Chances are good you’ve encountered the work of Frederick Law Olmsted more than once in your lifetime. You’ve probably set foot in his parks or on his school campuses, or maybe you read his magazine. Quite possibly you also had some interaction with the Red Cross.
Olmsted was born in Hartford on April 26, 1822, to a modestly prosperous family. He worked as a seaman, a farmer, a surveyor, a social reformer and a journalist. Then he found his niche as a landscape architect. He also helped found the weekly magazine The Nation.
Olmsted co-designed Central Park, headed the first Yosemite commission and led the campaign to protect Niagara Falls. He designed the U.S. Capitol Grounds and planned both the Great White City of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and Boston’s “Emerald Necklace” of green space.
The list goes on. He designed Elm Park in Worcester, Mass., considered by many to be the first municipal park in America. He also designed the 735-acre Forest Park in Springfield, Mass.
His firm designed dozens of academic campuses, including Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Yale University, the Groton School, Berwick Academy, Pomfret School, the University of Maine and Phillips Academy. They also designed Shelburne Farms in Vermont, Providence Butler Hospital in Rhode Island, Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts and Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Conn.
Olmsted Goes South
Frederick Law Olmsted spent five years traveling the South for the New York Times (then the New York Daily Times), reporting on the slave economy.
He didn’t like what he saw. Olmsted concluded the cotton monopoly did more harm than good. He then reported that slavery made the slave states inefficient and backward. His observations had a big impact on the national debate about slavery.
Then he co-designed Central Park with Calvin Vaux – the largest public works project in the country. When the Civil War broke out, Olmsted became executive director of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross. He administered medical relief, setting up field hospitals and hospital ships. Olmsted also distributed food and hospital supplies along the entire battlefront.
He had an almost maniacal belief in system and organization, for which he received much criticism.
Frederick Law Olmsted, Planner
Witold Rybczynski credits Olmsted with pioneering the concept of planning in a big industrializing country. “This recognition was not yet widely shared, which is why he was often misunderstood,” wrote Rybczynski. In A Clearing In The Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century, Rybczynski quoted Olmsted’s mentor.
“He looks far ahead, & his plans & methods are sometimes mysterious,” wrote the Rev. Henry Whitney Bellows.
“[His critics] think him impracticable, expensive, slow — when he is only long-headed, with broader, deeper notions of economy than themselves, & with no disposition to hurry what, if done satisfactorily, must be thoroughly.
Rybczynski also offered an anecdote that demonstrated Olmsted’s farsightedness. Montgomery Meigs, quartermaster general of the U.S. Army, wrote him a letter five years after the Civil War. Meigs, who respected Olmsted, asked his advice in landscaping national cemeteries.
Olmsted then replied the cemeteries should be designed to establish dignity and tranquility. He warned Meigs to avoid the current fashion for elaborate and artificial gardening because it would disappear.
To create a sacred grove for the war dead, he recommended just two things. First, building a simple wall to enclose the cemetery. Second, he told Meigs to plant trees indigenous to the cemetery’s region. To save money, he should plant nurseries next to the cemeteries. And if land weren’t available for nurseries, he suggested planting seedlings between the tiers of graves.
Olmsted died on Aug. 28, 1903, and is buried in Old North Cemetery in Hartford.
This story last updated in 2022.
Images: Central Park By …trialsanderrors – Lower end of mall, Central Park, New York City, 1901, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11159061. Willowbrook Cemetery in Westport, Conn., By Jllm06 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56543924.