- 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
Private commissions began to pour in almost faster than they could handle them—for parks, college campuses, private estates, and a variety of institutional grounds. This entailed wide travel, much of which Olmsted undertook. The partners’ collaboration was close and friendly, but both were argumentative men, and after seven years (in 1872) they decided amicably to go their separate ways. Vaux was inclined to think that Olmsted was a limelight stealer. Nothing could have been further from Olmsted’s intention. He was sincere and grateful when he said, “Without Vaux, I should have been nowhere.”
The burgeoning landscape business took Olmsted seven times across the continent between 1866 and 1895, and he did business in every state and territory except Alaska. He always tried to keep a watchful eye on the development of earlier projects even as he took on new ones. In New York, until he was eased out as park architect in 1878, he fought a long battle with the Tweed machine, whose aggressive managers had little concern for the beauty of their city’s chief natural preserve, but saw it rather as a place to put public buildings—at enormous private profit. In this struggle, in which he was largely successful, Olmsted often found his old partner, Vaux, at his side; and many of the town’s most distinguished citizens also rallied to save the great park from the spoilers.
Meanwhile, masterpieces of landscape design that have since become part of almost every American’s familiar experience continued to come from Olmsted’s prolific mind. Perhaps as challenging as any were his projects at Niagara Falls and at the U. S. Capitol.
The Niagara plans were among the last on which Olmsted and Vaux collaborated. When he approached the problem of redeeming the Falls from vulgarization, Olmsted observed: “Within certain limits at Niagara there are probably a larger number of distinct and rare qualities of beauty in combinations of rock, foliage, mist, sky and water than in any other equal space on the earth’s surface.” He spent much time discovering just how many visitors went there, whence they came, why more did not come, why they stayed so briefly—and departed in such ill humor; what it cost them for rooms, meals, carriages, guides, admissions to vantage points, souvenirs, side trips. He was outraged to discover that a sight-seer might spend as much as twenty dollars in one day to take in all the “attractions” on the Canadian side alone. On the American side it was even worse. For a mile or more above and below the cataract, hucksters were in control of every spot from which anything could be seen.
Olmsted thought a visitor ought to be able to tour the Falls, to view and enjoy them in peace and quiet, staying as long as he wanted at any spot, for a flat fee of perhaps twenty-five cents. Under private ownership and exploitation this was impossible. So Olmsted wanted the state of New York not only to buy up all the property on its side of the river’s edge and the chasm’s brink, but to wipe out all concessions. He would raze all the tawdry riverside buildings—sawmill, machine shop, paper plant, cabinetworks, Indian store —and put nothing in their place. The riverbank and bluffs would be restored to their natural state. He would screen off the remainder of Niagara village with a row of trees along the ridge top.
When the legislature dragged its feet on underwriting this great reclamation project, Olmsted characteristically followed through by mobilizing public opinion. But not until 1883–85 was the money voted to preserve “the deathless glory” for generations of honeymooners.
When Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant had blueprinted Washington, B.C., in 1790, he provided ample room for growth and embellishment around the hilltop Capitol building. Over the years this space got lost in the shuffle. By 1873, when the Senate and House wings were completed, and the massive dome had been superimposed, the Capitol looked like an overgrown mushroom squashed in amongst stables, workshops, the street railway, and a scrubby stand of woods. Moreover, this home of Congress arid the Supreme Court appeared to have its broad back turned on the rest of the government, whose buildings were spaced out along Pennsylvania Avenue, northwest toward the White House.
Frederick Olmsted was called in to renovate Capitol Hill and its approaches in 1874. What bothered him most was that about-faced appearance of the great edifice, and the way it seemed to squat so gracelessly. He went to work on the weed-grown mounds that had been thrown up when excavations were made for the two wings. He moved the earth to build out, on the west side, a long, broad terrace—later surfaced with marble—thus forming a proper visual pediment for the whole imposing structure, giving it firmer stance. Now the great dome would cease to overpower the design, and the view across the Potomac to the horizon in the Virginia hills was vastly improved.
Two spacious marble stairways led up to his new terrace, replacing the steep and stingy wooden flights of steps, little better than ladders, from the foot of the Hill. Wide walkways and lawns were laid out below, so that the west grounds became the Capitol’s true frontal approach instead of its mean back yard.