|Frederick Law Olmsted
During the later half of the nineteenth century
cities in America underwent tremendous changes. More people were moving to the cities than
ever before. It became evident that cities needed to be transformed into more hospitable
places, and not just centers of commerce. No longer could the leaders of society or the
City fathers sit back and watch the Cities operate. Towards the end of the 1850s
city beautification became an issue that more and more leaders followed and explored. The
theory behind this movement was that the more aesthetically pleasing you make a city, the
more people will want to live in that city, and the happier they will be.
One of the greatest champions of the City Beautiful movement was Frederick law Olmsted.
Olmsted was the leading landscape architect of the post-Civil War generation, and has
long been acknowledged as the founder of American landscape architecture.
Frederick Law Olmsted (1822 - 1903) was born in Hartford, Connecticut. He was raised as
a gentleman, and while he never fully attended college, he did become a very learned man.
When he was 18, Olmsted moved to New York to begin a career as a scientific farmer. Soon
after that career failed to take off, he toured Europe with his brother, served as a
merchant seaman, and traveled throughout the southern United States as a newspaper
correspondent, publishing several books as an outgrowth of that career.
Through several connections gained as a columnist with the New Yorker, Olmsted was able to
gain the appointed as the Superintendent of Central Park, New
York City, in 1857, early in the development of that park project. He soon met Calvert Vaux, who had been working on a design for the park
with Andrew Jackson Downing. When Downing died, Vaux approached OImsted about
collaborating on the project. Their plan, titled Greensward, was ultimately selected as
the winning design.
In 1859, Olmsted married the widow of his brother, John, and he adopted her children. In
1861, Olmsted obtained a leave of absence from his duties at Central Park so that he could
serve as the Executive Secretary (the head of administration) of United States Sanitary
Commission, an early version of the Red Cross, which was responsible for aiding the
well-being of the soldiers of the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1863, he was offered
the position manager at the Mariposa Estate in California, a gold mining venture north of
San Francisco, and he left the organization. He later returned to New York when the
project failed, joining Vaux in designing Prospect Park
(1865-1873), Chicago's Riverside subdivision, Buffalo's park system (1868-1876), and the Niagara
Reservation at Niagara Falls (1887).
In 1883, he departed New York City and
relocated to Brookline, Massachusetts with his practice. Olmsted had begun work on a park
system for the City of Boston, eventually he focused much of his time on the Emerald Necklace. This along with his work on the design of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago were among the last of Olmsted's
projects. In 1895, due to failing health Olmsted turned the firm over to his partners, and
soon senility forced him to be confined in the McLean Hospital at Waverly, Massachusetts.
Ironically, Olmsted had designed the grounds of the institution.
Frederick Law Olmsted died on August 28, 1903. The landscape architecture firm he founded
was continued by his sons and their successors until 1980. Subsequently, his home and
office were purchased by the National Park Service and opened to the public as museum. His
papers are now housed in the Library of Congress, while the Olmsted National Historic site
preserves the drawings and plans for much of Olmsted and his firm's body of work.