Frederick Law Olmsted At 200

Portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted (detail), 1895, by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925); The Artchives/Alamy Stock Photo.

From Hedgehog Review, a bit of scholarly reflection on a man whose impact on the landscape of cityscapes is still worthy of consideration:

The Man Who Built Forward Better

On Frederick Law Olmsted’s Bicentennial

Witold Rybczynski

What would Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) make of his works today, in the bicentennial year of his birth? No doubt he would be delighted by the survival and continued popularity of so many of his big-city parks, particularly Central Park and Prospect Park, but also parks in Boston, Chicago, and Montreal, as well as Buffalo, Detroit, Rochester, and Louisville. He might be surprised by the bewildering range of activities these parks now accommodate—not only boating and ice-skating, as in his day, but exercising, jogging, picnicking, and games, as well as popular theatrical and musical events. I don’t think this variety would displease him. After all, it was he who introduced free band concerts in Central Park, over the objections of many of his strait-laced colleagues. He would be pleased by the banning of automobiles; his winding carriage drives were never intended for fast—and noisy—traffic.

Olmsted might complain that so many of his landscapes had been allowed to become overgrown; he was always relentless in cutting back greenery to preserve views and vistas. I think he would be disappointed that so many of his urban parkways have been lost, converted into highways, as in Buffalo, or opened to commercial traffic and widened, as in Louisville. Nor would he approve of the intrusion into the parks of skating rinks, zoos, golf courses, and, soon, a presidential center in Chicago. He always resisted the efforts of politicians to use parks as convenient building sites for their pet projects.

Whatever he would have thought of their uses and abuses, Olmsted’s landscape creations, especially his urban parks, are anything but relics of the past—they remain a vital part of the present. What was it about his own life, and particularly his early experiences, that prepared him so well for the work that he would take on, and what lessons does that remarkable career have for us today?

To say that Olmsted was a late bloomer is an understatement. Although raised in Hartford, Connecticut, in comfortable circumstances, he had little formal education. He might have gone to Yale like his brother, John, but instead spent two years apprenticed to a surveyor, and later, two years working as a clerk for a New York importing house. As a young man, he sailed to China as a seaman on a clipper ship—an experience that almost killed him. He finally settled on farming, and after an apprenticeship, he had his own farm, first in Connecticut and later on Staten Island. Surveying is obviously a useful skill for a park builder; so is a knowledge of farming. Olmsted devoted seven years to husbandry, and as a devotee of “scientific farming” he read—and wrote—on the subject. He grew pears, importing the trees from France, and established a nursery business, selling to gardeners in the nearby city. The experience of managing a farm and cultivating trees on a commercial scale provided invaluable practical knowledge.

Farming was just the beginning; he was also drawn to the literary life. Olmsted served as managing editor of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, a leading literary journal, and worked with Emerson, Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Washington Irving; later he cofounded and edited The Nation. He was an early voice against slavery, traveling across the South as a newspaper correspondent, writing vivid reports and producing three books, which he subsequently condensed into a single volume, The Cotton Kingdom. During the Civil War, Olmsted served as general secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross. His last position in this extended preparatory phase of his life was as general manager of the vast Mariposa Estate gold mines in California’s Sierra Nevada. By then he was in his early forties.

Read the whole article here.

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