Chances are good you have encountered the work of Frederick Law Olmsted more than once in your lifetime. You’ve probably set foot in his parks or on his school campuses, or maybe you read his magazine. Quite possibly you had some encounter with the Red Cross.
Olmsted was born in Hartford on April 26, 1822, to a modestly prosperous family. He was a seaman, a farmer, a surveyor, a social reformer and a journalist before he became a landscape architect. He helped found the weekly magazine The Nation.
He co-designed Central Park, headed the first Yosemite commission, led the campaign to protect Niagara Falls, designed the U.S. Capitol Grounds and planned both the Great White City of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and Boston’s “Emerald Necklace” of green space.
He designed Elm Park in Worcester, Mass., considered by many to be the first municipal park in America, and the 735-acre Forest Park in Springfield, Mass. His firm designed dozens of academic campuses, including Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Yale University, the Groton School, Berwick Academy, Pomfret School, the University of Maine and Phillips Academy. They designed Shelburne Farms in Vermont, Providence Butler Hospital in Rhode Island, Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts and Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Conn.
Frederick Law Olmsted spent five years traveling the South for the New York Times (then the New York Daily Times), reporting on the slave economy.
He didn’t like what he saw. Olmsted concluded the cotton monopoly did more harm than good, that slavery made the slave states inefficient and backward. His observations had a big impact on the national debate about slavery.
After co-designing Central Park with Calvin Vaux – then the largest public works project in the country – Olmsted became executive director of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross, during the Civil War. He administered medical relief, setting up field hospitals and hospital ships and distributing food and hospital supplies along the entire battlefront.
He was criticized for his maniacal belief in system and organization.
Frederick Law Olmsted, Planner
Witold Rybczynski credits Olmsted with being one of the first people to understand the need for planning in a big industrializing country. “This recognition was not yet widely shared, which is why he was often misunderstood,” wrote Rybczynski in A Clearing In The Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century.
“He looks far ahead, & his plans & methods are sometimes mysterious,” wrote his mentor, the Rev. Henry Whitney Bellows.
“[His critics] think him impracticaable, expensive, slow — when he is only long-headed, with broader, deeper notions of economy than themselves, & with no disposition to hurry what, if done satisfactorily, must be thoroughly.
Rybczynski offered an anecdote that demonstrated Olmsted’s farsightedness: Montgomery Meigs, quartermaster general of the U.S. Army, wrote him a letter five years after the Civil War. Meigs, who respected Olmsted, asked his advice in landscaping national cemeteries.
Olmsted replied the cemeteries should be designed to establish dignity and tranquility. He warned the current fashion for elaborate and artificial gardening should be avoided because it would disappear. He recommended building a simple wall to enclose the cemetery and planting trees to create a sacred grove for the war dead. He told Meigs to use trees indigenous to the cemetery’s region and, to save money, to plant nurseries next to the cemeteries. If land weren’t available for nurseries, he suggested planting seedlings between the tiers of graves.
Olmsted died on Aug. 28, 1903, and is buried in Old North Cemetery in Hartford.