Frederick Law Olmsted – The Father of the American Park

Frederick Law Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted was an American landscape architect, journalist, social critic, and public administrator. He is considered to be the father of American landscape architecture.

Olmsted was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on April 27, 1822. His father, John Olmsted, was a prosperous merchant who took a lively interest in horticulture and served as one of the founders of the Hartford Horticultural Society. His mother, Charlotte Law Olmsted, died when he was just a teenager.

He initially studied farming and horticulture, but after a stint working on a plantation in Georgia, he turned his attention to landscape design.

In the 1850s, Frederick Law Olmsted traveled to England, where he was influenced by the work of landscape designer John Claudius Loudon.

He is most famous for his work on Central Park in New York City, but his legacy extends to parks and urban planning across the country.

Frederick Law Olmsted changed the way Americans thought about public spaces, and his ideas are still relevant today.

Olmsted’s Principles of Design

Central Park was the first landscaped public park in the United States. The park, which was constructed between 1857 and 1876, was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and his friend, architect and designer, Calvert Vaux.

Vaux convinced Olmsted to enter a design competition and they were awarded the Central Park commission after winning.

Frederick Law Olmsted’s “Greensward Plan” for Central Park in New York, published in 1858, established the design principles he would subsequently use to design all his landscape projects.

These principles were the result of Olmsted’s extensive reading and his travels in England, Scotland, and Wales.

Frederick Law Olmsted went on to design a number of other notable parks, including

  • Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York
  • The park system in Buffalo, New York
  • Grounds of the U.S. Capital in Washington D.C.
  • Plans for numerous cities including Boston, Massachusetts, San Francisco, California and Chattanooga, Tennessee

New York City’s Central Park

Central Park is one of the world’s most famous urban parks.

Olmsted’s design for Central Park was inspired by his travels through Europe, where he was impressed by the grand public parks he saw there. He sought to create a similar space in New York City that would provide a much-needed oasis of green space and fresh air for the city’s rapidly growing population.

Olmsted’s design for Central Park was groundbreaking, and it remains largely unchanged to this day. The park is a testament to Olmsted’s vision, and it continues to be one of the most popular tourist attractions in New York City.

Olmsted’s Revolutionary Design Principles

  • A park should be open to all people, regardless of social class.
  • A park should be accessible to all people in the city, not just those who live nearby.
  • A park should be a place of refuge from the noise and bustle of the city.
  • A park should be a place of natural beauty, where people can escape the built environment and experience nature.
  • A park should provide a variety of activities and amenities, to appeal to a wide range of people.
  • A park should be well-maintained, so that it can be enjoyed by future generations.

Olmsted the Journalist

Olmsted’s stepfather, John Hull, was a newspaper editor and publisher, and Olmsted worked for him for a time.

In 1850 Olmsted traveled to England to visit public gardens, and there he was influenced by Joseph Paxton’s Birkenhead Park. When he returned to the United States, Olmsted found work with the New York Daily Times (later The New York Times).

In the 1850s, Olmsted became interested in the newly developed science of landscape architecture. He began to study it and was soon recognized as one of its foremost practitioners.

Leader of Sanitary Commission

Olmsted played a vital role in the Civil War. He was appointed head of the newly created Sanitary Commission in June 1861.

This was a civilian relief agency that oversaw sanitation in Union army camps, with the goals of improving troop morale and preventing disease.

Under Olmsted’s direction, the Commission built hospitals and water systems, and distributed food and medical supplies.

He also wrote a series of articles for The Atlantic Monthly about his experiences, which were collected and published as a book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England (1864).

Yosemite Valley and the Giant Sequoisa Trees

Olmsted made several trips to Yosemite Valley, which left a lasting impression on him. Olmsted was instrumental in the creation of the Yosemite Valley National Park, and his writings about the area helped to raise public awareness of its natural beauty.

In 1861, Olmsted began working on the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in California. This was one of his most ambitious projects, and it was not completed until 1867.

The Olmsted Legacy

Olmsted continued to work on a variety of public parks and landscapes throughout his career. He died in 1903, at the age of 80. His legacy continues to live on in the many parks and green spaces that he helped to design.

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