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Frederick Law Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted

[ohm-stid, -sted]
Olmsted, Frederick Law, 1822-1903, American landscape architect and writer, b. Hartford, Conn. Although his Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England had appeared in 1852, Olmsted first attained fame for journalistic accounts of his travels in the American South during the early 1850s. In these works, published in book form as A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856), A Journey through Texas (1857), A Journey in the Back Country (1860), and Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom (1861), he painted vivid pictures of the evils of slaveholding society. During the Civil War he served as secretary to the U.S. Sanitary Commission and pioneered various concepts of public health.

When Central Park in New York City was projected (1856), Olmsted and Calvert Vaux prepared the plan that was accepted two years later, and Olmsted superintended its execution. The well-planned public park was a new departure, which Olmsted developed in many other parks and cities, e.g., Prospect Park, Brooklyn, N.Y.; South Park, Chicago; Mt. Royal Park, Montreal; park systems in Buffalo and Boston; and the grounds of the Capitol, Washington, D.C. One of his most spectacular achievements was the laying out of the grounds for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which he afterward redesigned as Jackson Park. Olmsted also took an interest in the creation of college campuses, e.g., Berkeley (1864), and state and national parks. In addition, he designed parkways and was involved in city planning.

His son, Frederick Law Olmsted, 1870-1957, b. Staten Island, N.Y., grad. Harvard, 1894, was also a landscape architect and city planner. He studied with his father and began practice in 1895. He taught (1900-1914) Harvard's first course in landscape architecture. As a city planner he served on many committees and government boards. In 1901 he was influential in the plan for beautifying Washington, D.C.

See F. L. Olmsted's Forty Years of Landscape Architecture: Central Park, ed. by F. L. Olmsted, Jr., and T. Kimball (1928, repr. 1973); The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, ed. by C. C. McLaughlin and C. E. Beveridge (5 vol., 1977-97); biographies of the elder Olmsted by L. W. Roper (1974) and W. Rybczynski (1999); studies by J. G. Fabos et al. (1968), E. Barlow (1972), and C. E. Beveridge and P. Rocheleau (1995).

Frederick Law Olmsted (April 25, 1822August 28, 1903) was an American landscape designer and father of American landscape architecture, 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, the Belle Isle Park, in Detroit, Michigan, the Grand Necklace of Parks including Washington Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Cherokee Park (and the entire parks and parkway system) in Louisville, Kentucky, the Jackson Park, the Washington Park, the Midway Plaisance in Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition, the landscape surrounding the United States Capitol building, George Washington Vanderbilt II's Biltmore Estate in Asheville, and Montebello Park in St. Catharines, Ontario.

Biography

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 stepmother, 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, as a graduate of the Roxbury Latin School in Boston, MA, 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 the south shore of Staten Island that his father helped him to acquire in January 1899. This farm, originally named the Akerly Homestead, was renamed Tosomock Farm by Olmsted, and was subsequently 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 cofounded 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, 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

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, Olmsted 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.

For a list of Olmsted designed parks in Buffalo, New York, please see Buffalo, New York parks system.

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 campuses of Stanford University and the University of Chicago, as well as the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago among many other projects.

Death and legacy

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, whose grounds he had designed 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.

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)

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.

Other notable Olmsted commissions

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Olmsted 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).

Notes

References

  • Beveridge, Charles E; Paul Rocheleau (1998). Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape. New York, New York: Universe Publishing. ISBN 0-7893-0228-4.
  • (2003). Guide to Biltmore Estates. Asheville, North Carolina: The Biltmore Company.
  • Hall, Lee (1995). Olmsted’s America: An "Unpractical" Man and His Vision of Civilization. Boston, MA: Bullfinch Press.
  • Olmsted, Frederick Law (1856). A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States; With Remarks on Their Economy.
  • Rybczynski, Witold (1999). A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and North America in the Nineteenth Century. New York, New York: Scribner. ISBN 0-684-82463-9.
  • Sears, Stephen W., To the Gates of Richmond: the Peninsula Campaign (1992) Ticknor and Fields, New York, NY ISBN 0-89919-790-6

See also

External links

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