Frequently described as the founder of American landscape architecture, American landscape architect, journalist, social critic and public administrator Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) is perhaps best known for designing New York’s Central Park and the US Capitol grounds.
Over the course of his illustrious career, Olmsted and his firm undertook some 500 commissions, including 100 public parks, 200 private estates, 50 residential communities and 40 academic campus designs. As a result, Olmsted was revered during his lifetime as a pioneering innovator of landscape design.
However, in addition to his landscaping feats, Olmsted was involved in lesser-known campaigns, such as anti-slavery advocacy and conservation efforts.
So who was Frederick Law Olmsted?
1. His father loved scenery and landscapes
Frederick Law Olmsted was born in Hartford, Connecticut, as part of the eighth generation of his family to live in that city. From a young age he received most of his education from ministers in outlying towns. His father and step-mother were both scenery-lovers, and much of his holiday time was spent on family tours ‘in search of the picturesque’.
2. He was meant to go to Yale
When Olmsted was 14 years old, sumac poisoning severely affected his eyesight and hampered his plans to attend Yale. In spite of this, he apprenticed as a topographic engineer for a short time, which equipped him with fundamental skills that later aided his landscape design career.
3. He became a farmer
With his sight having improved, in 1842 and 1847 Olmsted attended lectures in science and engineering at Yale, where he was particularly interested in scientific farming. Over the next 20 years, he studied many trades such as surveying, engineering and chemistry, and even ran a farm on Staten Island between 1848 and 1855. All of these skills helped him to create the profession of landscape architecture.
4. He married his late brother’s wife
In 1959, Olmsted married Mary Cleveland (Perkins) Olmsted, the widow of his late brother. He adopted her three children, his two nephews and a niece. The couple also had three children, two of whom survived infancy.
5. He became superintendent of Central Park
Between 1855 and 1857, Olmsted was a partner in a publishing firm and managing editor of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, a leading journal of literature and political commentary. He spent a significant amount of time living in London and travelled extensively in Europe, which allowed him to visit many public parks.
In 1857, Olmsted became superintendent of Central Park in New York City, and the following year, he and his mentor and professional partner Calvert Vaux won the design competition for the park.
6. He innovated many park and outdoor styles
Over the course of his career, Olmsted created examples of many types of design that went on to alter the profession of landscape architecture, which was a term that he and Vaux first coined. Motivated by improving people’s quality of life in the US, he and Vaux developed forward-thinking designs for urban parks, private residence gardens, academic campuses and government buildings.
7. He was an anti-slavery campaigner
Olmsted was vocal about his opposition to slavery, and was thus sent to the American South by the New York Times from 1852 to 1855 to report weekly on how slavery affected the region’s economy. His report, titled The Cotton Kingdom (1861) is a reliable account of the antebellum south. His writings opposed the westward expansion of slavery and called for total abolition.
8. He was a conservationist
From 1864 to 1890, Olmsted chaired the first Yosemite commission. He took charge of the property for California and succeeded in preserving the area as a permanent public park, all of which contributed to New York state preserving the Niagara reservation. Along with other conservation work, he is recognised as an early and important activist in the conservation movement.
9. He helped organise medical services for the Union Army
Between 1861 and 1863, he worked as director of the US Sanitary Commission, charged with overseeing the health and camp sanitation of the volunteer soldiers of the Union Army. His efforts contributed to the creation of a national system of medical supply.
10. He wrote extensively
In spite of the difficulty Olmsted experienced in expressing his ideas in writing, he wrote profusely. 6,000 letters and reports that he wrote during his landscape architecture career survive him, all of which relate to his 300 design commissions. In addition, he paid for the publication and public distribution of significant reports several times as a way of preserving information about his profession for posterity.