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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Frederick Law Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted,  1895,
John Singer Sargent
In pondering the impact of individuals from the 20th century while gaping in awe at the potential impact we might have on this century, it might be beneficial to look back at the impact one 19th century artist had upon the lives of millions of Americans living in various places from "sea to shining sea" in this country today. He was not a general, though he did combat with a few of them during the Civil War. He was not a politician though he combated a few of them as well. He was not a painter, sculptor, or architect in any traditional sense of the word, though his art employed all these gifts to some degree. In fact, when he began, his profession was in no way that of an artist but that of a mere tradesman. His early years found him trying to farm (with only meager success), working as a bookkeeper, a seaman, a surveyor, publisher, writer of travel books, and a newspaper reporter covering social issues. His education was spotty and haphazard at best, a little Yale, a little Harvard, nothing even coming close to a college degree, yet the sum total of all of his incidental lifetime experiences seemed purposely aimed at his first, great work of art, when, at the age of 35, he began the creation of New York City's Central Park. His name was Frederick Law Olmsted.

Olmsted's New York City Central Park, taming nature without desecrating it.
As park superintendent, he earned $1,500 a year to start. Later his salary rose to $2,000 plus an additional $2,500 he and his partner, Calvert Vaux, were awarded for the design of the park. It was a daunting task lined with political, economic, social, and design pitfalls at every turn. His work crews were cantankerous Irish immigrants whom he couldn't fire for political reasons. Instead, he molded them into a proud group of horticulturists. He diplomatically appeased the political ward bosses controlling the purse strings of the city, deftly dealt with the rich, afraid the park would become a decrepit playground for the idle poor, and just as easily mitigated the fears of social do-gooders afraid the place would become a playground for only the idle rich. Physically, the two-and-a-half-mile stretch of barren, rocky, scrub land was so unattractive even squatters seldom stayed very long. The rank ugliness of existing slaughterhouses and their malodorant wastes were considered an improvement.  The land ranged from fetid swamps to barren rock. Olmsted's plan ranged from flowing, sloping sheep meadows to ponds, a zoo, a reservoir, woodland trails, costly tunnels allowing for cross-town traffic, and everywhere, trees, plants, and flowers, forever making of the place an oasis of tranquil civility amid the brutality on 19th century urban diversity.

Olmsted's U.S. Sanitary Commission at Gettysburg
The Civil War brought work on the park to a temporary halt and took Olmsted to Washington where he found himself head of the new United States Sanitary Commission (later to become the Red Cross). If he'd never drawn a line with a T-square or planted a tree in his life, his wartime efforts would still make him a great American. Horrified at the conditions of army life both before and after great battles, Olmsted's efforts in forging humane conditions in the trenches and organizing relief for the wounded, doubtlessly saved thousands of union lives. His butting heads with trenchant Union medical corps was so successful that before the end of the war, a military establishment that had initially detested his interference eventually came to depend upon it for the very survival of the Union Army.
Olmsted's 1875 U.S. Capitol grounds
plans, were implemented in concept
if not details until the automobile made
 its impact felt.

After the war, his landscape design firm, Olmsted & Vaux, not only finished Central Park, but an even more challenging one across the East River, Prospect Park in Brooklyn. In time, Olmsted ended up planning whole communities around his parks, including Riverside, Illinois, and the campuses of new universities on both coasts. Whole park systems he designed grew up in Boston and Buffalo. As his reputation grew, there came high-profile jobs such as the Capitol grounds in Washington, and the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago, later to become Jackson Park. He seemed to be everywhere at once. However, by 1898, his amazing mind proved even more frail than his slender body. He spent the last five years of his life in an asylum near Boston, the grounds of which he'd laid out some twenty-five years earlier, lamenting that those in charge had not fully followed his plans.

Riverside, Illinois, 1869, more than parks, and entire community.


  1. His firm designed Laurelhurst Park, my personal running track here in Portland. Thanks, Fred Law!

    1. Thanks for your interest. Olmsted also designed the grounds of the old Athens (Ohio) Mental Health Center near Ohio University where I finagled my degrees. Sadly, much of his work there was destroyed when they decided to reroute the Hocking River through the middle of his park.