Frederick Law Olmsted (1822 - 1903)
by Margarete R. Harvey, ASLA
Law Olmsted (F. L. Olmsted) was the leading landscape architect of
the second half of the 19th century well before there was any established
curriculum or training program for landscape architects, or a professional
organization in the field such as the American Society of Landscape Architects
(ASLA). He is acknowledged as the father of American landscape
architecture even though he was preceded by highly respected practitioners.
He also had some very strong competition from landscape architects
working at the same time, who are largely forgotten today.
Despite these distinguished colleagues, Olmsted is considered the
father because his firm dominated the profession until at least 1920.
With his first partner, Calvert Vaux, he designed and supervised
the creation of Central Park in New York (1858-1863, 1865-1878), Prospect Park in Brooklyn, parks in Buffalo and Chicago, and
the residential community of Riverside, Illinois. Together, with other
partners and staff, Olmsted's office carried out some 550 other commissions
before his retirement in 1895. The most important ones are: Mount
Royal Park in Montreal, Belle Island Park in Detroit, the U.S. Capitol
grounds, Stanford University campus, park systems in Boston, Rochester
and Louisville, and his two last great projects: the World's Columbian
Exposition (1888-93) and Biltmore, the Vanderbilt estate in Asheville,
North Carolina (1888-95).
His stepson, John Charles Olmsted, and his son, Frederick Law Olmsted,
Jr., carried on the Olmsted firm. They oversaw some 3000 new projects
between 1895 and 1950. And, a majority of influential landscape architects
were apprenticed or worked in the Olmsted firm in Brookline, Massachusetts
carrying the Olmsted design philosophy.
In 1980, the National Park Service bought the home and office of
the Olmsted firm in Brookline, Massachusetts to create the Olmsted National
Historic Site. Many of Olmsted's plans and drawings are preserved
and available for purchase there.
Well, how did this all happen to the scion of a well-to-do dry-goods
merchant in Hartford, Connecticut? Frederick's early life was guided
by a doting father - his mother had died when he was 3 years old,
shortly after the birth of his younger brother, John Hull. His father
took his family on numerous excursions to view scenic landscapes
and experience the spiritual "uplift" it provided. By
the time he was twelve, young Frederick had seen most of New England,
Niagara Falls and Quebec. He was a dedicated to the picturesque,
as was his father. On one occasion, he and his brother, then 9 and
6 years old, respectively, hiked 16 miles through unfamiliar country
to visit an aunt and uncle. It took them two days and an overnight
stay at an inn - inconceivable today.
But, his schooling was erratic. He was sent to his first boarding
school at the age of 6. By the time he would have finished the equivalent
of high school, he had been in 12 different programs. Yet, he was
curious and had a natural love of learning. He contracted sumac
poisoning which threatened his eyesight and eventually kept him
from entering Yale. Instead, he embarked on a series of apprenticeships,
in turn, intending to become a surveyor, a merchant and a farmer
- careers that were all for naught.
In 1842, when his brother entered Yale, Olmsted became an apprentice
seaman. Since he was of slight build and afflicted by seasickness,
he experienced a misery he could not have imagined and never forgot
the brutalization and injustices of seafaring life. Once back in
the U.S., he wrote numerous letters to New York newspapers urging
changes in maritime law to protect seamen and passengers alike.
This was to establish a pattern: Olmsted would undertake a new
venture, a new career or a journey, reflect, and then write about it under
the pen name "Yeoman" which symbolized to him the ideal
democratic citizen who exercises his rights and responsibilities
to himself, his family and his community.
In turn, he became a "scientific farmer", with his father
buying him two different farms. He beautified his farms, yet never
made money on them, but he learned about good drainage and good
soil preparation. He went on a walking tour of England, followed
by a month of traveling throughout Europe. From then on, he would
always take pleasure in travel and in recording his observations
of places and people - a necessary prerequisite if you consider
the extent of his travels criss-crossing the North American continent
at a time when the railways were being constructed and well before
any automobiles or aeroplanes. In fact, he used all modes of transportation
of the times: riverboat, rail, carriage, horseback and foot.
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