While Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), who was born 200 years ago tomorrow, is probably best-known for his design of New York City’s Central Park, the Connecticut native and his landscape architectural firm actually created many scenes of beauty nationwide. Among them: parks and parkway systems, diverse recreation areas, college and institutional campuses, urban and suburban areas, planned communities, cemeteries and specialized landscapes for arboreta and expositions. In many respects a late bloomer, Olmsted was lucky to have an indulgent dad who was willing to finance him and his wide array of endeavors — including merchant, apprentice seaman, publisher, experimental farmer, author, public administrator and mine manager — until he found his life’s calling in 1865. That’s when, at 43 years old, he decided to fully devote himself to landscape architecture, nearly a decade after he co-designed Central Park.
“Frederick Law Olmsted was an innovator, author, public official, city planner and ‘Father of Landscape Architecture’ whose remarkable designs have literally transformed the American landscape,” says Anne Neal Petri, president and CEO of the National Association for Olmsted Parks, in an email interview. “While his physical landscapes are a remarkable legacy, the values behind them are equally important. Olmsted understood that the thoughtful design and planning of parks and public spaces have powerful social, environmental, economic and health impacts on the lives of people and communities.”
Once largely owned solely by the wealthy, public parks and civic spaces, Olmsted felt, were ‘democratic spaces’ that belonged to all Americans. “He believed that well-designed and maintained parks and landscapes have the power to unite and strengthen communities by providing a place of rest and rejuvenation for all, regardless of class, wealth or ethnicity,” says Petri. “Long before science confirmed his views, he understood the power of parks to invigorate public health by restoring people’s connection to nature.
“In many ways, he was a social reformer, realizing that the landscape could advance mental and physical health at a time when cities were dirty, crowded and unhealthy,” she adds. “He called parks the ‘lungs of the city’ because they were designed to be healthful places for city residents. Long before Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder,” Olmsted realized the importance of restoring people’s contact with nature, particularly as more and more people moved to cities. It is interesting that, in his day, doctors actually started prescribing walks in Central Park as therapy. This was exactly what the landscape architect ordered.”
In all, Olmsted designed 100 public parks and recreation grounds during the course of his career, with he and his successor firms creating more than 1,090 public parks and parkway systems over a period of 100 years. “Pretty amazing!” says Petri. Here is a look at eight famous parks he designed, plus one tiny one you might not know about.
1. Central Park, New York City
In 1857, a rising young architect from London named Calvert Vaux asked Olmsted to join him in preparing an entry for the Central Park competition. At the time, Olmsted was serving as the first superintendent of Central Park, a position that Vaux assumed would give Olmsted unique knowledge of the topography. “Olmsted had never submitted a design for a public park before, but their submission, known as the ‘Greensward Plan,’ was exceptional in its creativity and beauty,” says Petri. “Like so many of us do, Olmsted and Vaux worked up to the very last second to submit the design. The Frederick Law Olmsted Papers note that when they arrived to submit their plan, the offices were closed and they had to rouse the janitor and leave their submission with him.”
As it turns out: Their presentation was inspired. It included before and after views that allowed the commissioners to envision what the park would look like after Olmsted and Vaux had completed their work. “There were to be passages of open space, as well as more rugged terrain,” says Petri. “Anticipating that New York City would one day be a large metropolis, both Vaux and Olmsted planned to have heavy planting around the edges of the park to exclude the sights and sounds of the future city and to provide visitors a restorative and peaceful place.”
2. Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York
Designed by Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the mid-19th century, this 585-acre (237-hectare) greenspace first opened to the public in 1867 when it was only partially built, and was later designated a scenic landmark by the city Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1975. Today, Prospect Park — nicknamed “Brooklyn’s Backyard” — welcomes more than 10 million visitors each year to enjoy concerts at its band shell, a zoo, children’s playground equipment, pedal boats on the picturesque lake, and miles of roads for joggers, walkers and cyclists. It’s a great example of the landscape architect’s pastoral style, which can be seen in the marvelous 75-acre (30-hectare) Long Meadow. “It is open greenspace,” says Petri, “with small bodies of water and scattered trees and groves designed to be soothing to the eye and to be ‘restorative’ in spirit.”
3. Emerald Necklace, Boston
This winding network of green spaces stretching across the city of Boston consists of the Arnold Arboretum, Franklin Park and Back Bay Fens. The verdant expanses — each referred to as one of the necklace’s “jewels” — feels like its own distinctive and natural landscape. And that’s on purpose. Olmsted’s vision of city parks being sanctuaries from the clamor and grit of urban life is played out as you travel the 7-mile-long (11-kilometer-long) series of meadows, marshlands and roadways. When Olmsted successfully applied this design theory to New York’s Central Park, Boston took note and eventually hired him in the 1870s to build not just one large park, but an entire park system where Bostonians could “easily go when the day’s work is done, and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets.” By 1895, after about 20 years of work, Olmsted was finished. He went on to settle in Brookline in 1883, opening offices for the country’s first landscape architecture firm in his home, and continuing to work on the city’s chain of parks.
4. Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina
The 3-mile (5-kilometer) Approach Road stretching from Biltmore Village to Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, is no accident. It’s the result of a very intentional and complex design by Olmsted that showcases a perfect blend of forest and landscape with no hard edges to separate the two, and an intentional lack of long-range views. Explains Parker Andes, director of horticulture, on the Biltmore website, the Approach Road is the first important garden and landscape feature you see on the estate, giving visitors a true feel for Olmsted’s skill. He used native plant materials as the basis for his plan, adding 10,000 rhododendrons as a background element for the road. He also used mountain laurels, native and Japanese andromeda, and other plants. Evergreens in the foreground add richness, delicacy and mystery, while varieties of river cane and bamboo offer a hint of the exotic and tropical. He placed low-growing plants along the brook and edge of the drive. For variety of color in the winter, he used hardy olives, evergreens with an olive tint, junipers, red cedars and yews — all to create the complexity of light and shadow that define a picturesque style.
5. Mount Royal, Montreal, Canada
Begun in 1874, Montreal’s Mount Royal was the first park Olmsted designed after he and Vaux dissolved their partnership. In an effort to emphasize the area’s mountainous topography, Olmsted decided to make the mountain more mountainous through the use of exaggerated vegetation — such as shade trees at the bottom of the carriage path that climbs the mountain — so it would resemble a valley. The vegetation would get sparser as the visitor went higher and higher, completing the illusion of exaggerated height. Olmsted wanted to install a grand mountain pasture and lake, but the city decided on a reservoir instead, so Olmsted planned a grand promenade around it. Unfortunately, the city of Montreal suffered a depression in the mid-1870s, and many of Olmsted’s plans were abandoned. The carriage way was built, but it was done hastily and without regard to the original plan. None of the vegetation choices were followed and the reservoir was never built.
6. The Grounds of the U.S. Capitol and White House
“For nearly 20 years, Olmsted oversaw the development of the Capitol Grounds,” says Petri. “In 1874, Congress commissioned Olmsted to plan and oversee landscape improvements. It was Olmsted who gave the Capitol Grounds dignified formality to heighten the Capitol’s architectural beauty.” Olmsted’s original design called for a ground plan that would unite the White House, Capitol and other government agencies to symbolize the union of the nation. He scaled back his grand plans, however, being permitted to develop only the 50 acres (20 hectares) then comprising the Capitol grounds.
Unable to create a park amid the Capitol’s surroundings — due to 21 streets touching the grounds, with 46 entrances for both pedestrians and cars — he instead designed a picturesque scene that emphasized the Capitol’s beauty in places where the entire building could be seen. Olmsted was paid only $1,500 for his original design of the grounds. He also was allotted money for travel expenses, salaries for his hired hands and a sizable $200,000 budget for improvements to the Capitol grounds. During his 18 years as the landscape architect of the Capitol, Olmsted worked to create a scene where the architectural triumph of the Capitol would be emphasized. While the natural beauty of the grounds would offer comfort and solace to visitors and city-goers, they would not supersede the Capitol’s views and sight-lines.
7. Washington Park, Chicago
This potential National Historic Landmark is ranked as one of Olmsted’s great “country parks.” Part of Chicago’s South Park System, it’s the only Midwestern park system designed by Olmsted and his renowned colleague Calvert Vaux. Olmsted began advocating for a park and boulevard system in Chicago while visiting the city during the Civil War. In February 1869, the Illinois State Legislature passed three bills that would create a system of parks and boulevards for Chicago. This legislation ultimately led to the formation of the South Park Commission and the engagement of Olmsted and Vaux. The newly appointed board of commissioners identified 1,055 acres (427 hectares) of land (larger than either Central or Prospect Park’s) 6 miles (10 kilometers) south of downtown for a park, along with boulevards that would connect the new parklands with downtown and the West Park System.
Originally called South Park, the property was composed of eastern and western divisions: Jackson Park, a 593-acre (240-hectare) lakefront tract; Washington Park, a 372-acre (150-hectare) inland rectangle of prairie lands; and the Midway Plaisance, a 90-acre (36-hectare) five-block linear boulevard connecting the two. The commissioners hired Olmsted and Vaux to create the original plan for South Park, and they published their ambitious plan in 1871, just months before Chicago’s Great Fire. The pastoral park design included the construction of a greensward, great meadow and rolling hills. Washington Park was realized according to Olmsted’s design and, by the late 1880s, about two-thirds of the park was built out under the construction supervision of another celebrated landscape architect, H.W.S. Cleveland.
8. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago
Olmsted was responsible for the landscape design for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. “Many people are familiar with the Exposition thanks to the bestselling book by Erik Larsen, “The Devil in the White City,” says Petri. “It was called ‘White City’ because the fair consisted of a vast array of white buildings housing Exposition exhibitions. Faced with all of these buildings, Olmsted employed the landscape to soften the experience and to connect city residents with the rejuvenating and healthful benefits of nature.” At the closing of the exposition, in 1895, Olmsted and his son, John Charles, returned to revise and perfect the landscape — now without the intrusion of the exposition buildings. In their final design, they were explicit that the Science and Industry Building was to be the highest and only structure on the lakeshore so that building would not overpower the landscape. They sought to ensure that Jackson Park would provide an exceptional amenity and pristine experience of nature for future generations.
9. And Now for One You Might Not Have Heard About: Olmsted Linear Park, Atlanta, Georgia
In 1890, Atlanta businessman Joel Hurt engaged Olmsted to come up with a plan to develop the area now known as Druid Hills. The Olmsted firm went on to submit a preliminary plan to Hurt in 1893 that first laid out the six-segment Linear Park. The firm completed the final plan in 1905, two years after the death of Olmsted, and remained involved with the work until 1908, when the property was acquired by the Druid Hills Corp. The area was then developed and the park completed under the leadership of Coca-Cola magnate Asa G. Candler, becoming the standard by which other Atlanta developments would be measured. In the 1980s, the Georgia Department of Transportation started work on a four-lane highway that would have cut through Olmsted Linear Park. Concerned citizens joined together to defeat the road, saving historic in-town neighborhoods and the park.
Originally Published: Aug 27, 2020