Frederick Law Olmsted | A Passion for Parks, National GeographicBy Melissa Farlow
Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) was the founder of American landscape architecture and most appreciated as the park designer who created the much-loved refuges in our cities.
Best known for his work in Central Park, he collaborated with Calvert Vaux in New York on this first project. Olmsted organized 4,000 workers to move boulders to create meadows and a waterfall, along with knolls, lakes and forested areas. He planted more than 4 millions trees to contrast the stone archways, formal terrace, and steps. Today the city towers over the park, but when Olmsted planned it in the mid-1800s, most New Yorkers lived below 38th street.
As a designer, Olmsted drew on the influence of natural scenery. Much of his inspiration from nature traces back to a stint managing California gold mines when he became enthralled with Yosemite Valley and its “placid pools that reflect the wondrous heights.” Advocating for its protection, he laid the groundwork for the National Park System.
Olmsted grew up at a time when city populations were growing rapidly, and waterfronts and open spaces were gobbled up for commerce and industry. Cemeteries were among the few rural settings accessible to city dwellers. Olmsted believed in the restorative effects of natural scenery to counteract what he saw as the debilitating effects of the modern city.
He separated his “pleasure grounds” with thick screening of plants along the borders. He believed the experience would serve to strengthen society by providing a place where all classes could mingle in contemplation and enjoyment of pastoral experiences.
Olmsted’s legacy includes parks in Brooklyn, Louisville, Buffalo, Chicago, Montreal and Rochester, as well as the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and Niagara Falls. He designed the Stanford University campus as well as the first suburban residential plan located in Chicago where he included open space for parks and parkways.
Biltmore, the private estate planned for George Vanderbilt in Asheville, North Carolina, dominated the last seven years of Olmsted’s life. The grand opus includes a six-acre lake created to reflect the majestic house that he sited on a west-facing hillside surrounded by gardens and woodlands.
Olmsted’s last home was Fairsted in suburban Boston, where he worked and established design offices. Operated today by the National Parks Service in Brookline, the home and workspace houses original plans rolled in papers and stacked haphazardly as they were found in the basement.
Olmsted was a perfectionist, temperamental, and easy to anger when his designs were altered or not followed to the letter. When he developed senility, Olmsted became a patient in McLean Hospital, the grounds of which he had designed years earlier. He spent his last days looking out onto an imperfect landscape that differed from his plans.