Every story has a beginning, and every story has a hero. In the story of American landscape architecture, both the beginning and hero can be described in one name: Frederick Law Olmsted.
Who Was Frederick Law Olmsted?
Once upon a time, there was a world that was nearly untouched by human hands. Its only inhabitants lived in amity with the land and nature. Accordingly, this land existed in peace—only ever giving way to the whims of nature.
Then other people arrived. They all came to this new land for different reasons. Some came in the name of discovery—curious to see what the world had to offer. Others were in search of peace—attempting to leave the chaotic world behind. Unfortunately, as the people arrived on this land, they brought their disruptive chaos with them.
In the name of progress, they began to upheave the tranquil ground to build monuments of industry. They discovered, built, and grew, spreading across all previously barren plains until there was barely a shred of unfettered wilderness left. When the humans finally looked up from their progress, they were surprised to see that the land of peace they sought became the same as the lands from which they escaped. And soon, the only green space for them to find tranquility in was in their city’s graveyards.
It is in this part of the story that Frederick Law Olmsted arrives. Frederick Olmsted was born in 1822 in Hartford, Connecticut. Though he experienced the early tragedy of losing his mom when he was four years old, his father provided a stable childhood on which Frederick would grow. His father was a dry-goods merchant who spent his free time journeying with young Frederick across New England “in search of the picturesque.”
It is no surprise then that—as an adult—Frederick Olmsted would continue his father’s quest for the picturesque on walking tours. At first, he explored his country of origin. Leaving New England, he traveled through the American south. As a result of his exploration, he surmised,
The possession of arbitrary power has always, the world over, tended irresistibly to destroy humane sensibility, magnanimity, and truth.
This conclusion would inform his opinion on both slavery and his view of how America’s wilderness should, or should not be, harnessed.
The ideas that he developed during his journey through the south came to full fruition on a walking tour through England in 1850. In America, at that time, there were no public parks. The only parks that did exist were on private grounds. The same was true for England, save one public park in a suburb of Liverpool: Birkenhead Park.
Birkenhead Park, the first publicly funded park in English, was only a little over four years old when Frederick Olmsted wandered through its landscape. Reflecting on the park, he recalled,
Five minutes of admiration, and a few more spent in studying the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty, and I was ready to admit that in democratic America, there was nothing to be thought of as comparable with this People’s Garden.
So, it only makes sense that eight years after his time at Birkenhead Park Frederick Law Olmsted, along with Calvert Vaux, would provide the winning design submission for what would become Central Park.
After completing Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted would design nearly 500 parks, private estates, residential communities, and campuses for academic institutions by the end of his life. Ultimately, Frederick Olmsted was as successful as he was prolific because he captured the essence of human desire: to restore what is lost.
Frederick Olmsted’s success was due to his core philosophy to “respect the genius of the place.” As he contemplated,
The root of all my good work is an early respect for, regard and enjoyment of scenery… and extraordinary opportunities for cultivating susceptibility to the power of scenery.*
Parks, in their purest form, are an attempt to restore what once was. They are a democratic ground, where nature can thrive unspoiled, and humans only interfere to preserve nature’s beauty. Frederick Olmsted understood this. And, with each project, he attempted to restore what was lost. Thus, we owe the rehabilitation of public land to the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted.
Frederick Law Olmsted’s Work
As mentioned above, Frederick Law Olmsted was prolific. However, six specific projects illuminate his ability to “respect the genius of the place.”
Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY, 1865
Although Prospect Park was not Frederick Law Olmsted’s first project, it is the park that most reflects the lessons Olmsted learned at Birkenhead. Because Prospect didn’t have any significant obstacles to work around, Olmsted and his business partner, Calvert Vaux, were able to enhance the natural landforms of the park without manipulating the grounds.
Central Park, New York, NY, 1858
As noted above, Central Park was the first park created by Frederick Law Olmsted. He designed the park with Calvert Vaux. Though Frederick Law Olmsted was superintendent of the Central Park project, many believe he fairly won the project due to his innovative designs.
Perhaps his biggest innovation was the creation of transverse roads. The use of transverse roads enabled carriages and pedestrians to use the park trails and paths without disturbing one another or the landscape. The transverse roads were particularly creative as they provided a way for people to enjoy the landscape while still respecting “the genius of the space.”
Buffalo’s City Park System, Buffalo, NY, 1986
In 1986, Frederick Law Olmsted designed one of his most ingenious projects: Buffalo’s City Park System. Olmsted developed the idea of a city park system when he visited Buffalo to find a central park location.
Instead of finding space for one central park and fighting against the natural flow of the city, he found land on the outskirts of the city and smaller plots inside the city. He proposed to develop all the sites into parks and connect them through a series of roads, which he called “park ways.” The park committee accepted Olmsted’s proposal, and the first city park system was born.
Though some of Olmsted’s other city park systems are better known (like the Emerald Necklace in Boston), it was the Buffalo Park System that paved the way for connected municipal parks.
Elm Park, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1866
In many ways, Elm Park is glorious, but not too different from many other parks in the U.S., except for one fact. It is the first park developed on publicly funded land that was purchased with the intention of building a park.
The park follows Olmsted’s law of respecting “the genius of the space” as only 27 of the 58-acre park are developed. The rest of the park is full of woodland and trails.
Though Frederick Law Olmsted is best known as a landscape architect, he also designed or restored a good many structures in his lifetime. Though he was working on manmade structures, not landforms, he still abided by the essential philosophy of respecting the space. Below are a couple structures that highlight his design philosophy.
Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, MA, 1883
In 1883, Frederick Law Olmsted moved his home and firm headquarters to Brookline, Massachusetts. There, he purchased and restored an old farmhouse, which he named “Fairsted.”
This structure showcases Olmsted’s ability and vision to restore both landforms and buildings to their original glory.
Cushing Island, Portland, ME, 1882
Cushing Island is technically a part of Portland, ME. During the mid-1800s, a man named Francis Cushing owned the island, and he hired Frederick Law Olmsted to develop the property.
Olmsted’s original plan was to enlarge the existing Ottawa House hotel, develop hotel cottages, and to subdivide the land to create 50 house lots. True to form, Olmsted also designed parkways and reserved around 100 acres for common use.
Unfortunately, Cushing did not use much of Olmsted’s plan. He did, however, implement the road layout and maintained ocean views for common use. Also, the architect Cushing hired followed many of Olmsted’s architectural guidelines for the island’s summer cottages.
Today, the island is still privately owned — visited only by members and residents of the island. However, the Cushing Island Conservation Corporation continues to follow Olmsted’s plan and keeps 142 acres undeveloped for common use.
Frederick Law Olmsted’s Legacy and You
Perhaps ironically, Olmsted showed that the preservation of nature necessitates design. We all must be thoughtful and intentional about the way we take care of our surrounding landscape. It takes contemplative work to stay true to nature’s intention and ensure that land is preserved for generations to come.
In short, it is now up to us to continue the work Olmsted began. Many are already hard at work, but we can all do our part to “respect the genius” of this world we have been given to care for. In your next project, consider employing the following methods:
- Explore the origins of the land, and seek to restore it to its glory. As Olmsted reports, “Rocky or steep slopes suggest tangled thickets or forests. Smooth hollows of good soil hint at open or ‘park-like’ scenery. Swamps and an abundant water supply suggest ponds, pools, or lagoons.”
- Consider how people interact in the space, and design it to complement the land. A great example of this is how Olmsted used transverse roads in Central Park. Today, we don’t have to worry about pedestrians and carriages mixing, but we do need to think through how pedestrians and people on bikes, skateboards, or scooters interact. And, we need to think through how those interactions affect the landscape.
- Think through how the space impacts the mental health of the community it serves. As Olmsted said, “The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.”
Though we don’t necessarily know what the future holds for the story of America’s parks (or for the world’s, for that matter), we can be sure that we owe a lot of what we do have to the hero of this story— Frederick Law Olmsted.
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