- 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
Half-way up the Hill, in a grove of rare trees—willow oak, cedrela, two aralias, and the golden catalpa—Olmsted provided a “summer house,” or rest arbor, covered with ivy to blend it into the surrounding verdure. He led water down from an old drinking fountain on the Hill, in a rivulet through rockwork laced with more ivy. He took care to make this a cool retreat for legislators and their foot-sore visitors, though not so cloistered that it might be used for what he called “improper purposes.”
He studied how he might make the Capitol clearly visible from not less than a dozen angles. This required shaving eight feet off the top of the Hill on the eastern side. Some experts had been for cutting down all the trees there and starting over again with saplings. The root systems of the old trees, stifled in sun-baked clay, had risen to the surface, where their only nourishment was street sweepings that were spread around when available. Most of the trees were shrunken and stunted, old before their time. Nevertheless, Olmsted managed to salvage 157 of them. Among these he scattered imports from all over the country. In his dendrological census of 1882 he proudly listed 229 species and variants. To this day one can read on the Capitol grounds such strange and wonderful names as fringe tree, yellowwood, cut-leaved beech, Kentucky coffee tree, umbrella tree, turkey oak.
In 1878 Olmsted took a much-needed holiday abroad—spent largely, and typically, in looking at European parks and collecting botanical specimens. After his return he shifted his center of operations from New York to Boston, residing in nearby Brookline, where he surrounded himself with his family, his business associates, and his pupils. When they became old enough, his stepson John Charles and his own son Frederick Law, Jr., (“Ricky”) began to play important roles in the firm.
Upon Ricky especially the maestro lavished attention ranging from deep affection to the sharp demands of a martinet. He hammered at the boy, for his own good and that of the firm, to become erudite in botany and dendrology (as he himself was not). In the long nights when he could not sleep, on trains and in strange hotels, Olmsted wrote a ceaseless flow of letters and reports. Scores of his letters were written to Ricky —quizzing, admonishing, exhorting, preaching a gospel of hard work and strict application to minutest professional detail. From field notes jotted on a cheap pocket pad he would, in the long evenings, scribble in pencil rough drafts of his planning, with trial phrases to go into the formal presentation, and minutely calculated cost estimates. His brain became a compendium of prices on items ranging from grass seed to drain pipes, from new shovels to sugar maples.
When, in the late i88o’s, Chicago’s Columbian Exposition was projected for 1893, Frederick Olmsted was the unanimous choice of Daniel H. Burnham and John W. Root, chiefs of the mixed committee of architects, sculptors, painters, and builders, to be their head landscape man.
On the flat lakeside prairie land chosen for the Exposition grounds there were no headlands, no mountain heights or valley depths, no rippling water courses. Olmsted would have to exploit his utmost skill to make it into an attractive background for the great Exposition. He did it so well that the 150 buildings of the “Great White City,” in themselves a somewhat garish display, were set off superbly amid an artful network of canals—and the grounds later became Jackson Park, still a sylvan refuge for Chicagoans.
When all was completed, and when the whole creative group dined together one night in New York, Burnham’s toast to Olmsted surpassed all others: “[He is] first in the hearts and confidence of all American artists. He paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountainsides and ocean views.…”
In the same years that the Chicago fair was being planned, young George Washington Vanderbilt decided to distribute on a vast scale some of his vast patrimony. In the mighty mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, then a high-fashion health and winter resort, he wanted to build the biggest, swankiest, most fabulous country place in all America.
Vanderbilt hired Richard Morris Hunt, then president of the American Institute of Architects, and took him to France for a tour of the château country. Upon his return, he sent for Frederick Law Olmsted and commissioned him to lay out a proper setting for the magnificent château that Hunt would build. He wanted Biltmore, as he called it, complete in every imaginable detail, even to market gardens and orchards, a grain and livestock farm, courtyards of espaliered fruit trees, and a pool for cultivated watercress. The gilded youth also brought Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, to Biltmore to turn 6,000 acres of Blue Ridge timberlands into a model forest-products operation. There was nothing picayune about George Washington Vanderbilt, aged twenty-eight.