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Frederick Law Olmsted Biography

Written by Martha Chaiklin


Frederick Law Olmsted 1822–1903

      Frederick Law Olmsted died almost 120 years ago but the imprint he left on the United States endures. Perhaps more than any other architect his ideas about urban landscapes and nature have impacted city living and preserved sites of natural beauty that symbolize America today. His writings shaped the moral character of our nation. 

      Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1822, his mother died when he was four. His father, a successful dry-goods merchant, sent him to board with various families out in the country from the age of seven and between that and family trips, he spent a great deal of time outdoors. He did not show any special promise as a youth as he bounced from trade to trade, but the sum of his experience gave him valuable skills. As a teenager he learned surveying techniques. Then, in 1840 he clerked in a dry-goods store in New York City.

Olmsted photo.tiff

      Three years later, he signed on to the Ronaldson as an apprentice seaman, sailing to China with a cargo of ginseng and dry goods. After returning the following year, his interest in land was renewed. He apprenticed under agriculturalist George Geddes (1809–1883) in 1846 to learn ‘scientific farming.’ The next year, he began farming his own plot in Connecticut. The following year, he moved to a larger, better farm on Staten Island and specialized in fruit trees.

      Incongruously, farming led to a career in journalism. This is where Olmsted would begin to make his mark. After a walking tour of England taken with his brother and a friend in 1850, he published an analysis of Birkenhead, the first publicly funded park, in The Horticulturalist in 1851. Encouraged by the positive reception, he followed with an article in the American Whig on the life and labor of the American seaman, and the next year with two volumes of Walks and Talks of an American Farmer. That year he was engaged as a traveling journalist by the New-York Daily Times to report on agricultural and economic conditions in the South. His reports were published as a series over the next two years. He then began a similar series for the Southwest, followed by a ten-part series called “Southerners at Home” for the New York Daily Tribune. These articles and subsequent publications were instrumental in rallying the abolitionist movement in New York. In 1857, he published his second book, A Journey Through Texas, partially based on his previous articles. 

      After a brief, unsuccessful publishing partnership. Frederick sought and was appointed as superintendent of Central Park in 1857. His first plan for the park was to improve drainage but he also submitted a design with formally-trained British architect Calvert Vaux (1824–1895) for the park design. Selected the following year, Central Park became the site most associated with Olmsted. At the same time, he continued writing, publishing A Journey in the Backcountry in 1860, and more importantly The Cotton Kingdom in 1861, abridged from his newspaper articles. This latter book was read by Malcolm X while in prison, and was highly influential in shaping his view of history and in his words, “opened my eyes to the horrors suffered when the slave was landed in the United States”. 

      When the Civil War broke, Olmsted took a leave of absence to run the precursor to the Red Cross, the U.S. Sanitary Commission. His efforts in transporting wounded troops are credited with reducing mortality among Union troops. Despite all these good works, financial pressures led him to resign from the Sanitary Commission and take a position in the Mariposa Estate in Bear Valley, California in 1863. Although his family enjoyed the area, for Olmsted, this position was tumultuous as his efforts to cut costs resulted in a strike by miners, and the Mariposa Estate continued to struggle with debt and mismanagement. Unable to find other opportunities in the West, Olmsted once again returned East. Nevertheless, he produced a formal report and plan for the preservation of Yosemite as a nature reserve. 

       When the Olmsteds returned to New York in 1865, Frederick began a dazzling array of park projects with partner Calvert Vaux in Brooklyn and Manhattan, Buffalo, Amherst, Massachusetts and Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. In 1872, he split amicably with Vaux. He continued to work steadily for the next decades. Notable among these projects are the landscaping of the National Capital (1874), the “Emerald Necklace” park system of Boston (1876), and Niagara Falls (1879), which he would later work on with Vaux, and the Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in North Carolina (1889).

     In 1890, Olmsted  began work on the project that would connect him to Milwaukee, namely designing the ground of the future 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. ‘The White City’ featured canals and a lagoon. Since he was in the area, the Milwaukee Parks Commission seized the opportunity to bring Olmsted to the city to design what would become Lake, Riverside, and Washington Parks.  

      Struggling with depression throughout his life and increasingly weakened from dementia, Olmsted became too ill to continue his leadership role, and in 1895 and stepped back from the firm, leaving much of the work to his sons. He continued to decline, and was institutionalized at the McLean Asylum in Waverly Massachusetts, which he himself had designed in 1872–1875, until his death on August 28, 1903. 

     Today, we continue to enjoy the beauty he left upon the United States.

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