Frederick Law Olmsted Biography

Architect, Writer(1822–1903)
Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted helped design many U.S. public parks. His first project was Central Park in New York City.

Synopsis

Born in 1822, Frederick Law Olmsted worked in many areas, including farming, and publishing, before finding his calling in landscape architecture. He collaborated on the design for Central Park and went on to design projects such as Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and the landscape for Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition. In 1903, Olmsted died in Waverly, Massachusetts.

Early Life

On April 26, 1822, Frederick Law Olmsted was born in Hartford, Connecticut. His mother died when he was almost four years old, and his father remarried in 1827. At seven, Olmsted left his home to be tutored by and board with a series of ministers.

Olmsted, who loved spending time outdoors, got sumac poisoning when he was 14; the infection spread to his eyes. Though he eventually recovered, he wouldn't continue on to university.

Search for a Career

In 1837, Olmsted began his search for the right job. He first trained as a surveyor, then worked as a clerk in New York City. In 1843, he served as an apprentice on a merchant ship headed to China. When he returned to the United States a year later, a weak and sick Olmsted needed time to recover, but soon came up with another career path: scientific farming. With financial assistance from his father, Olmsted was installed in a farm on Staten Island in 1848.

His father also helped Olmsted join his younger brother on a trip to Europe in 1850. Olmsted subsequently wrote Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, which was published in 1852. That same year, the New York Times hired Olmsted to journey to and write about the South. He first visited states from Virginia to Louisiana, then went to Texas on a second trip. The reports from Olmsted's travels shed further light on the degradations of slavery.

Now more interested in writing than farming, Olmsted went on to produce several books about the South and slavery. He also invested in a publishing firm, which failed in 1857.

A Job in Central Park

In August 1857, Olmsted learned that the board overseeing the development of New York City's new Central Park was looking for a superintendent. He quickly applied for the position; thanks in part to his literary connections, he landed the job.

After a competition to design Central Park was announced, architect Calvert Vaux invited Olmsted — who as superintendent had detailed knowledge about the topography of his worksite — to partner with him on a design. Their plan overcame the drawbacks of the narrow, rectangular Central Park site to propose a green oasis in the city. In 1858, the pair won the competition.

Olmsted was promoted to oversee the park's construction, and did so from 1858 to 1861. Yet though the public loved its new park, Olmsted grew frustrated with the demands of politics and cost-cutting. In 1861, he left Central Park for a new job: head of the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

A Landscape Architect

At the Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, Olmsted worked to supply Union soldiers with necessities like blankets, food and clothing. He stayed in the role until 1863, when he agreed to manage the Mariposa Estate, a large gold-mining operation in California.

However, the immense talent for landscape design that Olmsted had demonstrated with Central Park wasn't forgotten. In 1865, Vaux asked Olmsted to return to New York and work with him again. After some consideration, Olmsted agreed; from that moment on his career would be primarily focused on landscape architecture. In collaboration with Vaux, Olmsted created projects such as Brooklyn's Prospect Park, a connected park system for Buffalo, New York, as well as Chicago's Washington and Jackson Parks.

Olmsted and Vaux decided to end their partnership in 1872. By then, Olmsted's services were in high demand: he would go on to design projects that included the grounds for the U.S. Capitol, Mount Royal Park in Montreal, Canada, and Boston's Emerald Necklace. Olmsted also planned the landscape of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and came up with a forest and park design for the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. In addition, he reunited with Vaux to try to preserve the natural beauty of Niagara Falls.    

Frederick Law Olmsted painting by John Singer Sargent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Frederick Law Olmsted painting by John Singer Sargent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Personal Life and Later Years

Olmsted had been close to his younger brother, John, who died of tuberculosis in the fall of 1857. In June 1859, Olmsted wed his brother's widow, Mary, and adopted her three children. Olmsted and Mary had a successful marriage; two of their sons would continue in Olmsted's field in a firm called Olmsted Brothers.

As he grew older, Olmsted's faculties began to decline and in 1898 he was committed to the McLean Asylum in Waverly, Massachusetts. Years earlier he had planned the grounds for this facility, and even with his mental troubles he reportedly could tell that his design hadn't been followed (which didn't please him). On August 28, 1903, Olmsted died in Waverly. He was 81 years old.

Legacy

Olmsted understood how to use trees, plants and other features that were almost always uniquely suited to a specific location. In addition to his design talents, by tackling projects across the country and training others, he helped the field of landscape architecture take hold and flourish in America.

Olmsted's work also reflected his democratic beliefs, as he wanted to make parks that would welcome every member of society. Today, many of the landscapes he was responsible for continue to be admired and enjoyed. 

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