- 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
Olmsted’s friend Andrew Jackson Downing, editor of the Horticulturist , had imported from England a young architect named Calvert Vaux to help him lay out subscribers’ gardens. When Vaux read the park contest announcement, he urged Olmsted to collaborate with him in submitting a design. The conscientious New Englander demurred, questioning the propriety of competing against his superior, Viele. But when he learned that Viele did not care, Olmsted flung himself into arduous sessions with the Englishman.
Entrants in the Central Park competition must have been appalled when they contemplated surveys of the tract they were called on to modify. It was an oblong about two and one-half miles from north to south by a half mile wide, comprising a number of obdurate rocky ridges and low crags, numerous stagnant sinkholes in trickling spring runs, a few open hayfields, and scatterings of wild timber that grew thickest at the north end. On high ground in the center lay a bluntly rectangular city reservoir; in the southwest corner there were an arsenal and a drill field.
The basic problem, after removing some scattered hovels and habitations, was to render this wilderness into a “pleasure ground” accessible and enjoyable for large numbers of people who would be moving through it afoot, on horseback, or in vehicles, or seeking recreation at games and picnics, or just sitting still. Viele’s plans promoted these ends only to the extent of providing carriage roads along routes of least resistance, circuiting the traffic past such features as the reservoir and the arsenal. To encompass the entire 770 acres in an over-all design that would utilize and harmonize all of its parts was a large order—far larger than anything American landscapers had ever tried.
Some idea of the way Olmsted’s mind worked in approaching their problem can be gained from a passage he had written in his English travelogue: “What artist, so noble, … as he who, with far-reaching conception of beauty and designing power, sketches the outline, writes the colors, and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations, before the work he has arranged for her shall realize his intentions!” It was a statement that in effect served as an epigraph for the rest of his life. He had a deep, simple conviction that, as he wrote later, the park’s only “reason for being” was to offer the city’s population, as it swelled and cramped itself, “pleasurable and soothing relief from building.… Building can be brought within the business of the Park proper only as it will aid escape from buildings.…”
Olmsted and Vaux foresaw that “twenty years hence the town will have enclosed the Central Park.… No longer an open suburb, our ground will have around it a continuous high wall of brick, stone and marble [buildings].” Therefore, they argued, let the park provide a profusion of varied, verdant scenery rendered as wild and natural as would be compatible with human use. Besides bland meadows, placid lakes, and stately woods, there should be shady dells, bushy copses, virginal thickets. Where naked rocks cropped out, let them be planted round with such shrubs and mosses as would suggest an alpine scene. Let there be long and spacious promenades, and bridle paths untrammelled by other traffic.
The contest specifications called for four or more transverse roads to carry cross-park traffic, thus dividing the long rectangle into five segments. Olmsted and Vaux foresaw what this traffic would be like: … coal carts and butchers’ carts, dust carts and dung carts … eight times in a single circuit of the park will they oblige a pleasure drive or stroll to encounter a turbid stream of coarse traffic, constantly moving at right angles to the line of the park movement.
The transverse roads will also have to be kept open, while the park proper will be useless for any good purpose, after dusk, for experience has shown that even in London, with its admirable police arrangements, the public cannot be secured safe transit through large open spaces of ground after nightfall.
These public thoroughfares will then require to be well lighted at the sides, and, to restrain marauders pursued by the police from escaping into the obscurity of the park, strong fences or walls, six or eight feet high will be necessary.
Therefore, said Olmsted and Vaux—and herein lay one of the innovations of their plan—let the four transverse roads be sunk below ground level, with bridges over them for the park’s pleasure traffic. “The banks on each side will be walled up to the height of about seven feet, thus forming the protective barrier required by police considerations, and a little judicious planting … above these walls will … conceal both the roads and the vehicles moving in them.”
The title Olmsted and Vaux gave their design was “Greensward.” Of the thirty-four plans submitted, it was the last to reach the judges, just under the wire. It won the $2,000. It also won, for Olmsted, the post of architect-in-chief of the park, at $2,500 a year. These bright tokens of 1858 were encouraging, but they were only a beginning. Seven more years of vicissitudes, some of them circumstantial, some arising from Olmsted’s restless nature, would pass before he truly settled into his métier.
John Olmsted, after seeking health in Italy and Switzerland, had died of tuberculosis in Nice in 1857. Perhaps it was a combination of a New England sense of duty to his brother’s family and a deep latent affection that led Frederick, in June of 1859, to marry the young widow, Mary Perkins Olmsted, and adopt her three children. It was to be a quiet but happy marriage, blessed with a son and daughter of their own.