The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Frederick Law Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted stamp

Frederick Law Olmsted (April 26, 1822August 28, 1903) was a United States landscape architect, famous for designing many well known urban parks, including Central Park in New York, New York, the country's oldest coordinated system of public parks and parkways in Buffalo, New York, Mount Royal Park in Montreal, the Metropolitan Parks System in Boston, Massachusetts, Cherokee Park (and the entire parks and parkway system) in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Jackson Park, Washington Park and Midway Plaisance in Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut to a wealthy dry-goods merchant and the daughter of a farmer Olmsted was fascinated with nature from his youth. He studied agricultural science and engineering at Yale. After sailing to China in 1843 for a year, he worked on his farm in Connecticut, then moved to New York City and ran a 130-acre (0.5 km²) experimental scientific farm on Staten Island that his father acquired for him in January 1848 named "The Woods of Arden" previously owned by Erastus Wiman , Olmsted renamed it Tosomock Farm .

Olmsted also had a significant career in journalism. In 1850 he traveled to Europe to visit public gardens, 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, besides being morally odious, also 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.

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 English-born architect Calvert Vaux, whom he had personally brought back from England as his architect-collaborator. When Downing died a hero's death in steamboat explosion on the Hudson River in July 1852, in his honor Olmsted and Vaux entered the Central Park design competition together—and won. Olmsted began executing the plan almost immediately on his return from the South. Olmsted and Vaux continued their informal partnership to design Prospect Park in Brooklyn from 1866 to 1868, 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 committment to egalitarian ideals. Influenced by Downing and by this own observations regarding social class in England, China and the American South, Olmsted believed that the common green space must be equally accessible to all citizens at all times. This principle is so now fundamental to the idea of a "public park" that it might seem self-evident, but it was not self-evident then. Olmsted's tenure as park commissioner was one long struggle to preserve that idea.

After completing Central Park, Olmsted served 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 Civil War. After the war he managed the Mariposa mining estate in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. In 1865 Vaux and Olmsted formed Olmsted, Vaux and Company. When Olmsted returned to New York, he and Vaux designed Prospect Park, Chicago's Riverside subdivision, Buffalo, New York's park system, 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. An example of the scale on which Olmstead worked is one of the largest pieces of his work, the park system designed for Buffalo, New York:

  • Parks:
    • The Park (now Delaware Park )
    • The Front (now Front Park )
    • The Parade (AKA Humboldt Park , now Martin Luther King, Jr. Park )
  • Park approaches:
    • Parkways:
      • The Avenue (now Richmond Avenue )
      • Bidwell Parkway
      • Chapin Parkway
      • Fillmore Avenue
      • Humboldt Parkway
      • Lincoln Parkway
      • Porter Avenue
    • Circles:
      • Agassiz Place (now Agassiz Circle)
      • Bidwell Place (now Colonial Circle)
      • The Circle (now Symphony Circle)
      • Chapin Place (now Gates Circle)
      • Ferry Circle
      • Soldier's Place (now Soldier's Circle)

Olmsted was a frequent collaborator with Henry Hobson Richardson for whom he devised the landscaping schemes for half a dozen projects, including H.H. 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 of his projects. In 1895, senility forced him to retire. He moved to Belmont, Massachusetts and took up residence at McLean Hospital, which he had landscaped several years before. After Olmsted's 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)

Other commissions of Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted, oil painting by , , Biltmore Estates,
Frederick Law Olmsted, oil painting by John Singer Sargent, 1895, Biltmore Estates, Asheville, North Carolina


  • Beveridge, Charles E, and Paul Rocheleau, Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape, Universe Publishing, NY, NY 1998
  • Guide to Biltmore Estates, The Biltmore Company, Asheville North Carolina 2003
  • Hall, Lee, Olmsted’s America: An "Unpractical" Man and His Vision of Civilization, A Bullfinch Press Book, Boston, MA 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

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Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04