Happy Birthday, Frederick Law Olmsted
April 26, 2016 marks the 194nd birthday of Frederick Law Olmsted. Widely regarded as the father of American landscape architecture, Olmsted helped lay out the Arnold Arboretum decades after his career-defining design of New York City’s Central Park. Born in 1822 in Hartford, Connecticut, Olmsted worked as a clerk, an apprentice seaman, an apprentice topographic engineer, a farmer, a journalist, and a writer before turning his hand to the landscape architecture.
Olmsted drew his first studies for his Boston commission for the Park Department in the summer of 1878, and completed his final plans in 1895. In addition to the Arboretum, Olmsted was the designer of the “Emerald Necklace,” a series of parks from the Public Garden to Franklin Park with connecting parkways. Olmsted planned and designed the Arnold Arboretum in collaboration with Charles Sprague Sargent, and today the Arboretum is among the best preserved of Olmsted’s landscapes. Additional work by the Olmsted firm was undertaken between 1890 and 1895 in order to accommodate the acquisition of Peters Hill, the highest point in the Arnold Arboretum.
Olmsted’s quotations about trees
“The [Harvard] college has 118 acres appropriated to the Arboretum. Not more than half of it is really well adapted to a classified collection. The rest will do for forestry etc. The city is now authorized upon my proposition to condemn 37 acres in parcels one at each end of the college tract. On the 155 acres much the best arboretum in the world can be formed. The scheme is that the city shall lease the condemned land to the college on a nominal rent for a thousand years and that the college shall establish and maintain the arboretum. That the city in good time will lay out a road and walk (2 1/4 miles) through it and that the public shall be admitted to it under no regulations or restrictions other than such as are usual in well kept public grounds. The college is to reserve the right to keep the gates closed when it shall think desirable until about 10 o’clock in the morning. The college is also to hold exclusively within the enclosure 10 acres of land to be used for special collections, museums, lecture rooms and administration duties. The city is to provide police and water without charge. This is the whole of the scheme as I would have it. I am sure that it is a capital bargain for both parties . . . difficulties are all difficulties of ignorance or of the imagination. The arrangement would cost the college nothing and the result would be immeasurably more creditable to it. The city would get a very valuable novel and interesting pleasure ground at about one quarter what it would otherwise have to pay for it.”
Letter to Charles Eliot Norton, May 7, 1880
“If we analyze the operations of scenes of beauty upon the mind, and consider the intimate relation of the mind upon the nervous system and the whole physical economy, the action and reaction which constantly occur between bodily and mental conditions, the reinvigoration which results from such scenes is readily comprehended . . . The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.”
The Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Trees, 1865
“It is one of the great purposes of the Park to supply to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God’s handiwork that shall be to them, inexpensively, what a month or two in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks is, at great cost, to those in easier circumstances.”
Letter to the Board of Commissioners of Central Park, 1858
“It is under similar conditions to these that we find in nature that class of scenery . . . which is termed pastoral. It consists of combinations of trees, standing singly or in groups, and casting their shadows over broad stretches of turf, or repeating their beauty by reflection upon the calm surface of pools, and the predominant associations are in the highest degree tranquilizing and grateful.”
Report on design for Prospect Park, 1866
“The most interesting general facts of my life seems to me to be that it was not as a gardener, a florist, a botanist, or one in any way specially interested in plants and flowers, or especially susceptible to their beauty, that I was drawn to my work. The root of all my work has been an early respect for an enjoyment of a more domestic order-scenery which is to be looked upon contemplatively, and is productive of musing moods.”
Olmsted essay by Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, Century Magazine, 1893
Did you know?
Olmsted did not have any advanced educational degrees and considered his schooling to be nearly a waste of time. However, he was an avid reader, and as a youth he spent time reading both prose and verse to eligible young women.
Olmsted gained his public reputation through his writings, including an article entitled “Voice from the Sea,” based on a year-long journey he made to China when he was 21 years old. This was followed by a book written following a trip to England, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England.
After the success of his writings, Olmsted was asked by the New York Times to travel to the American South in 1852, resulting in a series of newspaper articles and three books on economic conditions. He published the three books as a single volume, The Cotton Kingdom, which was both praised and damned in America and England.
Arboretum Library Holdings
Records of the Original Design of the Arnold Arboretum Living Collections. Archive of the Arnold Arboretum.
(Please contact Library for assistance.)
Roper, Laura Wood. FLO : A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, .
Rybczynski, Witold. A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Scribner, 1999.
Olderr, Steven and Heuel, Patricia. Toward a Comprehensive Bibliography of the Landscaping and Architectural Work of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Riverside, IL: Riverside Public Library, 1982.
Zaitzevsky, Cynthia. Fairsted: A Cultural Landscape Report for the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. Brookline, MA: Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, National Park Service; Boston: Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, 1997- .
Zaitzevsky, Cynthia. Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982.
Special thanks to Maggie Redfern and Gerry Wright for their expertise.