Fredrick Law Olmsted

Most of you reading this know that yesterday, April 26, was Fredrick Law Olmsted’s birthday. But how much do you know about the life and history of this great man?

Celebrated as the father of American landscape architecture, Olmsted was instrumental in shaping the layout of many cities across the country during the second half of the 19th century.

He was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822 and moved to New York when he was 18 to try his hand at scientific farming. When his career as a farmer didn’t work out, he and his brother set out to tour Europe.

Before returning to the United States, he spent time as a merchant seaman. Upon his return, he spent time as a journalist and published several books.

Eventually, while working as a columnist for the New Yorker, Olmsted was appointed Superintendent of Central Park in 1857. Shortly thereafter, he met Calvert Vaux, an English-born architect and landscape designer, who had been working on a design for the park with Andrew Jackson Downing.

Downing had passed away before the design was finished, and Vaux asked Olmsted to collaborate on completing the design. A design competition was held and their design, entitled Greensward, was eventually chosen as the winner.

In 1859, Olmsted married the widow of his brother, John, and adopted her children. In 1861, he obtained a leave of absence from his responsibilities at Central Park to serve as the Executive Secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission, a predecessor to the modern day Red Cross.

After a failed attempt at managing a gold mining operation in San Francisco in 1863, Olmsted returned to New York and his partner, Vaux.

Olmsted and Vaux then collaborated on many other designs, including New York’s Prospect Park (1865-1873); Chicago’s Riverside subdivision; Buffalo, New York’s park system (1868-1876); and the Niagara Reservation at Niagara Falls.

In 1883, Olmsted left New York City and relocated his practice to Brookline, Massachusetts. It was there that he started work on designing the park system for the City of Boston before spending much of his time on the Emerald Necklace, a linkage of parks along the Charles River.

This and his design for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago were among the last of Olmsted’s projects.

In 1895, due to failing health, Olmsted retired and was admitted to the McLean Hospital (whose grounds he had designed earlier in his career) in Waverly, Massachusetts, after being diagnosed with senility. He passed away on August 28, 1903.

Olmsted’s sons took over the firm after his death and actually designed many projects that are incorrectly attributed to their father. The firm was active until 1980, and Olmsted’s home and studio were purchased by the National Park Service and opened to the public as a National Historic Site and museum.

I’ve never had the opportunity to visit the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. However, I will be sure to add it to my “must visit” list if I ever find myself in the Boston area again.

In honor of Olmsted’s birthday this year, our state ASLA chapter is working with the local university landscape architecture programs to host a birthday party.

Has your chapter or firm planned any activities to honor Olmsted or celebrate National Landscape Architecture Month? If so, I’d love to hear about them. Feel free to leave a comment below, send me a tweet, or even an email. I look forward to hearing from you.

Have a great weekend!

Boyd Coleman is a landscape architect in Phoenix, Arizona. He can be reached on twitter at @CDGLA or email: