October 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 6
Frederick Law Olmsted founded a new artistic profession in America. Today he is scarcely known by the millions who use and enjoy his works
From the time of Cheops to that of Frank Lloyd Wright, mankind has celebrated the architect—the designer who contrives shelter and structural grandeur for nature’s most thin-skinned and prideful animals. Not so honored has been a less obvious designer: the landscape architect, who, when man’s huddled dwellings threaten to stifle him, preserves or rearranges the natural surroundings to give vistas that will make him less forlorn.
Only a century ago, public parks and pleasure grounds of any considerable si/e were nonexistent in America. So, for the most part, were graciously landscaped private estates and other than hapha/ard college or school campuses. Except on the feudal baronies of the Hudson Valley and a few plantations of the South, where wealthy landowners gave some heed to the tailoring of their woodlands and meadows and to judicious planting of trees for shade and decor, landscape architecture was an art (and, indeed, a term) unknown. Few people went beyond mere landscape gardening—the formal, stylized cultivation of !lowering plants, rare or otherwise.
The man who changed all that—who designed Central Park for New York City, great municipal parks in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, and many other cities; the grounds of the Capitol in Washington; the campuses of Yale, Princeton, Williams, Amlierst, Dartmouth, Smith, Cornell, and Stanford (to name only a small sampling of his work)—was, until the age of thirty-five, only a remarkable dilettante. He had tried merchandising, seafaring, fanning, and journalism, supplemented by a good deal of travelling in both Europe and America, without finding his profession. This pioneer and genius, the first in America to merit the title of landscape architect, was Frederick Law Olmsted, born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822.
Yet it may be wrong to call Olmsted a dilettante, just as it may be more accurate to say not that lie Rnally found his profession, but that he founded it. Although it was almost by accident that, in 1857, he plunged into his first real job of landscape design—Central Park—the disparate pieces of his earlier career can be seen in retrospect as related elements. When the catalyst of time and opportunity was ready, they crystallixed into a pattern of highly specialized talent.
Ihe father of this extraordinary man was lohn Olmsted, a Hartford merchant grown rich through a lifetime of hard work in his dry-goods store. Despite this affluence, the education of his oldest son was informal, to say the least. After his mother died in 1826, the youngster was farmed out for tutoring to a succession of three “dames’ and six country parsons. During vacations he visited around among assorted relatives, including one salty old great-uncle who taught him tree grafting and other rural skills. At home, he was often free to roam the rough Connecticut landscape.
The boy usually carried rod or gun, but he spent much of his time afield just absorbing impressions of nature, not daydreamily but with concentration. He drank in the sweep of hills and streams, forests and meadows, but he also looked closely at their components. More than the wild fauna, the flora of his surroundings and the soils and rocks from which they sprang captured his attention.
Young Olmsted also had a bookish bent. More than half a century later, when he was famous as a landscape designer, he recalled that in Hartford’s public library he found “certain books, which it is a strange thing that I should have looked into, stranger that I should have assimilated.… They were Price on the Picturesque and Gilpin on Forest Scenery … I put them into the hands of my pupils as soon as they come into our office, saying: ‘You are to read these seriously, as a student of law would read Blackstone.’ ”
When he was fourteen a case of sumac poisoning nearly cost him his eyesight. This ended his preparations for Yale, and reduced his adolescent reading to haphazard dips into literature and natural science. But he was for a time apprenticed to a topographical engineer, and learned some important skills: the fundamentals of surveying and what lie himself called “ready, off-hand reconnoitering … invaluable in our profession.” He learned to eye-estimate distances, heights, angles, rates of grade; to pace off measurements accurately; to find his way in timber; to predict drainage patterns.
His father remarried, and the stepmother was warmly compatible with Fred and his younger brother, John. In time there were two half sisters and one more boy. On several occasions the whole family went for long, leisurely carriage and canal trips through the northeastern United States and Canada. It was a pleasant, relaxed sort of childhood and adolescence, fondly remembered by Olmsted all his life.
When he was eighteen, however, his father placed him with a firm of French textile importers in New York City, to give him some business experience. The young man disliked the work and languished indoors. He stuck it out nearly two years, and then, his eyes having improved, went up to Yale for a year of lectures in science and engineering. In the spring of 1843, tired of this, he shipped before the mast 0:1 the Ronaldson , a barque in the China trade whose captain was a friend of his father’s. He sailed around Africa, through the East Indies, to Hong Kong and back; but he was astonished at the brutish conditions of shipboard life. Seamen, he observed afterward, “are more wretched, and are governed more by threats of force than any other civili/ed laborers of the world.” Yet he got from this rough experience some insight into what would, in the end, become his professional concern: the effect of a particular environment on human happiness. He also got a bad case of scurvy.
His younger brother, John, was now a student at Yale, and when his health was good enough Frederick joined him there, again as a “special” student—a kind of honorary member of the class of 1847, among whom he made many close friends. But the problem of an occupation was still unsolved. Considering all his varied interests, Olmsted decided that scientific fanning might be the answer.
He learned much about it under a man named George Geddes, about whose model farm at Owego, New York, he had read in a newspaper. Geddes not only farmed well but took a sharp interest in politics and social theory. He set his protégé to thinking long and deeply about slavery as well as husbandry—a turn of interest that in a few years would bring an end to his farming and start a new phase in his career. Meanwhile, on a small farm of his own near Guilford, Connecticut, and later on 130 acres of Staten Island purchased for him by his patient father, Olmsted farmed with scientific care and with good results. He raised some profitable crops of corn and cabbages, pri/e wheat, and line turnips. More significantly, he devoted much time to rearranging his landscape and to en joynig the superb seascapes visible from South Side, as he called his lärm. Hc moved his barn and other outbuildings behind a hill to hide their homeliness. Hc lawncd the banks of his horsepond and brightened up its margins with water plants. He turfed over an ugly entrance and brought a gravelled driveway around to his house in a graceful curve.
As for the views, his own descriptions were eloquent: southward, “the dark blue ocean, with forever distant sails coming tip or sinking as they bid good-bye to America”; westward, the distant hills of Xew Jersey that “sweep off gradually growing into something like mountains.… A long, yellowish white streak … is the sand and spray or foam of Sandy Hook and the three singularly distinct sails arc nothing but its three white light-houses.”
By 1850 the young farmer was getting restless again. A holiday in Europe with brother (ohn and Charles !trace, a good friend from Yale, was suggested, and Olmsted eagerly agreed. They made a walking trip through Germany, Belgium, France, and the British Isles, spending an average of only a dollar a day each. Everywhere they went, Frederick Olmsted applied his boundless curiosity and searching attention not only (o soils, drainage, manures, tools, crops, and livestock, but to the homes, grounds, social customs, and recreation of the people. There was much to impress him in the well-ordered hedgerows of rural England: “a great deal,” he wrote, “of quiet, peaceful, graceful beauty which the works of man have generally added to and which I remember but little like at home.” On the other hand, he was typically critical of the over-all working conditions of laborers both on farms and in cities; his acute sensitivity to man-made ugliness and misery was stirred.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Even so, his imagination and enterprise did not outrun the mind of Frederick Law Olmsted, aged sixty-eight. This perfectionist now saw his chance to create, in a spot uniquely favored by elevation, temperature, and rainfall, a superarboretum containing specimens of every known tree and woody plant that would grow there. It would be a tree collection containing two or more specimens of some 4,200 species from all over the globe. Even while he sweated out the myriad details of Vanderbilt’s roads and culverts, walls and bridges, lawns and hedges and lakes and vistas, Olmsted covertly contrived his dendrological masterpiece. It had to be done covertly because he suspected that even George Vanderbilt had extended himself to his limit for the time being, and would not stand still for a high-salaried scientific arboretum staff.
Before laying his final plans in front of George Vanderbilt, or any other client, it was Olmsted’s custom to keep them long in his mind “as a sculptor keeps his work under damp cloths, in a plastic form.” In May of 1895, with the great arboretum still in a preliminary stage and Mr. Vanderbilt not yet told of its dazzling destiny, Olmsted made a grave discovery. His mind was slipping. He wrote to his son John: My memory as to recent occurrences is not to be trusted. If Rick had not been with me and had not privately set me right, I should have shown the fact in a flagrant way to Mr. Vanderbilt. I think it is my duty to tell you this at once in order that you may take measures to guard the business from possible consequences … I have no reason to think that I have lost capacity in respect to invention, design or reasoning powers.… [But] I should not be permitted to deal with clients alone.… [It is] precisely that condition, I suppose, which leads to the rule that military and naval officers shall be retired at “seventy.”
Olmsted, now seventy-three, had eight years to live.
So, what with Gifford Pinchot’s scorn for its horticulturally “freakish” aspects, Olmsted’s prudence about trying George Vanderbilt prematurely, and the new mental difficulty, the Biltmore arboretum, greatest of the Olmsted dreams, never fully materialized.
But George Vanderbilt fully appreciated all that Olmsted had done at Biltmore and elsewhere. In the same week that the brave letter quoted above was written, he fitted up a studio in the château and had John Singer Sargent down from Boston to paint the grand old man’s portrait (see page 14) along with architect Hunt’s. It hangs at Biltmore, which is open to the public, to this day.
After 1895 Olmsted had to cut down on his travel, and by 1898 he was confined to his home at Brookline; by 1899 he was beyond recall. Until then, while his mind lasted, he kept his fingers on the business and still corresponded vigorously if not always lucidly.
Frederick Law Olmsted died in the summer of 1903. Before the curtains of his mind closed, he became well aware how vain had been his thought that all his works, let alone his name, would live forever; that later men would not change the one or forget the other. Upstarts altered many of his favorite conceptions within his lifetime, and as for his repute, he could but agree with old H. W. S. Cleveland, one of the few landscape designers of his time whom he respected. In 1894, at eighty, Cleveland had penned an epilogue for them both.
He was telling Olmsted about how an admirer had said of Olmsted’s work on the campus of Williams College, in Massachusetts: “Long after Emerson and Longfellow are forgotten, [Olmsted] will live in enduring monuments.”
Wrote Cleveland: “You will appreciate the quiet laugh I had in my sleeve over that last sentence, if your experience corresponds with mine,—that hardly one man in a hundred knows who designed such work ten years after it is done.”