- 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
By 1860 both Olmsted and Vaux had moved their households into quarters on the grounds of the emergent park itself, now expanded to 840 acres. Vaux did most of the desk work and drawing, while Olmsted rode his horse out early and late to supervise the actual execution of the plans. The work force excavated and filled, graded and regraded, drained old ponds and dug new ones, ripped out unwanted growths and tilled a nursery to supply replacements. In the face of bitter opposition from some segments of public opinion, and fighting a running skirmish against greedy Tammany politicians who saw the whole park project as a good chance to line their pockets, Olmsted and Vaux pushed ahead. They insisted on their sunken lateral roads and their rule against superfluous buildings—only a museum, a concert hall, a botanical conservatory, and dressing rooms for the park playgrounds were to be allowed.
In the fall of 1859, just when all was going well, Olmsted had gotten typhoid fever. As part of his convalescence, he went abroad to study foreign park projects, notably the reshaping of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. Soon after his return, while riding through New York with his wife and their first child, he was unable to stop a runaway horse, and their carriage was wrecked. Mary and the baby, thrown clear, were unhurt, but Olmsted suffered a triple thigh fracture that left him with a lifelong limp.
By now, however, Frederick Law Olmsted knew his true profession, and he was not to be discouraged. He pressed on with the work on Greensward, in the early weeks after his accident, often visiting crucial points in the project on a litter carried by workmen. The development of the park progressed apace.
So did Olmsted’s reputation. The new park was the biggest social and cultural project ever undertaken by New York or any other American city. Its architectin-chief became well known among business and professional leaders for the enlightened mastery with which he ruled over his labor force, the economy and thoroughness of his methods, and his determination to realize as much of his ideals as could possibly be made consistent with the demands of practical necessity. It was ironic that this new reputation, and the fact that the nation was now plunging into the agony of the Civil War, would take Frederick Olmsted temporarily away from his profession just when he had discovered what it was.
The experience of the Crimean War had lately demonstrated, through the efforts of Florence Nightingale, what could be done to relieve the suffering of wounded and sick soldiers in field hospitals. The United States Sanitary Commission—a forerunner of the American Red Cross—was organized in New York to back up the Army Medical Corps with a volunteer service providing aids and comforts. Work on Central Park had been interrupted, and Olmsted, no doubt with mixed feelings, accepted a call to become executive secretary of the new commission in 1861. Soon he was deeply involved in this new and demanding aspect of the war effort. He was successful, despite a painful exposure to the chaos of cross-purposes, difficulties of supply, disgruntled and jealous subordinates and superiors, and frustrated plans typical of such administrative programs in time of war. Once he had the commission well launched, and its goals insured of support in the form of the Union League Club (which he helped found), Olmsted decided to bow out. He was in poor health; his lame leg was giving him trouble; his family finances were very low. It was time, he felt, for a change of scene.
A change came in the form of a commercial venture in the Far West. He undertook the management of the Mariposa Mining Estate—a complex of supposedly rich gold and silver mines near Bear Valley, California. As it turned out, it was a disastrous legal mess, if not a gross swindle, and after two years of loyal attempts to unscramble matters, Olmsted found himself frozen out of his job. However, he had not come west just for money: he had come for his health and for a renewal of his belief that the intelligent manipulation of human environment could add immeasurably to human happiness. Surveying and exploring trips in the High Sierras and in Yosemite Valley, sometimes with his family, had given new impetus to his always intense love of natural beauty. The rugged grandeur of the scenery was unlike anything he had ever seen in the East, and Olmsted took the initiative in a move to preserve the Yosemite area as a permanent public park. Explaining his role in later years, he wrote: “In the year 1864 … I had the honor to be made chairman of the first Yosemite Commission, and in that capacity to take possession of the Valley for the State, to organize and direct the survey of it and to be the executive of various measures taken to guard the elements of its scenery from fires, trespassers and abuse.” Yosemite National Park was to be not the least of the natural monuments to Frederick Law Olmsted.
Soon after the end of his western venture in 1865, the partnership of Vaux and Olmsted, landscape architects, was revived. Olmsted had kept his hand in, while in California, by providing a design for the campus of the new College of California at Berkeley. Now he and Vaux were reappointed as designers for New York’s Central Park, on which work resumed at the close of the Civil War. Other successful public works followed as they pushed Greensward toward completion—chief among them the laying out of huge Prospect Park as a permanent source of solace for benighted Brooklyn.