Where to begin talking about Frederick Law Olmsted? The life and achievements of the Renaissance man revered as the “father” of landscape architecture are almost impossible to summarize succinctly. But a synopsis of the Frederick Law Olmsted Papers Project, a partially published collection of twelve volumes of journals and professional papers spanning the years from 1838 to 1895, does remarkably well, laying bare the fascinating story of a brilliant designer and planner whose legacy cuts across some of the country’s definitive historical moments.
One lesson revealed in the papers, a project of the National Association for Olmsted Parks, is that great individuals don’t always find their callings at a young age. In the 1850s, Olmsted worked as a publisher and the managing editor of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, which published the work of promising American writers, including Melville and Thoreau. He traveled the South and chronicled the atrocities of slavery in letters published in the New York Times. In 1857, seeking a radical change, he used these literary connections to secure a position as superintendent of Central Park in New York, later winning the design competition for the park, with his mentor Calvert Vaux.
His life continued to unfold in profound ways. During the first two years of the Civil War, he served as general secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, overseeing the condition of camps, the care of wounded, and the distribution of food, clothing and bandages for troops across the North. A few years later, as general manager of the Mariposa Estate, he managed the largest gold-mine in California.
These experiences, as well as boyhood horse tours across New England and later travels to China, Central America, and Europe, left a strong moral and aesthetic impression. According to Charles E. Beveridge, editor of the Olmsted Papers and the author of several articles on Olmsted’s legacy and theory, they helped affirm Olmsted’s belief that thoughtfully designed landscapes and parks could nurture the human spirit and promote social improvement.
If your ego isn’t sufficiently humbled, consider that Olmsted accomplished these earlier mentioned feats by age 43, whereupon he decided to become a landscape architect—his true calling. Over the next thirty years, he carried out some 500 commissions that have come to define the field: large urban parks, reservations, greenways, park systems with pubic recreation facilities, the grounds of private residences, college campuses and government buildings, and one of the country’s first residential suburbs.
His list of principal projects reads like a park lover’s travel guide to the American landscape. There’s Central Park and Prospect Park in New York, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove and Niagara Reservation, Belle Isle in Detroit, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, the grounds of the United States Capitol and the White House, and the list goes on.
What unites Olmsted’s designs is the conviction that scenery—often applied disparagingly to connote the non-essential and easily ignored as in Peter Gabriel’s Solsborough Hill (“I was feeling part of the scenery”)— can have an unconscious and redeeming influence on the soul.
Though he was hardly a minimalist, Olmsted believed in leaving well enough alone. Individual formal elements—turf, trees, flowers, fences, walks, and water— were subordinate to the overall composition. Designs worked best, he believed, when they took their cues from nature, whose bounteousness and spiritual balm could not be easily discerned. “Gradually and silently the charm comes over us; we know not exactly where or how,” Olmsted writes in his 1852 essay “Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England.” “Dame Nature is a gentlewoman. No guide’s fee will obtain you her favor, no abrupt demand; hardly will she bear questioning, or direct, curious gazing at her beauty.”
Many of his landscapes, Beveridge writes, owe a debt to the English concept of the “Pastoral.” They feature “broad spaces of greensward, broken occasionally by groves of trees. The boundary was indistinct, due to the ‘obscurity of detail further away’ produced by the uneven line and intricate foliage of the trees on the edge of the open space . . . The effect was reminiscent of parks on estates that Olmsted had seen in England, and it was the image of the rich turf of that country, which he described as ‘green, dripping, glistening, gorgeous,’ when he first saw it, that remained for him the model of the Pastoral style.”
A fine example is Olmsted Linear Park in the Druid Hills area of Atlanta Georgia, which the businessman Joel Hurt engaged Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) to prepare a plan for in the late 1800s. According to the National Association for Olmsted Parks, the final plan, completed by the Olmsted Brothers in 1905, consists of six segments totaling 45 acres: Springdale, Virgilee, Oak Grove, Shadyside, Dellwood, and Deepdene.
The story of the park’s slow deterioration over many years is sadly familiar to anyone who has seen inequity play out in the public realm. But when plans were made to install a four-lane highway over the park, the community came together in opposition, establishing The Olmsted Parks Society of Atlanta in 1983 to lead the fight against the project. After a decade-long legal battle, the court ruled that the Georgia Department of Transportation could not take parkland for the road.
Following this victory, a 2012 renovation brought the park closer to Olmsted’s original vision: reinstating original contours and turf; reestablishing the allee of trees along Ponce de Leon Avenue; planting thousands of perennials, trees and shrubs; and installing period street lights, benches, and bridges.
As part of the renovation, a playground, not included in Olmsted’s plan, remained in the park but was moved to a new location. It is hard to say what Olmsted would have thought about the playground’s inclusion. Much of his work preceded the appearance of U.S. playgrounds, which, at the turn of the century, were only beginning to emerge through efforts of children’s advocacy groups like the Outdoor Recreation League. CityLab reports that the first-ever municipal playground, Seward Park in New York, was installed in 1903, the same year as his Olmsted’s death.
I recently met with Tony Pecelunas, a member of the Frederick Law Olmsted Society of Riverside, Illinois, who suggested to me that Olmsted was not wildly enthusiastic about playgrounds. “He thought recreation meant “recreate”; he wasn’t thinking of playgrounds, places to swing and jump around,” Pecelunas says.
But whatever conjectures we can make about Olmsted’s attitude toward playgrounds after his passing, we must also acknowledge the interests of the people who enjoy and benefit from his parks today. Preserving the historic value of his majestic parks requires the commitment of local communities to restore and maintain them. Residents, garden clubs, park advocates, and preservationists all have a stake in the future of these natural treasures.
Since its renovation, the Olmsted Linear Park has gained a reputation as a safe haven for residents from surrounding neighborhoods, and one reason for its popularity is because of the availability of dedicated places for children to play. At Springdale Park, one of six strung together in Olmsted’s plan, a sculptural playground tastefully integrates several understated pieces by Goric: The Dish, The Rodeo, Whirlwind, Spaghetti, Spaghetti 3, and Grass. Skillfully camouflaged within its surroundings, the playground shares company with those at Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace, whose graceful designs have found a home within Olmsted’s picturesque settings. For the world traveling luminary, who recognized the inherent value of recreation for social progress, these achievements might well be reason for celebration.