Birth of Fredrick Law Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted was America’s foremost landscape architect in the late nineteenth century. Olmsted was famous for co-designing many well-known urban parks including Central Park in New York City, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Elm Park in Worcester, Massachusetts, considered by many to be the first municipal park in America.

More than any other American of his generation Olmsted represented a belief in the power of landscape to provide a refuge to urban residents and succeeded in planting the romantic ideal in the heart of some of the nation’s largest cities. At a time when most urban land was in the hands of private speculators, he symbolized a belief in the civic good and the necessity of urban planning.

Olmsted was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on April 26, 1822. When he was fourteen years old a severe case of sumac poisoning partially blinded him, and for several years thereafter he had poor eyesight. Doctors recommended that he do little reading, so he postponed entering college and traveled in the northeastern United States and Canada with his father, a wealthy merchant. He then worked for a New York importer (1840) and traveled to China (1843). Upon his return to the United States he briefly studied scientific farming at Yale University and did some publishing and editorial work. Between 1852 and 1854 he traveled through the South and wrote extensively on the region, submitting stories to the New York Daily Tribune. The stories were compiled and published as The Cotton Kingdom in 1861. Olmsted received an appointment as general secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission during part of the Civil War (1861–1863), then went to California as administrator of the forty-four-thousand-acre Mariposa Estate (1863–1865).

Olmsted was an early American observer of British and of continental parks; he admired the eighteenth-century English garden and skillfully used open areas and natural watersheds in his designs. He developed his style of landscape design in response to urban needs; he was the first to call himself a landscape architect rather than a landscape gardener. With his partner, Calvert Vaux, he designed New York’s 840-acre Central Park (1858–1861) and landscaped New York City north of 155th Street. Olmsted’s style in turn inspired many city and national parks that followed. He also planned the Emerald Necklace (Boston), Prospect Park (Brooklyn), South Park (Chicago), Belle Isle Park (Detroit), Mount Royal Park (Montreal), the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, and the Boston and Buffalo park systems. His other projects included the Stanford University campus (1886) and the Biltmore Estate outside Asheville, North Carolina (1888). One of his last major projects was as chief landscape planner for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Olmsted died on August 28, 1903.

Olmsted, Frederick Law (1822–1903). (1997). In American Eras (Vol. 8, p. 417). Detroit: Gale.

Learn more about Frederick Olmsted »

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