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Frederick Law Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) was born in Hartford, Connecticut. He moved to New York in the 1840s, and finally took up residence in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1893. He began his career as a scientific farmer after his health had prevented him from attending college. Subsequently, he toured Europe with his brother, served as a merchant seaman, and traveled throughout the southern United States as a newspaper correspondent, publishing several books as an outgrowth of that career.

Olmsted was appointed as Superintendent of Central Park, New York City, in 1857, early in the development of that park project. He met Calvert Vaux during the same year; they subsequently collaborated on the Greensward plan for the park (1858-1863,1865-1878), which was ultimately selected as the winning design.

In 1859, Olmsted married the widow of his brother, John, and he adopted her children. Olmsted obtained a leave of absence from his duties at Central Park in 1861 to serve as the Executive Secretary (the head of administration) of United States Sanitary Commission, which was responsible for aiding the well-being of the soldiers of the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1863, he left that organization to become manager at the Mariposa Estate in California, a gold mining venture. He later returned to New York when the project failed, joining Vaux in designing Prospect Park (1865-1873), Chicago’s Riverside subdivision, and Buffalo’s park system (1868-1876). He later teamed again with Vaux in the design of the Niagara Reservation at Niagara Falls (1887).

In 1883, he departed New York City and relocated to Brookline, Massachusetts with his practice. Failing health caused him to turn the firm over to his partners in 1895. Senility eventually forced him to be confined in the McLean Hospital at Waverly, Massachusetts, the grounds of which he had designed.

Frederick Law Olmsted died on August 28, 1903. The landscape architecture firm he founded was continued by his sons and their successors until 1980. Subsequently, his home and office were purchased by the National Park Service and opened to the public as museum. His papers are now housed in the Library of Congress, while the Olmsted National Historic site preserves the drawings and plans for much of Olmsted and his firm’s body of work.

Olmsted believed that the rural, picturesque landscape contrasted with and counteracted the confining and unhealthful conditions of the crowded urban environment and served to strengthen society by providing a place where all classes could mingle in contemplation and enjoyment of the pastoral experience. He sought to screen his “pleasure grounds” completely from the intrusions of daily life by screening them with thick plantings along their borders, separating and excluding commercial traffic, and discouraging all usages of the grounds which were not in harmony with this goal. He also strove to bring the landscape as close to as much of the urban population as possible, so that all could benefit from it.

Partners: Calvert Vaux, 1865-1872, as Olmsted and Vaux; Henry Sergeant Codman, Charles Eliot, and John Charles Olmsted, 1893-1898, as Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot, succeeded by John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Olmsted, Jr., 1898-1980, as Olmsted Brothers and later as Olmsted Associates. Remarkably, Olmsted’s practice, through his partnerships and successors, lasted well over one hundred years.