- Historic Sites
He Paints With Lakes And Wooded Slopes…
Frederick Law Olmsted founded a new artistic profession in America. Today he is scarcely known by the millions who use and enjoy his works
October 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 6
From the time of Cheops to that of Frank Lloyd Wright, mankind has celebrated the architect—the designer who contrives shelter and structural grandeur for nature’s most thin-skinned and prideful animals. Not so honored has been a less obvious designer: the landscape architect, who, when man’s huddled dwellings threaten to stifle him, preserves or rearranges the natural surroundings to give vistas that will make him less forlorn.
Only a century ago, public parks and pleasure grounds of any considerable si/e were nonexistent in America. So, for the most part, were graciously landscaped private estates and other than hapha/ard college or school campuses. Except on the feudal baronies of the Hudson Valley and a few plantations of the South, where wealthy landowners gave some heed to the tailoring of their woodlands and meadows and to judicious planting of trees for shade and decor, landscape architecture was an art (and, indeed, a term) unknown. Few people went beyond mere landscape gardening—the formal, stylized cultivation of !lowering plants, rare or otherwise.
The man who changed all that—who designed Central Park for New York City, great municipal parks in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, and many other cities; the grounds of the Capitol in Washington; the campuses of Yale, Princeton, Williams, Amlierst, Dartmouth, Smith, Cornell, and Stanford (to name only a small sampling of his work)—was, until the age of thirty-five, only a remarkable dilettante. He had tried merchandising, seafaring, fanning, and journalism, supplemented by a good deal of travelling in both Europe and America, without finding his profession. This pioneer and genius, the first in America to merit the title of landscape architect, was Frederick Law Olmsted, born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822.
Yet it may be wrong to call Olmsted a dilettante, just as it may be more accurate to say not that lie Rnally found his profession, but that he founded it. Although it was almost by accident that, in 1857, he plunged into his first real job of landscape design—Central Park—the disparate pieces of his earlier career can be seen in retrospect as related elements. When the catalyst of time and opportunity was ready, they crystallixed into a pattern of highly specialized talent.
Ihe father of this extraordinary man was lohn Olmsted, a Hartford merchant grown rich through a lifetime of hard work in his dry-goods store. Despite this affluence, the education of his oldest son was informal, to say the least. After his mother died in 1826, the youngster was farmed out for tutoring to a succession of three “dames’ and six country parsons. During vacations he visited around among assorted relatives, including one salty old great-uncle who taught him tree grafting and other rural skills. At home, he was often free to roam the rough Connecticut landscape.
The boy usually carried rod or gun, but he spent much of his time afield just absorbing impressions of nature, not daydreamily but with concentration. He drank in the sweep of hills and streams, forests and meadows, but he also looked closely at their components. More than the wild fauna, the flora of his surroundings and the soils and rocks from which they sprang captured his attention.
Young Olmsted also had a bookish bent. More than half a century later, when he was famous as a landscape designer, he recalled that in Hartford’s public library he found “certain books, which it is a strange thing that I should have looked into, stranger that I should have assimilated.… They were Price on the Picturesque and Gilpin on Forest Scenery … I put them into the hands of my pupils as soon as they come into our office, saying: ‘You are to read these seriously, as a student of law would read Blackstone.’ ”
When he was fourteen a case of sumac poisoning nearly cost him his eyesight. This ended his preparations for Yale, and reduced his adolescent reading to haphazard dips into literature and natural science. But he was for a time apprenticed to a topographical engineer, and learned some important skills: the fundamentals of surveying and what lie himself called “ready, off-hand reconnoitering … invaluable in our profession.” He learned to eye-estimate distances, heights, angles, rates of grade; to pace off measurements accurately; to find his way in timber; to predict drainage patterns.
His father remarried, and the stepmother was warmly compatible with Fred and his younger brother, John. In time there were two half sisters and one more boy. On several occasions the whole family went for long, leisurely carriage and canal trips through the northeastern United States and Canada. It was a pleasant, relaxed sort of childhood and adolescence, fondly remembered by Olmsted all his life.