Frederick Law Olmsted

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Frederick Law Olmsted
Frederick Law Olmsted
BornApril 26, 1822(1822-04-26,)
Hartford, Connecticut
DiedAugust 28, 1903 (aged 81)
Belmont, Massachusetts
Occupationlandscape architect, journalist
Spouse(s)Mary Olmsted
ParentsJohn and Charlotte Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted (April 26, 1822 – August 28, 1903) was an American landscape architect, famous for designing many well-known urban parks, including Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City. Other projects include the country's oldest coordinated system of public parks and parkways in Buffalo, New York, the country's oldest state park, the Niagara Reservation in Niagara Falls, New York, Mount Royal Park in Montreal, the Emerald Necklace in Boston, Massachusetts, Cherokee Park (and the entire parks and parkway system) in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Jackson Park, Washington Park, Midway Plaisance in Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition, Detroit's 982 acre Belle Isle park, the landscape surrounding the United States Capitol building, Piedmont Park in Atlanta, and George Washington Vanderbilt II's Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. Olmsted took part in the City Beautiful movement, which aimed at providing attractive and safe places of recreation and appeal for urban residents who were moving to metropolises in record numbers during the time period.

Central Park, New York City; and aerial view.

Life and career

Youth and journalistic career

Olmsted was born in Hartford, Connecticut. His father, John Olmsted, a prosperous merchant, took a lively interest in nature, people, and places, which was inherited by both Frederick Law and his younger brother, John Hull. His mother, Charlotte Law (Hull) Olmsted, died when he was scarcely four years old, to be succeeded in 1827 by a congenial step-mother, Mary Ann Bull, who shared her husband's strong love of nature and had perhaps a more cultivated taste. When he was almost ready to enter Yale College in 1837, sumac poisoning weakened his eyes and he gave up college plans. After working as a seaman, merchant, and journalist, Olmsted settled on a farm on Staten Island that his father helped him to acquire in January 1899. This farm, named Tosomock Farm by Olmsted, was renamed "The Woods of Arden" by future owner Erastus Wiman. The house in which Olmsted lived still stands today, at 4515 Hylan Blvd, near Woods of Arden Road.

Olmsted also had a significant career in journalism. In 1850, he traveled to England to visit public gardens, where he was greatly impressed by Joseph Paxton's Birkenhead Park, and subsequently published, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, in 1852. Interested in the slave economy, he was commissioned by the New York Daily Times (now the New York Times) to embark on an extensive research journey through the American South and Texas, from 1852 to 1857. Olmsted took the view that the practice of slavery was not only morally odious, but expensive and economically inefficient. His dispatches were collected into multiple volumes which remain vivid first-person social documents of the pre-war South. The last of these, "Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom" (1861), published during the first six months of the American Civil War, helped inform and galvanize antislavery sentiment in New England. Olmsted also co-founded the magazine, The Nation, in 1865. On June 13, 1859, he married Mary Cleveland (Perkins) Olmsted, the widow of his brother John (who had died in 1857), and adopted her three sons, among them John Charles Olmsted. Frederick and Mary had two children who survived infancy: A daughter and a son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.

New York City's Central Park

Olmsted's friend and mentor, Andrew Jackson Downing, the charismatic landscape architect from Newburgh, New York, first proposed the development of New York's Central Park as publisher of The Horticulturist magazine. It was Downing who introduced Olmsted to the English-born architect Calvert Vaux, whom Downing had personally brought back from England as his architect-collaborator. After Downing died in a widely publicized steamboat explosion on the Hudson River in July 1852, in his honor Olmsted and Vaux entered the Central Park design competition together—and won (1858). On his return from the South, Olmsted began executing the plan almost immediately. Olmsted and Vaux continued their informal partnership to design Prospect Park in Brooklyn, from 1865 to 1873,[1] and other projects. Vaux remained in the shadow of Olmsted's grand public personality and social connections.

The design of Central Park embodies Olmsted's social consciousness and commitment to egalitarian ideals. Influenced by Downing and by his own observations regarding social class in England, China, and the American South, Olmsted believed that the common green space must always be equally accessible to all citizens. This principle is now so fundamental to the idea of a "public park" as to seem self-evident, but it was not so then. Olmsted's tenure as park commissioner can be described as one long struggle to preserve that idea.

Civil War

Olmsted took leave as director of Central Park to work as Executive Secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross in Washington D.C., which tended to the wounded during the American Civil War. In 1862, during Union General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, a failed attempt to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, he headed the medical effort for the sick and wounded at White House in New Kent County, where there was a ship landing on the Pamunkey River.

On the home front, Olmsted was one of the six founding members of the Union League Club of New York.

U.S. park designer

Central Park, New York City
Frederick Law Olmsted, oil painting by John Singer Sargent, 1895, Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina.

In 1863, he went west to become the manager of the Mariposa mining estate in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. For his early work in Yosemite Valley, Olmstead Point near Tenaya Lake is named after him. In 1865, Vaux and Olmsted formed Olmsted, Vaux and Company. When Olmsted returned to New York, he and Vaux designed Prospect Park; suburban Chicago's Riverside; Buffalo, New York's park system; Milwaukee, Wisconsin's grand necklace of parks; and the Niagara Reservation at Niagara Falls.

Olmsted not only created city parks in many cities around the country, he also conceived of entire systems of parks and interconnecting parkways which connected certain cities to green spaces. Two of the best examples of the scale on which Olmsted worked are one of the largest pieces of his work, the park system designed for Buffalo, New York, and the system he designed for Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Olmsted was a frequent collaborator with Henry Hobson Richardson for whom he devised the landscaping schemes for half a dozen projects, including Richardson's commission for the Buffalo State Asylum.

In 1883, Olmsted established what is considered to be the first full-time landscape architecture firm in Brookline, Massachusetts. He called the home and office compound Fairsted, which today is the recently-restored Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. From there, Olmsted designed Boston's Emerald Necklace, the campus of Stanford University and the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, among many other projects.


In 1895, senility forced Olmsted to retire. In 1898, he moved to Belmont, Massachusetts, and took up residence as a resident patient at McLean Hospital, which he had landscaped several years before. He remained there until his death in 1903, and was buried in the Old North Cemetery, Hartford, Connecticut.

After Olmsted's retirement and death, his sons John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. continued the work of their firm, doing business as the Olmsted Brothers. The firm lasted until 1950.

Academic campuses designed by Olmsted and sons

Between 1857 and 1950, Olmsted and his successors designed 355 school and college campuses. Some of the most famous are listed here.

  • American University Main Campus, Washington, DC
  • Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania (1895-1927)
  • Colgate University, Hamilton, New York
  • Cornell University, Ithaca, New York (1867-73)
  • Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C. (1866)
  • Groton School, Groton, Massachusetts
  • Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania
  • Harvard Business School, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1925-31)
  • Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania (1925-32)
  • Iowa State University Ames, Iowa (1906)
  • Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland (1903-19)
  • Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville, New Jersey (1883-1901)
  • Manhattanville College, Purchase, New York
  • Middlesex School, Concord, Massachusetts (1901)
  • Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan
  • Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts
  • Newton Country Day School, Newton, Massachusetts (1927)
  • Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts (1891-1965)
  • Pomfret School, Pomfret, Connecticut
  • Saint Joseph College (Connecticut)
  • Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts (1891-1909)
  • Stanford University, Palo Alto, California (1886-1914)
  • Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut (1872-94)
  • University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California (1865)
  • University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois (1901-10)
  • University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida (1925)
  • University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho (1908)
  • University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana (1929-32)
  • University of Rhode Island, Kingston, Rhode Island (1894-1903)
  • University of Washington, Seattle, Washington (1902-20)
  • Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York (1896-1932)
  • Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri (1865-99)
  • Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts
  • Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts (1902-12)
  • Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (1874-81)

Other notable Olmsted commissions

  • Arnold Arboretum, Boston, Massachusetts
  • Back Bay Fens, Arborway and Riverway, Boston, Massachusetts
  • Beardsley Park, Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1884
  • Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, landscaped in the 1880s
  • Biltmore Estate grounds, Asheville, North Carolina
  • Branch Brook Park, Newark, New Jersey, 1900 redesign
  • Buffalo, New York parks system
  • Buttonwood Park, New Bedford, Massachusetts
  • Cadwalader Park, Trenton, New Jersey
  • Central Park, Manhattan, New York City, 1853 (opened in 1856)[2]
  • Cherokee Park, Louisville, Kentucky
  • Civic Center Park, Denver, Colorado
  • Cushing Island, Maine
  • Downing Park, Newburgh, New York
  • Druid Hills, Georgia
  • Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York)
  • Elmwood Cemetery, Detroit, Michigan
  • Fairmount Park, Riverside, California
  • Forest Park, Queens, New York)
  • Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, New York)
  • Fort Tryon Park, New York City, New York)
  • Franklin Park, Boston, Massachusetts
  • Genesee Valley Park, Rochester, New York
  • Glen Magna Farms, Danvers, Massachusetts
  • Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn, New York)
  • Highland Park, Rochester, New York
  • Humboldt Park, Chicago, IL
Niagara Falls; Horseshoe Falls aerial view
  • The Institute of Living, Hartford, Connecticut, 1860s
  • Jackson Park, originally South Park, Chicago, Illinois
  • Kykuit, Gardens, Rockefeller family estate, Westchester, New York, from 1897
  • Lake Park, River Park (now Riverside Park) and West Park (now Washington Park), Milwaukee, Wisconsin[3]
  • Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, Portland, Oregon
  • Manor Park, Larchmont, New York
  • Maplewood Park, Rochester, New York
  • Montebello Park, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada
  • Morningside Park, Manhattan, New York City)
  • Mount Royal Park, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, inaugurated in 1876
  • Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California, dedicated in 1865
  • New York State Hospital for the Insane, Buffalo, New York
  • Nay Aug Park, Scranton, Pennsylvania
  • Niagara Reservation (now Niagara Falls State Park), Niagara Falls, New York, dedicated in 1885
  • North Park, Fall River, Massachusetts (1901)[4]
  • Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn, New York
  • Piedmont Park, Atlanta, Georgia
  • various parks in Portland, Oregon[5]
  • Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York City, finished 1868)
  • Public Pleasure Grounds, San Francisco, California
  • Riverside Drive, New York City, New York)
  • Riverside Park, Manhattan, New York City)
  • Ruggles Park, Fall River, Massachusetts
  • Seaside Park, Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1860s
  • various parks in Seattle, Washington
  • Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Washington, DC
  • South Park, (now Kennedy Park), Fall River, Massachusetts
  • Sudbrook Park, Baltimore, Maryland, 1889
  • The Rockery, Easton, Massachusetts
  • United States Capitol grounds, Washington D.C.
  • Utah State Capitol grounds masterplan, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Town of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, 1895
  • Vanderbilt Mausoleum, New York City, New York.)
  • Washington Park, Albany, NY
  • Westmount Park, Westmount, Quebec
  • World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1893
  • World's End, formerly the John Brewer Estate, Hingham, Massachusetts, 1889


A quotation from Olmsted's friend and colleague architect Daniel Burnham could well serve as his epitaph. Referring to Olmsted in March, 1893, Burnham said, "An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views" (quoted from Larson's The Devil in the White City).

Olmsted was dedicated to the creation of parks and other areas of recreation and saw to the completion of many such projects throughout his lifetime. He was a believer in the notion that aesthetic appeal could draw more residents into cities that were growing at alarming rates and provide them with sources of both recreation and beauty. Olmsted is considered a pioneer in American landscaping, beginning his work before the onset of the Civil War. He is memorialized by the many parks and other projects that he designed and created throughout his lifetime. He was an advocate of the City Beautiful movement, advancing the notion that cities where more than simple commercial hubs; instead they might offer comfort and leisure to their residents and thus appear much more appealing to those who lived there and those who visited.

In popular culture

In Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, Olmsted is featured as one of the most important figures participating in the design of the 1893 Chicago World's Colombian Exposition. In the book, his personality and actions are given significant coverage. In addition, his importance in designing the fair is highlighted (e.g., his part in picking the geographic site and his bureaucratic involvement in planning the fair).


  1. Lancaster Clay, Prospect Park Handbook (New York: Long Island University Press, 1972), 51-66.
  2. Norval White and Elliot Willensky, AIA Guide to New York City (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000).
  3. Dolores Knopfelmacher, Lake Park Friends, History of Lake Park. Retrieved November 2, 2007.
  4. Kathleen Durand, North Park to be Restored. Retrieved November 2, 2007.
  5. Kathy Mendelson, The Olmsteds in the Pacific Northwest. Retrieved November 2, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Beveridge, Charles E. and Paul Rocheleau. Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape. New York: Universe Publishing, 1998. ISBN 0789302284
  • Carley, Rachel. Guide to Biltmore Estates. Asheville, NC: The Biltmore Company, 1994.
  • Clay, Lancaster. Prospect Park Handbook. New York: Long Island University Press, 1972. ISBN 0913252069
  • Hall, Lee. Olmsted’s America: An "Unpractical" Man and His Vision of Civilization. Boston, MA: Bullfinch Press, 1995.
  • Olmsted, Frederick Law. A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States; With Remarks on Their Economy, 1856.
  • Rybczynski, Witold. A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and North America in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Scribner, 1999. ISBN 0684824639
  • Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond: the Peninsula Campaign. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1992. ISBN 0899197906
  • White, Norval and Elliot Willensky. AIA Guide to New York City. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000. ISBN 0812931076

External links

All links retrieved April 11, 2024.


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