The Genius of Olmsted

Genius of Place: the Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, a new biography by Justin Martin, illuminates Olmsted’s major achievements as a visionary artist, social reformer, pioneering environmentalist, and founder of the modern profession of landscape architecture. Olmsted is best known for creating several noteworthy landscapes, including New York City’s Central Park. Martin, a journalist who has written two acclaimed biographies on Alan Greenspan and Ralph Nader, paints a portrait of Olmsted as a preeminent American figure, revealing that “as a park maker, environmentalist, and abolitionist, Olmsted helped shape modern America.” 

Martin’s interest in the great landscape architect stems from the fact that he lives in Forest Hill Gardens, New York, a suburban neighborhood designed by Olmsted’s son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. Intrigued by the man who created Central Park, Martin consulted letters from five different archives to piece together a broad picture of Olmsted’s life and legacy. His book does not disappoint in the totality of its coverage, but where it may do so is in the lack of focus given to Olmsted’s work after Central Park. The author does, however, give some sense of the significance of Olmsted’s role in shaping the profession of landscape architecture. 

The book covers the extent of Olmsted’s life, with lengthy portions devoted to his early achievements as well as his work on Central Park and subsequent career as a landscape architect. It also provides an intimate account of the personal tragedies and illnesses that plagued him throughout his life and fueled his near obsessive work ethic. Martin gives detailed accounts of Olmsted’s early forays into scientific farming and gold mining, as well as his more significant accomplishments as a journalist and abolitionist. Later he reveals how these experiences shaped Olmsted’s sensibilities as a landscape architect, his most successful professional occupation and one he essentially fell into at age 35. 

Despite his lack of formal training, Olmsted proved a worthy collaborator when architect Calvert Vaux asked him to partner on a competition to design Central Park. Central Park was the first of his great successes and his “grand passion.” He used the park as an opportunity to further his agenda for social reform, creating a place celebrated for its formal aesthetic qualities that was also “intended to furnish healthful recreation, for the poor and the rich, the young and the old, the vicious and the virtuous.” Martin gives a compelling account of the 20 years Olmsted devoted to the park’s construction and maintenance, highlighting it as the centerpiece of his career. 

Olmsted went on to design an array of other notable landscapes, including more than thirty public parks, the U.S. Capitol Grounds, several planned communities and university campuses, and the grounds of various private estates and asylums. Martin chronicles many of these achievements, for which Olmsted entered into the role of pioneering environmentalist along with social reformer. Unfortunately, he does not extend quite the same coverage to these projects as he does to Central Park. He provides enough detail to reveal their importance though he does not quite indicate their true value: Some of these landscapes have become equally, if not more, relevant to the profession today than their famous predecessor.

Included among these projects is Olmsted’s most ambitious park system, the Emerald Necklace, which connected several parks into an integrated system of open spaces covering 1,100 acres near downtown Boston. One of the parks is the Back Bay Fens, the first wetland restoration project in an urbanized area of the United States. The idea of creating a continuous swath of green spaces that provided social benefits and performed ecological functions in a rapidly urbanizing city was visionary. Figuring out how to carve out similar spaces in cities today has become one of the profession’s major challenges.  

Chicago’s lakefront is another important example. Olmsted wanted to create a public waterfront to connect the city to its most notable natural feature and provide open space for its residents. The city government shelved the project due to inadequate funding, but he capitalized on an opportunity to resurrect it while designing the grounds of Chicago’s 1893 World Fair. It was an incredible success and remains one of the city’s best assets. Many cities today are investing in similar projects, reclaiming valuable land along post-industrial waterfronts to create public spaces that provide social, economic, and environmental value.

Olmsted was also a visionary in defining the aims of landscape architecture, including resource conservation and the preservation of places like Yosemite and Niagara Falls, though he often had to fight popular trends with varying success to do so. His initial proposal for Stanford University’s campus recommended a scheme suited to native plantings for an arid climate, rather than one mimicking the popular aesthetic found on New England campuses that would require extensive watering. Unfortunately, much of the scheme was omitted in the actual construction. However, at a time when only a few Americans were concerned with the clear-cutting of trees on huge stretches of land, Olmsted convinced financial mogul George Washington Vanderbilt to showcase one of the earliest forest management projects on his Biltmore Estate near Ashville, North Carolina.

Regardless of the measure of success he enjoyed during his lifetime, Olmsted has since achieved his overarching endeavor: an enduring legacy. In a letter urging his son, Fred Jr., to become his successor, he wrote, “I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future. In laying out Central Park we determined to think of no results to be realized in less than forty years. Now in nearly all our work I am thinking of the credit that will indirectly come to you.” He need not have worried. His work has endured and continues to influence all landscape architects today. Martin may have missed an opportunity to express the full extent of this great landscape architect’s achievements, but his intriguing account of Olmsted’s life nevertheless captures the significance of his legacy.

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This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, ASLA 2011 Summer Intern

Image credit: Dacapo Press

4 thoughts on “The Genius of Olmsted

  1. Bill Dakin, ASLA 08/03/2011 / 9:51 am

    I have to wonder how Olmsted’s experiences with his journey across Texas a year before Central Park influenced the design, and the man. What a great opportunity for a young designer. The book, Journey Through Texas, or, a Saddle-trip on the Western Frontier, documents that epic trip.

  2. Kent G. Worley 08/31/2011 / 6:59 pm

    The inspirational values and contributions of this man are of equal value as are his compositions. Thank You Mr. Olmsted.

  3. Swan Ashby 09/05/2011 / 2:26 am

    Olmsted! What a visionary! Between his understanding of the value of wetlands and the necessity of green space in urban environments to benefit the general population, he has set the tone of the industry–no matter how state-of-the-art we believe we have become.

  4. Jesse Furrow 09/05/2011 / 11:56 pm

    Very well written post Shannon. Thank you.

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