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Reading 2: Olmsted's Views on Parks
Frederick Law Olmsted is best known as the founder of American landscape architecture. The office he established over a century ago created designs for thousands of public and private projects from coast to coast. His works include Central Park in New York, Belle Isle Park in Detroit, the grounds of Stanford University in California, the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, and the U.S. Capitol, as well as the Boston park system. In every case, he looked on nature as something to be experienced rather than just talked about. His great genius was in arranging and rearranging nature so that every view seemed perfectly natural.
Born in Connecticut in 1822, Olmsted was about 20 years older than Charles Sargent. Sumac poisoning at the age of 14 affected his eyesight and allowed him little formal schooling. He did study on his own, however, and during a trip to Europe he became interested in English landscape gardening, which had moved away from the rigidity of formal gardens toward a more romantic, natural look. Olmsted also became fascinated with the idea of parks as ideal places in which people could experience the essence of nature. His writings on the value of natural scenery share similarities with those of William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), major literary figures of the period associated with the Romantic and Transcendentalist movements respectively. These movements, popular during the second quarter of the l9th century, stressed the importance of man's unity with nature.
Rather than dismissing cities as terrible places in which to live, Olmsted thought that cities could be wonderful if they incorporated places of natural beauty where people could enjoy the healthful benefits of sunlight and pure air. In such places, people could interact in ways that might ease the stress and antisocial behavior he attributed to the crowded city. He expressed these views in his address, "Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns," which he gave in Boston in 1870. He proposed that all cities set aside space for parks that could be used to experience natural scenery. He also felt that:
The park should, as far as possible, complement the town. Openness is the one thing you cannot get in buildings. Picturesqueness you can get. Let your buildings be as picturesque as your artists can make them. This is the beauty of the town. Consequently, the beauty of the park should be the other. It should be the beauty of the fields, the meadow, the prairie, or green pastures, and the still waters. What we want to gain is tranquility and rest to the mind.¹
To Olmsted, the function of the park was to relax the human spirit. By offering a physical and visual contrast with the city, parks produced an involuntary response in the visitor. He said, "The chief end of a large park is an effect on the human organism...like that of music...a kind that goes back of thought, and cannot be fully given the form of words."²
Olmsted was very strict in his interpretation of what did and did not constitute a park. He believed that even though other landscapes, such as public squares or botanical gardens, may contain similar elements of trees, water, fields, and roads, the idea behind the design of a park was often quite different. Olmsted realized that there surely would be differences of opinion with Sargent over how an arboretum should be designed. Responding to Sargent's letter asking him to become involved in the project, he wrote:
Indeed a park and an arboretum seem so far unlike in purpose that I do not feel sure that I could combine them satisfactorily. I certainly would not undertake to do so in this case without your cooperation and I think it would be better and more proper that the plan should be made by you with my aid rather than by me with yours.³
It is clear that Olmsted worried that the idea of an arboretum serving as a park might not work at all. However, he soon embraced the arboretum project because it sought to bring the beauty of nature to the city. Olmsted worked diligently for many years to see it come to fruition.
Questions for Reading 2
1. . How were Olmsted's views related to Transcendentalist and Romantic thought?
2. What did Olmsted believe the beauty of a park provided to people? Can you think of a place in your town that gives you the feeling he described?
3. What do you think Olmsted meant by "picturesqueness"? Can you give an example of a picturesque place?
4. Olmsted compared the effect of a park to that of music. What do you think he meant? Do you listen to music for the same reasons that you might go to a public park?
Reading 2 was compiled from Polly M. Rettig, "Arnold Arboretum" (Suffolk County, MA) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.:U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1975; Cynthia Zaitzevsky, Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1982); and documents housed at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.
¹Frederick Law Olmsted, Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns, 1870, p. xx.