• The Planting/Print Room at Olmsted NHS

    Frederick Law Olmsted

    National Historic Site Massachusetts

History & Culture

A 1920 photo of a two people canoeing up the Muddy River. See caption further down the page.
 
An 1871 plan of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY

Shaper of the American Landscape

Perhaps more than any other person, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) affected the way America looks. He is best known as the creator of major urban parks, but across the nation, from the green spaces that help define our towns and cities, to suburban life, to protected wilderness areas, he left the imprint of his fertile mind and boundless energy. Out of his deep love for the land and his social commitment he fathered the profession of landscape architecture in America.

Olmsted's unique contributions stemmed in part from the conjunction of strongly felt personal values and the needs of a young nation. America was experiencing unprecedented growth in the mid-19th century, making the transition from a rural people to a complex urban society. City life became more stressful as the crowds grew, the pace quickened, and the countryside was pushed into the distance. Olmsted and others saw the need for preserving green and open spaces where people could escape city pressures, places that nourished body and spirit. His intuitive understanding of the historical changes he was living through and his rare combination of idealism, artistry, intelligence, and practical knowledge enabled him to help soften the shocks of industrialization. Unable to separate his love and respect for the land from his belief in democracy, Olmsted saw parks as bastions of the democratic ideals of community and equality. He confronted a period of rapid mechanization and unabashed materialism with a natural sensibility and the old Jefferson virtues of restraint and rural simplicity, values still represented in his parks.

 
A c. 1910 photo of children playing in Washington Park in Chicago
Photo at top of page: View of the Riverway, a connecting park in Boston’s and Brookline’s Emerald Necklace park system, 1920. Plan below top photo: Prospect Park, Brooklyn, considered a classic example of Olmstedian design, 1871. Photo above: Mark White Square (now McGuane Park), Chicago, c. 1910.
 
An 1869 plan of Riverside, a suburb of Chicago. See caption.

Above: Plan of Riverside, one of Olmsted’s most celebrated suburbs, 1869. Below: Employees of the Olmsted Brothers landscape design firm, at this point operated by his son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and stepson, John Charles Olmsted, 1903. Below right: carte-de-visite of Olmsted, 1893. All images are courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted NHS.

Olmsted was a true renaissance man whose many interests and ceaseless flow of ideas led him into experimental farming, writing and publishing, public health administration, preservation, and urban and regional planning. With other reformers, he pushed for the protection of Yosemite Valley. His 1864 report on the park was the first systematic justification for public protection of natural areas, emphasizing the duty of a democratic society to ensure that the "body of the people" have access to natural beauty.

In what he created and what he preserved for the future, Olmsted's legacy is incalculable. The informal natural setting he made popular characterizes the American Landscape. Beyond the hundreds of parks enjoyed by millions of people, Olmsted and his firm set the standard for hospital and institutional grounds, campuses, zoos, railway stations, parkways, private estates, and residential subdivisions across the country. Olmsted's principles of democratic expansion and public access still guide and inspire urban planners. From the broadest concepts to the smallest details of his profession, the sign of Olmsted's hand is everywhere in our lives.
 
A 1903 photo of the Olmsted Bothers landscape design firm and an image of Olmsted on a carte-de-visite. See caption above.

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