Frederick Law Olmsted: Writings on Landscape, Culture, and Society
Edited by Charles E. Beveridge
Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) is most often remembered as America’s preeminent landscape architect—a profession he named, helped to define, and elevated into an art form in beloved parks and public spaces, among them New York’s Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the U.S. Capitol grounds, the Biltmore Estate, and Boston’s “Emerald Necklace.” But landscape design was just one outlet for Olmsted’s extraordinary creative energies over the course of a long and eventful life. As gentleman farmer, journalist, publisher, abolitionist, Civil War reformer, and conservationist, Olmsted’s readiness to serve the needs of his fellow citizens embodied the democratic ethos of “communitiveness” that was his lasting contribution to American thought.
Gathering over 100 items—letters, travel sketches, newspaper articles, essays, editorials, design proposals, official reports, and autobiographical reminiscences—this volume charts the emergence and development of Olmsted’s unique vision of restorative public green spaces as an antidote to the debilitating pressures of urbanization and modern life. It opens with a substantial selection of his early writings, including letters from China when he was an apprentice seaman, an account of his inspirational visit to the “People’s Park” at Birkenhead near Liverpool, and many of his perceptive dispatches from the American South on the eve of the Civil War. A number of pieces recount Olmsted’s service in the war, when, as executive secretary to the United States Sanitary Commission (a forerunner of the Red Cross), he organized relief supplies and hospital ships. Others trace his work as co-founder of the Union League Club and The Nation, as designer of the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and as a champion of the preservation of public lands at Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Niagara Falls.
The heart of the volume focuses on Olmsted’s magnificent design projects and his theory and practice of landscape architecture, as reflected in formal proposals and reports, letters to clients about sites both great and small, narratives of corruption and patronage in park management, histories of the profession and of landscape and garden aesthetics, notes to gardeners, and reflections on the value of parks and urban design. Included here are his original “Description of a Plan for the Improvement of the Central Park”; a meditation on “Trees in Streets and in Parks”; and a defense of the modest homestead as “the true wealth of our country.”
Along with Olmsted’s original writings the volume presents a 32-page portfolio of illustrations, including design sketches, park plans, contemporary photographs, and portraits and featuring the complete series of proposed views he submitted with the Olmsted & Vaux “Greensward” competition entry for New York’s Central Park. A detailed chronology and extensive notes give further information on the biographical and historical contexts of his work.
Charles E. Beveridge, editor, is America’s leading authority on the life and works of Frederick Law Olmsted. Since 1980 he has served as series editor of the multivolume Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, and in 2005 he published Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape.
Frederick Law Olmsted: Writings on Landscape, Culture, and Society is included in our New Books List for January 25, 2016.