Our April 26 Birthday Honoree is Frederick Law Olmsted, Father of American Landscape Architecture .
"It is one great purpose of the Park to supply to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God's handiwork that shall be to them, inexpensively, what a month or two in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks is, at great cost, to those in easier circumstances." - Frederick Law Olmsted
Frederick Law Olmstead, the creator of both Central Park and Prospect Park, was a true visionary who established landscape architecture as a profession in America the 19th century and championed the City Beautiful movement during a period when people were moving to cities in large numbers and therefore there was a greater need for space for recreation and to enjoy nature. He also was an accomplished journalist, conservationist and traveler.
Olmsted was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on April 26, 1822. His father, John Olmsted, was a prosperous merchant who took a lively interest in nature, people, and places; Frederick Law and his younger brother, John Hull, also showed this interest. His mother, Charlotte Law (Hull) Olmsted, died before his fourth birthday. His father remarried in 1827 to Mary Ann Bull, who shared her husband's strong love of nature.
When the young Olmsted was almost ready to enter Yale College, sumac poisoning weakened his eyes, so he gave up college plans. After working as an apprentice seaman, merchant, and journalist, Olmsted settled on a 125-acre farm in January 1848 on the south shore of Staten Island, New York, a farm which his father helped him acquire. This farm, originally named the Akerly Homestead, was renamed Tosomock Farm by Olmsted. It was later renamed "The Woods of Arden" by owner Erastus Wiman. (The house in which Olmsted lived still stands at 4515 Hylan Boulevard, near Woods of Arden Road.)
Revered as the “father” of American landscape architecture and perhaps best known for creating New York’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted was also a nineteenth Century version of a Renaissance man. Olmsted journeyed to China on a merchant ship when he was only 21 years of age. He wrote of experiences he had while exploring the Texas frontier; co-founded Nation magazine and wrote early and often against slavery. All of this was accomplished before he won the commission to create Central Park in Manhattan at age 36. Olmsted also managed the largest gold mine in California and was instrumental in preserving Yosemite and Niagara Falls as national parks.
Olmsted is also credited, together with his partner Calvert Vaux, with creating one of the first modern American suburbs — Riverside. Shortly after the Civil War, Olmsted and Vaux were asked to plan a new community just west of Chicago. But they did more than simply lay out a few streets. They created a stunningly beautiful community in a park along the Des Plaines River, complete with curving lanes, abundant greenery, and gas streetlights.
During the latter half of the nineteenth century cities in America underwent tremendous changes. More people were moving to the cities than ever before. It became evident that cities needed to be transformed into more hospitable places, and not just centers of commerce. No longer could the leaders of society or the City fathers sit back and watch the Cities operate. Towards the end of the 1850s city beautification became an issue that more and more leaders followed and explored. The theory behind this movement was that the more aesthetically pleasing you make a city, the more people will want to live in that city, and the happier they will be.
The quality of Olmsted's landscape architecture was recognized by his contemporaries, who showered him with prestigious commissions. Daniel Burnham said of him, "He paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountainsides and ocean views ..." His work, especially in Central Park in New York City, set a standard of excellence that continues to influence landscape architecture in the United States. He was an early and important activist in the conservation movement, including work at Niagara Falls; the Adirondack region of upstate New York; and the National Park system; and though little known, played a major role in organizing and providing medical services to the Union Army in the Civil War.
Olmsted had a significant career in journalism. In 1850 he traveled to England to visit public gardens, where he was greatly impressed by Joseph Paxton's Birkenhead Park. He subsequently wrote and published Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England in 1852. This supported his getting additional work. H Interested in the slave economy, he was commissioned by the New York Daily Times (now The New York Times) to embark on an extensive research journey through the American South and Texas from 1852 to 1857. His dispatches to the Times were collected into three volumes (A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856), A Journey Through Texas (1857), A Journey in the Back Country in the Winter of 1853-4 (1860). These are considered vivid first-person accounts of the antebellum South. A one-volume abridgment, Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom (1861), was published in England during the first six months of the American Civil War, at the suggestion of Olmsted's English publisher.
His views on landscapes developed from travelling and reading. When he was young, he took a year-long voyage in China. And in 1850, he took a six-month walking tour of Europe and the British Isles, during which he saw numerous parks, private estates, and scenic countryside. He was also deeply influenced by Swiss physician Johann Georg von Zimmermann’s writings about nature’s ability to heal “derangements of the mind” through imagination. Olmsted read Zimmermann’s book as a boy and treasured it.is v
Through several connections gained as a columnist with the New Yorker, Olmsted was able to gain the appointed as the Superintendent of Central Park, New York City, in 1857, early in the development of that park project. He soon met Calvert Vaux, who had been working on a design for the park with Andrew Jackson Downing. When Downing died, Vaux approached OImsted about collaborating on the project. Their plan, titled Greensward, was ultimately selected as the winning design.
Olmsted designed primarily in the pastoral and picturesque styles, each to achieve a particular effect. The pastoral style featured vast expanses of green with small lakes, trees and groves and produced a soothing, restorative effect on the viewer. The picturesque style covered rocky, broken terrain with teeming shrubs and creepers, to express nature's richness. The picturesque style played with light and shade to lend the landscape a sense of mystery. Vaux designed the park’s structures such as bridges, arches, concession areas, and shelters.
Olmsted wanted his designs to stay true to the character of their natural surroundings. He referred to “the genius of a place,” a belief that every site has ecologically and spiritually unique qualities. TThe goal was to “access this genius” and let it infuse all design decisions. Scenery was therefore designed to enhance the sense of space: the goal was to “access this genius” and let it infuse all design decisions.Scenery was therefore designed to enhance the sense of space: indistinct boundaries using plants, brush and trees as opposed to sharp ones; interplay of light and shadow close up, and blurred detail further away. A vast expanse of greenery at the end of which lies a grove of yellow poplar; a path that winds through a bit of landscape and intersects with others, dividing the terrain into triangular islands of successive new views.
Subordination strives to use all objects and features in the service of the design and its intended effect. It can be seen in the subtle use of naturally occurring plants throughout the park. Non-native species planted for the sake of their own uniqueness defeat the purpose of design, as that very uniqueness draws attention to itself where the intention is to enable relaxation: utility above all else. Separation applies to areas designed in different styles and different uses enhancing safety and reducing distraction. A key feature of Central Park is the use of sunken roadways which traverse the park and are specifically dedicated to vehicles as opposed to winding paths designated specifically for pedestrians.
In 1859, Olmsted married the widow of his brother, John, and he adopted her children. In 1861, Olmsted obtained a leave of absence from his duties at Central Park so that he could serve as the Executive Secretary (the head of administration) of United States Sanitary Commission, an early version of the Red Cross, which was responsible for aiding the well-being of the soldiers of the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1863, he was offered the position manager at the Mariposa Estate in California, a gold mining venture north of San Francisco, and he left the organization.
When the project failed he returned to New York, joining Vaux in designing Prospect Park (1865-1873), Chicago's Riverside subdivision, Buffalo's park system (1868-1876), and the Niagara Reservation at Niagara Falls (1887). Prospect Park, located in Brooklyn, was the main focus of Olmsted's life from 1865 to 1873. As with many of his projects, he devised the park's layout with Calvert Vaux. Olmstead later considered Prospect Park to be his “masterpiece.” Prospect Park was made up primarily of the "Long Meadow", the "Ravine" and a great lake. The park is filled with winding carriage paths and lush landscape.
They carved the lake out of a hilly section of the terrain that existed. They used a large pump to fill the area with water. Another feature of the park was the children's play area that Olmsted created complete with play equipment and small pool for children.
In 1883, he departed New York City and relocated to Brookline, Massachusetts with his practice. Olmsted had begun work on a park system for the City of Boston, eventually he focused much of his time on the Emerald Necklace. This along with his work on the design of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago were among the last of Olmsted's projects. In 1895, due to failing health Olmsted turned the firm over to his partners, and soon senility forced him to be confined in the McLean Hospital at Waverly, Massachusetts. Ironically, Olmsted had designed the grounds of the institution. Frederick Law Olmsted died on August 28, 1903. The landscape architecture firm he founded was continued by his sons and their successors until 1980. Subsequently, his home and office were purchased by the National Park Service and opened to the public as museum. His papers are now housed in the Library of Congress, while the Olmsted National Historic site preserves the drawings and plans for much of Olmsted and his firm's body of work.