- 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
When he got back to America, Olmsted published an account of what he had seen: Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England (1852). It was very favorably reviewed and led to his acquaintance with such literary figures as Washington Irving, Peter Cooper, William Lloyd Garrison, and Henry J. Raymond, editor of the New-York Daily Times . Raymond was interested in a suggestion Olmsted had made about the increasingly bitter controversy over slavery: that what was needed was a dispassionate, factual report of how that institution affected the economy of the American South. Raymond thought Olmsted might be just the man to do it, and in December«, 1852, the erstwhile farmer started on a fourteen-month tour by rail, stage, and horseback across the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Raymond was so pleased with the results—published about once a week in the form of long “letters” in the Times —that he sent his new reporter on a further exploration in 1853–54, this time accompanied part of the way by his brother John. They pushed on into Texas as far as San Antonio, where Frederick became heavily involved in an unsuccessful effort to establish a Free Soil, antislavery colony among German immigrants. Given the time and the place, it was a radical and dangerous venture: Olmsted felt deeply on the issue of slavery.
His written reports, however, which were later incorporated into a book called The Cotton Kingdom (1861), were models of objective observation and cool, inductive reasoning, based on what he actually saw. In a period when extremists on both sides were giving way to raving invective or sentimental exaggeration—not excepting Uncle Tom’s Cabin , which had come out in 1851–52—Olmsted strove for an analysis that would demonstrate to all men of reason the economic undesirability of slavery. The Cotton Kingdom is still regarded by many historians, both North and South, as the most reliable account of ante-bellum social conditions in Dixie.
By 1855 it seemed clear to Frederick Law Olmsted that his future lay in journalism and publishing, but by 1857 the company he joined, Dix & Edwards, failed.
It must have seemed like a misfortune at the time; but for millions of Americans who would one day enjoy the soothing landscapes of parks and campuses designed by Olmsted, it was a great stroke of luck. Casting about for a way to make a decent living in work that he could respect, Frederick Olmsted turned up one day at the engineer’s shack in the jungle of swampy underbrush and squatters’ huts that had recently been purchased by New York City for conversion into a central municipal park. He was interested in a job.
Egbert Viele, the chief engineer for the park, regarded his visitor without enthusiasm. He knew that he had some 770 acres of highly unattractive ground to clean up, drain, and somehow rearrange into what the Park Commission would be willing to call a park. What was needed, he thought, was plenty of Irish roughnecks who could wield picks and shovels, and tough straw bosses to keep them working and remind them to vote Democratic if they wanted to go on getting their four dollars a week. Olmsted, with his gentleman’s clothes and manners, hardly looked like the type, and Viele was consequently surprised when he learned that the job this man was applying for was that of superintendent of the park’s labor force.
A few days later Olmsted was back. He had the job: the park Commissioners had been greatly impressed by his varied background and the names of such men as Irving and Cooper in his dossier. Viele’s foreman, a large, muscular man with his pants stuffed into muddy boots, took the new superintendent on a tour of “the works”—taking care to lead him through the muddiest bogs, up the most thickly brambled slopes, and across the foulest-smelling areas he could find. Years later Olmsted remembered the “black and unctuous slime” through which he had slogged all that sweltering September day: “[The] low grounds were steeped in the overflow and mush of pig-sties, slaughter-houses, and bone-boiling works, and the stench was sickening.” But he was not daunted: he was already envisaging a great park for New York that would rival anything he had seen in Europe.
Within a few days the figure of Superintendent Olmsted became a familiar one to the 5OO-odd swampers and muckrakers who had been hired to face-lift the wilderness north of Fifty-ninth Street. From dawn to dusk he rode about on his horse, familiarizing himself with every tree, bush, rock, and pothole in his new domain, and “pushing up” the work gangs. His durability and quiet enthusiasm soon converted the workers’ initial scorn to tolerance, and even respect. Their attitude was expressed by one gang boss whom Olmsted found lolling under a shade tree. He laid by his newspaper, dragged himself to his feet, and sighed, “Hello, Fred; get around pretty often, don’t you?”
Now Olmsted’s prospects widened. The Park Commission voted to cut his salary from $3,000 to $1,500. But it voted something else, too. It authorized a competition, first prize $2,000, for an articulated park design to supplant Engineer Viele’s sketchy plans.