Frederick Law Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted
Frederick Law Olmsted

Gentleman farmer, antislavery journalist, gold mine supervisor, and U.S. Civil War official, Frederick Law Olmsted is today best known for his design and implementation of New York City’s Central Park. He and the partners and sons who carried on his work were ultimately responsible for thousands of important urban and suburban projects that reshaped and beautified North America, from the U.S. Capitol grounds to Niagara Falls to Montreal’s Mount Royal. His multifaceted career epitomizes what a man of means, intellect, and enthusiasm could achieve in 19th-century America.

Olmsted was, as one biographer put it, the “eager and undisciplined” son of a successful Hartford, Connecticut, merchant. He entered Yale University, but never graduated. Fond of the outdoors, he apprenticed as a surveyor and endured a year aboard a square-rigger involved in the China tea trade, before taking up scientific farming in then-rural Staten Island, New York.

As the slavery issue began to boil over in the late 1840s, Olmsted, although no abolitionist, raised money for Free-Soil causes and became an early supporter of the new Republican Party. Hired by the New-York Daily Times (now the New York Times), the young correspondent undertook a series of trips through the slave-owning South to write influential articles revealing slavery’s economic and social impact.

Olmsted’s involvement with Central Park was almost accidental. On the recommendation of a wellplaced friend, Olmsted was named superintendent of the proposed 800-acre park in 1857. Months later, Olmsted teamed up with Calvert Vaux, a protégé of Andrew Jackson Dowling, America’s first professional landscape designer, to win the park design competition with a proposal titled “Greensward.”

Central Park was the first of many Olmsted projects that would meld natural features and human artifice to create a peaceful yet energizing “balanced irregularity” that seemed to appeal to people of every class and condition. It was an immediate success, despite serious cost overruns.

In 1859 Olmsted married Mary Perkins, widow of his beloved brother John, adopting his two nephews and a niece. (They would have four children together.) As the Civil War erupted, Olmsted, as first general secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, used his considerable organizational talents to save lives by improving medical care for Union soldiers and others endangered by the war.

Eager to repay his father’s many loans and captivated by northern California’s natural beauty, Olmsted in 1864 accepted the post of manager at Mariposa Estate, a productive but troubled gold mining operation. While in California, Olmsted helped to promote “Yo Semite” and its huge sequoias as a future national park.

By 1868 Olmsted had resumed his landscape and planning career with Vaux and others. Major projects of these post-war years would include a park system for Buffalo, park designs for Chicago before and after the 1871 Chicago Fire, and the site plan for Chicago’s 1893 World Columbian Exposition. Olmsted designed a campus for Stanford University in California and pursued projects at other major universities including Cornell and Yale.

Olmsted suffered from bouts of depression and endured dementia in his final years. His central role in shaping and improving so many cities faded from public recollection. Not until the 1980s, as New York City began to refurbish its dangerously neglected Central Park, would Olmsted’s “People’s Park” and the genius of its creator reemerge to astonish a grateful public.