University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

News Article

Horticulturists of Note-- Frederick Law Olmsted

By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 

Many of our landscape ideas, and many of our designed public landscapes, came about through the profession of landscape architecture. Frederick Law Olmsted, who is considered the "father of landscape architecture," defined this profession as such.

Olmsted designed some of the most famous landscapes in this country. Central Park in New York City, America's first great urban park, was his first and perhaps most recognized project. Hired in 1857 as superintendent of Central Park, Olmsted employed 900 men to clear 770 acres of waste ground.

The design he implemented at Central Park, done in collaboration with Calvert Vaux, has many elements of English landscape design. Olmsted formulated these elements during visits in 1850 to Paxton's Birkenhead Park in Liverpool, England, among other gardens. He was also influenced by the writers Uvedale Price and William Gilpin. Thus, his parks, such as Central Park, often have long, sweeping vistas and scenery.

This and other parks he later developed also were influenced by his view of society. As a writer on social issues, he believed parks should give the poor "an education to refinement and taste and the mental and moral capital of gentlemen." His urban parks, including Central Park, integrated the city and landscape by taking the radical step of routing traffic through the park, not away from it. This was done without disruption of the landscape by physically separating roads by either sinking them out of site, or hiding them behind landforms.

In addition, his parks were influenced by his views on conservation. Rocks and outcroppings were left in Central Park to remind visitors of the original landscape and the city's origin in the wilderness. Olmsted's later activities in conservation included a management plan for the Yosemite Wilderness reservation, which was established in 1864.

And it's his son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. who helped set up the National Park Service in 1916. Its mission is "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

After the Civil War, Olmsted created what many consider his finest individual achievement--Prospect Park in Brooklyn. His most ambitious plan, however, was for the "Emerald Necklace" series of parks in Boston. This involved 2,000 acres for five large parks, interconnecting riverfront, parkways, playgrounds, and the city. Once again, Olmstead was integrating the city with the parks.

His other famous parks include the Belle Isle Park in Detroit, Mount Royal Park in Montreal, and Roger Williams Park in Providence. He also planned city parks for Seattle, Baltimore, Atlanta, Buffalo, Rochester, and Louisville, among other cities.

As a city planner, Olmsted designed suburban developments such as Riverside in Illinois and Parkside in Buffalo. He designed university campuses such as Berkeley and Stanford. And he designed landscapes for public buildings such as the Biltmore estate in North Carolina, The White House, and the United States Capitol.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822, Olmsted trained as a civil engineer, then served as a clerk and an apprentice seaman. He took up farming in Connecticut and, later on, Staten Island. From these occupations he became a journalist for the New York Daily Times and traveled the country. Moving from this into his own publishing business, he soon went bankrupt, which is when he went to work at Central Park. He continued in this profession--landscape architecture--the rest of his life.

Olmsted's office in Brookline, Massachusetts, remains much as it did in his day. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963, and a National Park in 1979, the office contains close to one million original documents and plans of nearly 5,000 projects, making it one of the most researched collections in the National Park System.

For directions, and more information on visiting this National Park of historical interest to horticulturists, call 617-566-1689 or visit their Website at: http://www.nps.gov/frla/.


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