Landscape Democracy: The Life and Career of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903)
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“Nature, nevertheless, is the great teacher to which the artist who would hope to imitate her, however crudely, must ever turn for instruction and for inspiration.”
-Frederick Law Olmsted, Editorial: “Foreign Plants and American Scenery” in Garden and Forest 1 (1888)
Considered the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted co-designed many of the most well-known urban parks and landscapes in the United States in partnership with Calvert Vaux (Wikipedia). As Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker, “Was there a patch of grass in nineteenth-century America that he didn’t design? Stanford, Prospect Park, and the Biltmore Estate, in North Carolina; the space around the United States Capitol and preservation plans for Niagara Falls and Yosemite.” In addition to his impressive accomplishments in landscape architecture, including seventeen large urban parks across the United States — most notably Central Park, he was also a journalist, abolitionist, gentleman farmer, and conservationist (Ranney, 3).
Olmsted’s genius was perfectly matched to the age in which he lived: “Olmsted lived from 1822 to 1903, a life which spanned the transformation of America from an agricultural nation of ten million people to an industrial one of seventy-five million. At a time when the frontier was closing and Americans were moving to the cities, Olmsted believed that nature had a controlling effect on man’s behavior. So he undertook in the course of a long career to save nature or recreate it for new industrial conditions” (Ranney, 3).
Born in Hartford, Connecticut to a dry goods merchant, Olmsted attended Yale University for one semester before acquiring a farm on Staten Island, which he eventually referred to as Tosomock; the author Witold Rybczynski speculates, “I have been unable to identify the source of Tosomock. Perhaps it is a combination of ‘toss’ and ‘amok,’ which would mean ‘flinging oneself headlong,’ a good characterization of Olmsted’s frame of mind” (Rybczynski, 77).
In 1850, at the age of twenty-eight, Olmsted traveled to England and wrote a book about farming methods there entitled Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England (Gopnik). In a letter to his father asking for permission to accompany his brothers on the trip, which would last months, he is both concerned with appearances — he’d been “accused of irresponsiblity” and instability in the past — as well as leaving the farm untended that long. In a lengthy, impassioned letter “that would be almost comical were it not also touching,” he confesses, “I exceedingly fear my dangerous liability to enthusiasm, and I mean to guard against it with my mind in the future” (Rybczynski, 84). Ultimately, this tour of England’s parks shaped Olmsted’s vision of landscape design (Foderaro).
Olmsted’s ideals and principles regarding nature and its benefits for the human condition were similarly applied in his plans for public lands, and he has been called “an early and important activist in the conservation movement” (Wikipedia). By the time he was tasked with creating Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report, 1865 for the U.S. Government, Olmsted, at age 43, had moved through four distinct periods of his professional career, all of which held in common, “His personal quest for fulfillment…characterized by immersion in some endeavor to which he devoted himself completely so long as he deemed it to be in the best interest of the nation” (Fein, 15).
As Victoria Post Ranney writes in the introduction to Olmsted’s report, “Olmsted saw the Yosemite region when it was new to all but Native Americans…and his description of its landscape gives us a standard by which to gauge its health today” (xx). The United States Government granted the State of California the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove on 30 June 1864, stipulating, “’the State shall accept this grant upon the expressed condition that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation, and shall be inalienable for all time.’ The valley and grove were to be administered by the governor through a group of commissioners appointed by him, and Olmsted acted as first President of the Commission” (Fein, 39).
Though his report of 1865 was adopted by the commission, due to costs identified by Olmsted, it wouldn’t be until 1890 that Yosemite became a national park. (Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, was the very first.) Olmsted’s report was suppressed, never to be submitted to the legislature (Ranney, xix).
In the intervening years between his report and Yosemite’s official establishment as a national park, Olmsted moved on to many other projects, including his collaboration with Daniel Burnham to adapt his initial design for the South Park Commission site — now known as Jackson Park, Washington Park and the Midway Plaisance — for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois.
As the Chicago Architecture Foundation features on its website, “Now, Olmsted’s vision is the talk of the town again, as discussions continue regarding the design and construction of the new Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. Michael Van Valkenburgh, who is leading the project’s landscape architecture, says he believes the center will provide an opportunity to bring the park into the 21st century, while restoring some of Olmsted’s plans.”
Whether a national park, city boulevard, or planned community, Frederick Law Olmsted was a visionary whose plans continue to expand, inform, and delight for the enjoyment of one and all.
Chicago Architecture Foundation. “Frederick Law Olmsted.” Accessed March 9, 2020. http://www.architecture.org/learn/resources/architecture-dictionary/entry/frederick-law-olmsted/
Fein, Albert. Frederick Law Olmsted and the American Environmental Tradition.
Foderaro, Lisa. “The Parks that Made the Man Who Made Central Park.” New York Times, October 30, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/30/travel/footsteps-frederick-law-olmsted-parks.html
Gopnik, Adam. “The Hero of Central Park.” The New Yorker, March 24, 1997. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1997/03/31/olmsteds-trip
Olmsted, Frederick Law. 1888. “Editorial: Foreign Plants and American Scenery” Arnoldia v. 60 (2000): 22-24.
Olmsted, Frederick Law; introduction by Victoria Post Ranney. 1995. “Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report, 1865.” Yosemite National Park, California, Association: Yosemite Association.
Ranney, Victoria Post. 1998. Olmsted in Chicago. Chicago: Field Museum.
Runte, Alfred. 2010. National Parks: The American Experience. Lanham, Maryland : Taylor Trade Publishing.
Rybczynksi, Witold. 2013. A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century. New York: Scribner.
Wikipedia. 2020. “Frederick Law Olmsted.” Accessed March 9, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Law_Olmsted