A Breath of Fresh Air: How One Man Transformed America’s Public Spaces

Frederick Law Olmsted foresaw the need for the American working class to find respite from the hustle and bustle of what were then gritty, smoke-filled cities. Now, 200 years after his birth, he is celebrated for developing New York’s iconic Central Park and some 500 landscape design projects across the nation.

Central Park in New York City
Central Park (Shutterstock)

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This article will appear in our July/August 2022 print issue.

It was the summer of 1850, and Frederick Law Olmsted found himself transfixed.

Before him lay Birkenhead Park in Liverpool, England — 100 acres of greenery embellished with rock gardens, pools, and grassy knolls. Tidy lawns were busy with playful working-class children, gentleman cricketers and members of the gentry out for a bit of fresh air. Winding pathways led across graceful bridges to ornamental cottages, flowering shrubs lined carriage roads, and a flock of sheep grazed in a nearby meadow. Most remarkable of all, the idyllic park was open to the public.

“The poorest British peasant is as free to enjoy [the park] in all its parts as the British queen,” wrote Olmsted with astonishment in his 1852 chronicle Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England. “Five minutes of admiration … and I was ready to admit that in democratic America there was nothing to be thought of as comparable with this People’s Garden.”

It was an image that never escaped him, and one that would profoundly shape America’s pioneer of landscape design.

Frederick Law Olmsted came to appreciate the value of life lived outdoors from an early age. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822, Frederick and his younger brother John, having lost their mother as toddlers, couldn’t remember a time they hadn’t traveled with their father on “tours in search of the picturesque.” Across upstate New York and New England, through forests and alongside rocky seacoasts, the Olmsteds’ journeys proved a balm to their widowed father and left a lasting impression on Frederick.

Closeup of Frederick Law Olmsted from his portrait by John Singer Sargent
Detail from the Portrait of Olmsted by John Singer Sargent (Biltmore Co.)

As a young man, Frederick embarked on his own expeditions, “gathering experiences” in lieu of a formal college education. In addition to the British walking tour that exposed him to Birkenhead, Olmsted traveled incognito through America’s slaveholding South as a reporter for The New York Times, an experience that transformed him into an avowed abolitionist. He worked as a sailor on a year-long expedition with the China Trade. He ran a Staten Island farm. And he served as editor for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, a prestigious publisher of literature and political commentary.

It was his literary and political ties that landed Olmsted the job that would change his life, and ultimately remake America’s landscape. Appointed Superintendent of New York’s Central Park in 1857, Olmsted immediately embarked on a partnership with English architect Calvert Vaux to create the Greensward Plan, the prize-winning entry in a grand Central Park design competition.

Incorporating many of the elements Olmsted found so inspiring at Birkenhead Park, he and Vaux employed 3,000 laborers to move 50 million cubic yards of rock and soil, devise a complex drainage system, and create natural-looking hillocks, valleys, and ponds. Walking paths crisscrossed the grounds, passed over bridges, beneath archways, and through more than 500,000 transplanted trees, bushes, and other plantings. Transverse roads were set below grade to preserve the scenery.

1870 Map of Central Park
An 1870 map of Central Park created by Vaux and Olmsted (Geographicus Fine Antique Maps/Wikimedia Commons) (Click to Enlarge)

Above all, Central Park was designated a public park, one that opened its gates freely to the entire citizenry of New York. Here, in the very heart of the nation’s most popular urban center, more than 800 acres of prime real estate were shaped into a place of solace and recreation. And here, in pre-Civil War America, New York declared its intention that all races and classes would be welcome.

“You can’t overstate how immensely successful Central Park was,” says Anne Neal Petri, President and CEO of the National Association for Olmsted Parks, the Managing Partner of Olmsted 200, an organization commemorating in 2022 the bicentennial of Frederick Law Olmsted’s birth. “Central Park showed what cities could do for their residents. It became a model for other cities. Brooklyn, Boston, Rochester, Portland, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, they all wanted something like Central Park for their citizens. In fact, there grew to be a kind of one-upmanship between cities, all vying to create a park like New York had.”

Olmsted was only too happy to replicate the landscape practices he pioneered in New York. First in partnership with Calvert Vaux and later alongside his sons John Charles and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Olmsted teamed up with urban leaders across the country designing parks and other landscapes.

In Brooklyn, Olmsted designed Prospect Park, a project that he would later admit was one of his favorites. He designed Franklin Park in Boston, South Park (which would later become Jackson Park, Washington Park, and the Midway Plaisance) in Chicago, and Mount Royal Park in Montreal. Olmsted’s design ethos refashioned Belle Isle in Detroit, the Genesee River at Genesee Valley Park in Rochester, and downtown Buffalo at Delaware Park.

Flowers at Prospect Park
Prospect Park (Shutterstock)

Olmsted also experimented with park systems, veering away from the goal of single greenspaces that offered something for everyone and instead creating series of individual parks, each with a unique purpose. Access to those disparate parks was via another Olmsted innovation: the parkway. Scenic, tree-shaded carriage routes joined parks to one another in Boston, creating a green swathe called the Emerald Necklace. Similar park systems were built around Buffalo, Rochester, and Louisville.

Garden of the Phoenix in Chicago
Garden of the Phoenix, Chicago (Shutterstock)

With each design, Olmsted insisted on restorative and naturalistic landscapes that would improve the quality of life for all. “We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day’s work is done,” said Olmsted in 1870, “where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets, where they shall, in effect, find the city put far away from them.”

“It’s easy to forget that in the late 1800s, cities were not lovely places,” says Anne Neal Petri. In an era when horses were the primary means of transportation, hogs cleaned up household refuse in the streets, and modern sewage systems were nonexistent, urban centers reeked and were a breeding ground for disease.

“Olmsted appreciated cities as centers of intellectual ferment,” says Petri, “as places where people could come together for commerce and for the sharing of ideas. But he also knew cities’ dark side. He wanted parks to serve as a respite, particularly for those who didn’t have the means to escape to country homes in the Adirondacks for a bit of fresh air.”

Although he quickly became famous for designing urban greenspaces, Olmsted wasn’t content to limit himself to public parks. For nearly four decades, until his retirement in 1895, Olmsted was extraordinarily prolific, occasionally working at a frenetic pace in his drive to put ordinary American city dwellers in closer contact with nature.

Olmsted created America’s first suburbs, including Riverside, Illinois, and Druid Hills, Georgia, with the goal of fashioning restorative residential communities distinct from stressful business districts. He designed government properties, notably the U.S. Capitol grounds, to foster the wellbeing of the officials laboring inside. He landscaped residential campuses, such as those at Stanford University and the Buffalo State Hospital for the Insane, in the belief that fresh air and naturalistic scenery would guide residents toward healthy, well-ordered lives.

Additionally, Olmsted served stints in the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the precursor to the American Red Cross, and at California’s Mariposa Estate mining complex near Yosemite Valley, where he advocated for a national parks system.

“Frederick Law Olmsted was a very intense man,” says Petri. “He could be single-minded, even manic, when he was engaged in a project.” Colleagues complained that Olmsted sometimes went days without changing his clothes, working all hours of the night, and subsisting on coffee and pickles. Still, according to Petri, “He was affable, and there was uniform agreement that people thought Olmsted a remarkable man when it came to organization, planning, and vision.”

If Olmsted was adamant about ordinary Americans’ need for greenspaces, he was not opposed to improving the surroundings of the wealthy. In 1889, Olmsted took on his last large commission, George Vanderbilt’s proposed country estate in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina: Biltmore. “Olmsted went all in on the Biltmore project,” says Parker Andes, Director of Horticulture at Biltmore. Now in his mid-60s and known as the world’s preeminent landscape architect — a term that he and Vaux coined — Olmsted had nothing left to prove. But he had grand designs for the Vanderbilts’ estate, if only they followed his advice. “Where would there be anything to compare with it?” Olmsted asks rhetorically in an 1889 letter to George. “You would have people crossing the Atlantic to see it.”

Page after page of details laid out Olmsted’s plans for Biltmore’s 125,000 acres. He sketched out designs for lawns and rock walls, serpentine shapes best suited to the approach road and carriageways, and where to place espaliered fruit trees and roses in the “garden of ornament.” He inventoried the property’s existing trees and suggested where and how to manage livestock.

Olmsted also developed a management plan for the estate’s forests — a practice that would inspire the creation of the U.S. Forest Service — as well as an arboretum (it would never come to fruition). And that was to say nothing of the 175,000-square-foot French Renaissance structure the Vanderbilts planned to call home. Olmsted would play an integral role in that project, too, consulting New York architect Richard Morris Hunt on where to place living spaces with respect to the landscape, and how to alter the landscape for the benefit of the home’s occupants. “It was an all-out effort to maximize views,” says Andes, “to place that all-important scenery within view of those inside the house.”

The Biltmore Estate
Biltmore estate (Biltmore Co.)

Olmsted’s son, Frederick Jr., would complete the six-year Biltmore project in 1897. By then, dementia had forced Frederick Sr. into retirement, and in 1903, Olmsted was dead.

During his lifetime, Frederick Law Olmsted and his firm completed approximately 500 commissions, including more than 100 public parks, 200 private estates, and 50 residential communities. Olmsted’s landscaping firm operated for more than a century, completing some 6,000 design projects from coast to coast.

“I think it’s fair to think of Olmsted as the man who designed the American landscape,” says Petri. “And he designed the American ‘landscape’ in so many ways: as an important abolitionist, as a proponent of local and national parks, as a pioneer in scientific forestry and farming, as a firm believer in public health, as an egalitarian. His work and his values are timeless.”

In Louisville, Kentucky, Layla George, president and CEO of the city’s Olmsted Parks Conservancy, oversees a park system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1891. Comprising 17 parks linked by six parkways, the Louisville system includes 2,200 acres of greenspace and 15 miles of parkways. “Those parks and parkways were really integral to the formation of the city,” says George. “They formed a ring around Louisville, and they really defined the city’s boundaries in the early days.”

More than a century after Olmsted designed it, Louisville’s park system has never been altered in any significant way. That will change in the wake of a December 2021 announcement that 25 acres of land have been donated to the Conservancy for incorporation into Olmsted’s Cherokee Park. The addition, valued at $8 million, represents the largest gift the Conservancy has ever received. And while the announcement was greeted with enthusiastic cheers, the donation raises the question: How should park conservators honor Olmsted’s legacy 200 years after his birth on April 26, 2022?

“Olmsted never designed this piece of property,” says George of the 25-acre tract, “so we don’t have an original blueprint. Instead, we’ll follow his design intents.” Since Cherokee Park was originally intended as a hiking ground, trails are likely to find their way into the new plan. Considering modern park-goers’ interests, however, mountain bike trails may be part of the mix.

Following this philosophy into the future seems eminently doable to George and her partners in Louisville, allowing Olmsted’s overall vision to remain intact while adapting to modern visitors’ tastes. It also allows for the implementation of best practices as horticultural knowledge evolves.

“Landscapes grow and change over time, and our understanding of gardening changes,” says Biltmore’s Parker Andes. “Olmsted planted wisteria and Japanese honeysuckle, plants that we now know are invasive species. So, when we need to replace those, we’ll plant something else, but first we’ll ask, ‘What would meet Olmsted’s design intent?’ in terms of color, shape, size, and so on.”

Ultimately, the design principles pioneered by Frederick Law Olmsted have never seemed more relevant than they do today. “This idea, that outdoor spaces should offer healthy places for all to enjoy nature, to get out into the fresh air,” says George. “Has the need for public parks ever been more important than now, in 2022?”

Featured image: Central Park (Shutterstock)

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