture for the professionals of his day.


1 F.L.Olmsted and C.Vaux, The Conception of the Winning Plan Explained by its Authors, Part Two; The Greensward Plan, Central Park Competition, New York: New York, pp. 1-6, 1856.

2 Olmsted, Letter to Mr. Ignaz A.Pilat, Chief Landscape Gardener of Central Park, Panama: 26 September 1863.

3 Mrs Luther P.Eisenhart, Frederick Law Olmsted: Landscape Architect, Bulletin of the Garden Club of America, 11, September, pp. 15-20, 1938.

See also in this book

Muir, Thoreau

Olmsted's major writings

Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, 2 vols, New York: G.P. Putnam, 1852.

A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States: With Remarks on Their Economy, New

York: Dix & Edwards, 1856. A Journey through Texas: or a Saddle-Trip on the South-western Frontier; with a

Statistical Appendix, New York: Dix & Edwards, 1857. A Journey in the Back Country, New York: Dix & Edwards, 1860.

There are numerous professional reports published for each of the parks. Olmsted was a prolific writer of articles for numerous journals and newspapers. Additionally, Olmsted corresponded extensively with colleagues and friends. These writings are too numerous to present here.

Further reading

Beveridge, Charles E. and Rocheleau, Paul, Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape, New York: Rizzoli, 1995. Fabos, Julius, Milde, Gordon T. and Weinmayer, V.Michael, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.: Founder of Landscape Architecture in America, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1968. Hall, Lee, Olmsted's America: An 'Unpractical' Man and His Vision of Civilization,

Boston, MA: Bulfinch Press, 1995. Newton, Norman T., Design on the Land: The Development of Landscape

Architecture, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971. Roper, Laura Wood, FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

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  • Mai Aoyama
    It was an interesting article, showing how Central Park was built, National parks were established, and so on. It was also interesting to know Henry David Thoreau gave a helping hand to preserve the nature. I thought he was a novelist who lived in seclusion, building a hut at Walden.<br />I reckoned there were some events behind the scenes.
    9 years ago
  • lisa
    Who are Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvin Vaux?
    9 years ago
    How is the national zoo part of the parks movement?
    9 years ago

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