Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) is best known for designing Central Park in New York, the US Capitol grounds in Washington, and the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He opened the first landscape architecture firm in the US.
But on closer examination, he was much more than just a leading landscape architect. He worked in journalism, sanitation, and health. In this post, we will explore Olmsted as an environmentalist, long before anyone started to use the word.
Olmsted’s formative years
Olmsted’s father saw to it that the family spent plenty of time in the countryside, enjoying the scenery. He also owned an extensive collection of landscape prints. It included works by leading English landscape theorists such as Humphry Repton. Where they sought to enhance natural beauty for the benefit of owners of private estates, Olmsted grew up to apply the same principles for the benefit of the general public.
The elder Olmsted helped him purchase some land on Staten Island. It had been a wheat farm for more than 150 years and boasted a stone farmhouse more than 100 years old. It had 100 acres of farmland and 25 acres of woods.
Olmsted called the farm Tosomock and owned it from 1847 to 1866. There, he learned the principles of scientific farming, which laid the foundation for his work as environmentalist. He grew fruits and vegetables and cultivated thousands of trees. As Staten Island became more urban, Olmsted founded a society for agricultural improvement there.
He also developed his skills as a designer to beautify the land near his house. It was a Tosomock that he and Calvert Vaux devised the winning plan for designing Central Park as well as at least three other major park projects.
If he ever had plans to become a gentleman farmer, he failed financially, but what he accomplished there became important experience for his later achievements Could he have failed as a farmer because he was so often absent?
Young Olmsted, world traveler
As a young man, Olmsted held a wide variety of jobs, including dry goods clerk and seaman. He returned from a year on a merchant ship to China malnourished and exhausted. Long walks in the woods helped his recovery.
He later encountered a book by Swiss philosopher Johann Georg Zimmermann, which verified that rural pursuits and relaxing scenery could heal melancholy and serve as an antidote to emotional problems caused by urban living. Olmsted put these ideas to work in his landscaping career.
He traveled extensively, not only as a seaman but as a journalist. His writings on interviews with Southern plantation owners and their slaves helped expose the evils of slavery and turn the public against it. One of his books based on these articles published in England helped turn public opinion there in favor of the Union.
In 1850, Olmsted took a walking tour of the British Isles. He became familiar with private parks on the estates of the landed aristocracy. Just outside Liverpool, however, he visited a newly opened public park called Birkenhead Park. He realized that democratic America had no similar public amenity. He wrote his first book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England (1852), about the social reform ideas his walking tour inspired.
As Olmsted traveled through the US, he recognized that some of the country’s most unique natural wonders were in danger of ruin from careless development. Without some intervention in the public interest, the growth of cities would threaten the natural world. With the heart of an environmentalist, Olmsted feared “woods which will soon be felled, streams which will be turned into sewers, meadows that will be built on, landscapes that may be shut off . . .” Therefore, he joined the efforts to preserve such important landmarks as Yosemite and Niagara Falls.
Olmsted’s landscape architecture career
As a landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted first burst on the scene in 1858 when, in partnership with Calvert Vaux, an English-born architect and landscape designer, he designed New York’s Central Park.
Civic leaders in New York City proposed creating a large park in Manhattan as early as the 1840s. The government approved a 778-acre park in 1853. They announced a design competition for it in 1857, and the plan submitted by Olmsted and Vaux won. It took hard work to overcome various schemes to fill the park with commercial activities. They insisted that the park had to include plenty of green space. Central Park, opened in 1858, became America’s first landscaped public park.
It was the first of many projects in the US and Canada where he designed parks and other impressive grounds that took advantage of the area’s best natural features.
Other parks and the park system
Olmsted’s design for Montreal’s Mount Royal Park transformed a modest hill into a semblance of alpine peaks by exposing rocky crags and planting the kinds of trees found in mountainous areas.
His design for the World’s Columbian Exposition took advantage of Lake Michigan. It served as a backdrop, but also much more. Olmsted created some Venice-style canals to bring the lake to the fairgrounds.
In 1865, Vaux and Olmsted collaborated on Prospect Park in Brooklyn, then the third-largest city in the country. It features not only walkways, a meadow, and a lake, but also wilder features, such as a pump-powered water flowing through a gully hewn from rock. Olmsted considered its design even more successful than Central Park.
The two invented the park system for Buffalo, New York, in 1868. They designed three parks and connected them with broad, tree-lined avenues they called parkways, so that people could get from one park to another without leaving green spaces.
The park system Olmsted designed for Boston comprises multiple green spaces, all varied in design and terrain and soon dubbed the Emerald Necklace.
Besides parks and park systems, Olmsted designed private estates (for example, Biltmore near Asheville, North Carolina, for George Vanderbilt) and college campuses (for example, Wellesley College and Stanford University), the grounds of the US capitol, and more.
Olmsted’s career has important contributions to society in a variety of fields. In all of it, he was a socially conscious reformer dedicated to the public good.
He became a scientific farmer because the largely agricultural nation needed to learn cutting-edge practices. He designed parks because people living overcrowded cites needed opportunities for recreation. And he insisted that civic engagement and public health depended on having public spaces that belong to all Americans.
The Back Bay Fens
Olmsted’s approach to designing parks qualifies him as a pioneering environmentalist. His work on Boston’s Emerald Necklace goes beyond his other environmental achievements. It combined existing parks with some new ones, including the already existing but very new Arnold Arboretum. He connected all seven parks with parkways to make a single system almost seven miles long.
For one of them, the Back Bay Fens, he designed and executed the nation’s first wetlands reclamation. The city had purchased an inexpensive tract of land for a public recreation ground. It had become known as Back Bay Park. The land had little market value because drainage and sewerage from much of Boston and its suburbs passed through it to the Charles River.
The city assumed that the water could somehow be diverted elsewhere. Olmsted explained why that plan was unworkable. Water level in the Charles River varied according to high and low tide. At high tide, the river level prevented outflow from the drainage basin. The water in the basin then became ugly to look at, malodorous, and a breeding ground for disease.
Olmsted’s official report
In an official report, Olmsted noted that he had designed
a basin with intercepting sewers, inlets and outlets, and a series of automatic gates so disposed that, under ordinary circumstances, the surface of the water within the basin will be at a level about midway between extreme high water and mean low water of the Charles river [sic], with a fluctuation not exceeding one foot, while that of the river may be sixteen feet. The water in the basin will then have the general aspect of a salt creek, passing with a meandering course, for the most part, through or along the border of a sea-side meadow, but will not be subject to fall with the tide, so far as to exhibit the disagreeable aspect which in natural tide-basins, twice a day, appears in the form of slimy mud-banks. The water, when the work is complete, will ordinarily be clean and wholesome, and its immediate banks verdant.
The basin, therefore, should not be open to the public except at its rim. This plan for mitigating the area was incompatible with the ordinary definition of a park. He regretted that a park had been announced, since recreation could only be incidental to his ultimate plans for making the area both safe and attractive. Nevertheless, the plans certainly did include developing various recreation areas:
Passage across it must be by causeways and bridges. Its boundaries, which will be over two miles in length, may, however, be followed by wheelways, bridle roads and walks; and these, together with any needed passages across the basin, will command views over it and may be shaded by trees.
He would make the area beautiful, but the kinds of plants normally associated with parks would not grow in the basin. Instead, he would plant species that could live in brackish water.
Olmsted’s original conception destroyed
In 1910, a dam was built on the Charles River. No longer was the basin flushed with seawater by the tides. Instead, it became a freshwater lagoon. Nothing Olmsted planted there could survive the change.
Fortunately, Arthur Shurcliff, an Olmsted protégé, redesigned the Fens with plants that could thrive in freshwater. Back Bay Fens remains a popular jewel in the Emerald Necklace to this day.
Olmsted’s legacy and threats
Like many other people who had great success and respect in the public eye, Olmsted had a difficult personal life. He had a strained relationship with his wife. Only two of their children survived infancy. Other people close to him also died untimely deaths. A near-fatal carriage accident left him with some permanent injuries. He also had to deal with depression and other emotional ailments.
Poor health, both physical and mental, forced him to retire in 1895. He spent the last five years of his life as a resident patient at the McLean Hospital in Brookline, Massachusetts, one of the mental hospitals for which he had designed the grounds. He got no benefit from his design, unfortunately. It was never actually built.
Among other troubles, Olmsted feared that his creations would not survive for long. His idea of maintaining green space in the middle of a city was always vulnerable to development. Indeed, the Obama Presidential Library has taken over a tract of Olmsted’s Jackson Park in Chicago.
Some of his parks have suffered neglect. There was a time when residents of New York did not feel safe visiting Central Park because of the incidence of crime there. City government has addressed the issue.
But all in all, more than a century after his death, his legacy—as landscape architect and environmentalist––lives on and continues to enrich the lives of people from all segments of society.
Olmsted’s children deserve a lot of credit for maintaining and extending his legacy.
He had moved his business to Brookline, Massachusetts, and trained his son Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and stepson John Charles Olmsted and others to continue his work. His daughter Marion Olmsted was likewise involved in the family business as a photographer and draftsman. The full extent of her contribution remains little explored
They continued as Olmsted Brothers, Landscape Architects, a firm that continued after their deaths until 1979. The business’ grounds, called Fairfield, are now administered by the National Park Service as the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.
Frederick Law Olmsted: landscapes for the public good / Planting Fields Foundation
Olmsted “paints with lakes” / Justin Martin, American Heritage. Summer 2023
Olmsted’s Tosomock Farm, Staten Island, N.Y. / The Cultural Landscape Foundation. August 10, 2017
Report of the landscape architect [regarding Back Bay Fens] / Frederick Law Olmsted. December 24, 1883. Reprinted by the National Association for Olmsted Parks, Autumn 2010