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Frederick Law Olmsted: 200 Years, 6,000 Projects, One Astounding Legacy

Frederick Law Olmsted, circa 1860. Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, National Park Service.

By Jeffrey Ryan

Today is Frederick Law Olmsted’s 200th birthday. Many know him as “the man who designed Central Park” (along with partner Calvert Vaux) in 1857. But Olmsted’s influence on the American cultural landscape was, and remains, staggering in scope. National Parks, National Forests, National Monuments, college campuses, hospital grounds, state parks, city parks, the Civil War supply chain, the abolitionist movement, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Biltmore Estate, the U.S. Capitol Grounds, the very profession of landscape design – Olmsted’s handiwork all.

 

Inset of 1868 map of Central Park by Olmsted and Vaux. (Wikpedia Commons.)

Man of Varied Interests

One of the most fascinating aspects of Frederick Law Olmsted was his career path. As the son of a prominent Hartford dry goods merchant, young Frederick might have attended the best schools. But formal schooling was hardly his forte. Instead he dabbled in surveying before deciding that fruit farming was his calling. After making a go at farming, he decided that a stint on a cargo ship might do him good, so he set sail on a boat bound for China. Next up was a job as a reporter for what was then called The New York Daily Times, an assignment that took him across the pre-Civil War south and as far west as Texas.

Upon his return, Olmsted (with his father’s significant backing) bought into a publishing firm with the intention of becoming a full-time author. While sipping tea and reviewing the manuscript for his second book in a Connecticut hotel, he received a telegram stating that the publishing venture had failed. As fate would have it, an acquaintance walked into the room and told Olmsted that the job of Supervisor of Central Park was available and urged him to apply. The next day, Olmsted traveled to New York City, where he secured the job, and ultimately its oversight.

It would seem that Olmsted had found his profession never to look back. But it wasn’t so. After a period of feeling squeezed by the project’s comptroller, he left his Central Park job to take on the role of building a logistical pipeline for speeding hospital supplies to Union lines, then took a 3,000-mile leap of faith by signing on with a California-based gold mining concern. (Deeply in debt to his father over his publishing investment, Olmsted saw the $10,000 per year job as a way to make things whole.)

 

Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects design for Eastern Promenade, Portland, Maine, Circa 1903. (Courtesy, USM Osher Map Library.)

Roots of the National Park Movement

While the Mariposa Mining Company was going broke (despite Olmsted’s heroic efforts), he had the greater fortune of traveling to Yosemite Valley. Soon he was named commissioner of a committee charged with developing a plan for the lands, which had been deeded to the state of California by Abraham Lincoln.

Written by Olmsted, “The Mariposa Report” provides tremendous insight into the author’s feelings about the importance of public spaces and their potential popularity. While preparing his report in 1864, he told an acquaintance that there would come a day when three million people a year would visit Yosemite. (In 2020, there were 3.29 million visitors, down from the 2016 high of over 5 million, per NPS statistics.)

But Olmsted’s intention was not to preserve lands as museum pieces, but for their ability to contribute to the spiritual and mental well-being of all who visited these treasured lands. He wrote “… 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 of the whole system.”[1]

This, to most people, was a novel idea. As biographer Elizabeth Stevenson wrote, “Olmsted was aware, before many other people were, that these mountains and forests, which during millions of years of growth had taken shape without man’s intervention, were now of first importance to man-if he could be brought to appreciate the wild.”[2]

Re-Launching a Profession

When Olmsted went back east in the wake of the Mariposa Mining Company bankruptcy and relaunched his career as America’s foremost landscape architect, he continually advocated for designs that maximized the effect of natural scenery and minimized or eliminated ornate, manmade objects. His belief that public spaces should be open to all – places where everyone in the community could play, relax, and escape the artificiality and stress of city noise and work life were central to his designs and to why his landscapes are enjoyed by millions of people today.

Indeed, Frederick Law Olmsted’s greatest birthday gifts are the ones he (and his talented descendants) gave us.

Olmsted Projects by the Numbers

“Olmsted designed this park.” It’s a phrase heard throughout America and parts of Canada, often with some basis for accuracy. The answer can be complicated. From 1857 to the mid-1890s, Frederick Law Olmsted oversaw most of the designs produced. When he began showing signs of dementia in the 1890s, his nephew and adopted son, John Charles Olmsted and son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., took on existing projects, then eventually the firm itself. (The firm shut its doors in 1979.) With some survey and inventory work still wanting, Olmsted scholar Charles E. Beveridge has compiled the following assessment, which reveals the far-reaching effects of Olmsted’s impact.

Olmsted Firm Projects 1857-1979

Projects participated in: 6,000

Plans submitted: 4,000

Public parks, parkways and recreation areas  designed: 700

Private estates and homesteads designed: 2,000+

Subdivisions and suburban communities designed: 350+

College and school campuses and grounds for various other projects: 250+

Residential institutions (hospitals and asylums): Nearly 100

Libraries and other public buildings: 100

Commercial and industrial buildings: 125+

Churches:  75

Source: The Master List of Design Projects of the Olmsted Firm, 1857-1979. Lawless, Lucy, Loughlin, Caroline and Meier, Lauren, editors, 2008. Washington, D.C. National Association for Olmsted Parks. p. 5-6.


Join the Olmsted 200 Celebration
The National Association for Olmsted Parks is hosting a year-long celebration of Frederick Law Olmsted’s living legacy with nationwide events. Check out their calendar and learn more about Olmsted at https://olmsted200.org.

Find an Olmsted Firm Designed Project Near You
The Olmsted Research Guide Online (ORGO) provides a master list search of Olmsted [Image]
projects.  You can search by keyword, such as a park’s name or by geographic location

[1] Frederick Law Olmsted: Writings on Landscape, Culture and Society. Library of America; 1st edition. November 17, 2015. Kindle location 5474.

[2] Stevenson, Elizabeth. Park Maker: A Life of Frederick Law Olmsted. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2000. P. 271.

Jeffrey H Ryan is a Maine-based author, historian and speaker who enjoys writing about America’s hiking trails and conservation history. His latest book, This Land Was Saved for You and Me: How Gifford Pinchot, Frederick Law Olmsted and a Band of Foresters Rescued America’s Public Lands is published by Stackpole Books.

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2 Comments

  1. Geri
    April 28, 2022 at 8:52 am — Reply

    What an eye-opening article. Thank you!!

  2. April 29, 2022 at 5:07 pm — Reply

    You are quite welcome. F.L.O. was one of those rare figures who could consistently see over the horizon and able to lead everyone there in thought and deed.

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