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Frederick Law Olmsted





Frederick Law Olmsted (1822 – 1903)


Central Park – “Greensward” Plan 1858

Riverside 1869

Prospect Park 1871

U.S. Capitol Grounds 1885

Stanford University 1889

Columbian Exposition 1893

Biltmore Estate 1893

Emerald Necklace (plan of 1894)

Yosemite & Mariposa Big Tree Grove 1864

He never graduated from grammar school or college. At the age of 16 when it became time to choose a career, he spent time as a surveyor, a part time student at Yale, a bookkeeper, and a sailor. He established a farm on Staten Island in 1847, by 1860 it was in ruin. He also ran a publishing firm in New York during 1855, it soon went bankrupt.

Olmsted’s experimentation as a farmer led to his journalism career. He wrote about his farm on Staten Island which led to relationships with William Cullen Bryant and Andrew Jackson Downing. In 1852, he published his book “Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England” which described a walking tour for the study of British Agriculture.

Olmsted’s first exposure to a large park set aside for the use of the public (all the citizens) was associated with the development of his publication (book). In England he visited Birkenhead Park referred to as “Peoples Park.” Later writing of Olmsted’s led to publications referring to economic and social conditions of the country, some centered on the plantation region in the south. He wrote for the New York Times and The Nation and in 1861 published The Cotton Kingdom.

New York, as well as other major commercial centers in America was growing very rapidly without appropriate planning. By the 1850’s many of the urban centers across the country were becoming difficult places to live. Crowding, heavy population growth and poverty overwhelmed city life and the opportunity for leisure activities in public open space deteriorated, and the volume of open space in the city decreased. The vast grid of streets and blocks in New York of 1811 intended on several urban park spaces to exist – most of these never happened.

William Cullen Bryant and Andrew Jackson Downing understood the need for open space in the city and suggested in 1848, that 500 acres be available for a park. More than 600 acres was eventually decided upon.

A park commission was created and the superintendent responsible for the construction of the park, was to be Frederick Law Olmsted.


Central Park 1858

New York

In 1858, Olmsted teamed with Calvert Vaux, won the design competition for the area of Central Park, with their anonymous proposal titled “GREENSWARD”.

Prior to park improvements the site of Central Park was a wasteland – swamp, heavy brush, debris from (transient) human occupation, and parts were heavily populated by goats. Existing reservoirs separated the available land for the park- hindering the ability to have singular composition.

Nearly 5 million cubic yards of soil and stone were moved and over 100 miles of drainage pipe was put in place. significant roads, planting, artificial ponds, and removal of brush occurred – all in an effort to achieve the desired landscape.

The park opened in 1862, but even before it was finished it was very successful – 25,000 visitors a day came to the park – in carriages, on foot, to play games, to ice skate. The success of Central Park led to many other parks across the country.

Emphasis in the plan was placed on the scene, long vistas, and the perception of vast space.

Grade crossing elimination’s were very important to the overall unification of the park. The four cross roads for traffic crossing the width of the park were sunk below the park grade allowing the park experience to be continuos and without traffic conflict. When the park was finally built, carriage roads, walking routes, and bridle paths within the park (and future parks – Nethermead Arches, Prospect Park) were dealt with similarly lending to a “seamless” experience of movement and vistas.

Meadows, woods, and a pedestrian mall and water terrace (Bethesda terrace) were included in the park.

– the pedestrian mall fulfilled a desire of the plan, as a place where people could “see and be seen.” The mall axis was oriented in the direction of the Ramble-a primary scenic piece of the plan.

The title Landscape Architect was first used by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux when they won the design competition for Central Park in New York City in 1858. “They professed themselves ‘landscape architects,’ inventing the name to convey their intent to bear toward the total landscape the same relation that an architect bears toward a building, with essential emphasis on design.”

Newton, Norman T. Design on the Land



Riverside 1869

near Chicago

Olmsted and Vaux designed Riverside.

Quotes about the origin of thinking leading to Riverside.

“The mere proximity of dwellings which characterize all strictly urban neighborhoods is a prolific source of morbid conditions of the body and mind, manifesting themselves in nervous feebleness . . . and various functional derangements.” (pg. 47)

The community was to be ” the best application of the art of civilization to which mankind has yet attained.” (pg. 47)

” Harmonious cooperation of men in a community and the intimate relationship and constant intercourse and interdependence between families.” (pg. 47)

The 1600 acre site had a railroad connection to the city and was an interesting landscape sloping toward the Des Plaines River.

Suburban communities prior to Riverside were typically organized on a grid pattern of streets and blocks. Olmsted and Vaux treated the landscape differently. Olmsted said of existing community plans ” no intelligent design has been pursued to secure . . . distinctly rural attractiveness.

Some of the design features included :

– no house will be placed within a certain distance of the highway.

– each homeowner would maintain one or two living trees between the house and the street.

– parks were not fenced and recreation areas were to be the “character of informal village greens.”

– roadways accounted for special features in the landscape.

– roadways were graded lower than adjacent land to have less effort on the vista – sight lines.

– roadways acknowledged and focused on the river.

– roads were curved “to suggest and imply leisure, contemplativeness, and happy tranquility.”

– types of traffic were separated – pleasure and business.

– parkway for pleasure trips to the city 6 miles away intended for commuters who wanted to ride back and forth – was not completed.


Prospect Park 1871


The long meadow is the most notable feature of Prospect Park. It gave the perception of a continuously unfolding meadow with distance that approached Olmsted’s vision of pastoral scenery.


Stanford University 1889


Olmsted’s design for Stanford campus reflected the eastern precedents of the University of Virginia and Harvard University. His proposal included a clearly defined entry, arcades to unify buildings of different uses, and central meeting places.

Olmsted also addressed issues specific to the California climate. Understanding that hot temperatures and heavy wind were the predominant problems facing comfort, he created small open spaces, courtyards, and loggias to reduce the visitors exposure to the sun.

The Mediterranean precedent for the buildings was also substantially different than the eastern models. Some pieces of Olmsted’s plan were executed, others were not.


Columbian Exposition 1893


The worlds Columbian Exposition of 1893 was organized by Chicago businesses to showcase experiments in architecture and industrial design/technology. Expositions of this type were popular in Europe from the mid 1800’s. The exposition was to be a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America.

The Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago became an urban design success. Architects, Landscape Architects, artists and other individuals worked together to create the White City. The result was a unified landscape of buildings, roadways and site amenities.

Olmsted’s contribution was as site designer – circulation patterns, central basin, lagoon, and terraces for buildings. Olmsted took advantage of vistas, and created a strong visual order.

The exposition was very successful, leading to many cities making changes in their compositions to reflect the character of the exposition – Cleveland, Chicago, San Francisco, among others.

The idea of collaboration (between many designers and others) became an important contribution to future planning.


Biltmore Estate 1893

North Carolina

Olmsted designed the roadways as pleasure drives to take advantage of the vistas, much like future parkways. He was responsible for a 4000 acre tree farm and arboretum. Olmsted approached the work as a private estate with the hope of a public future (as long term conservation). Eventually parts of Biltmore and other similar estates did end up available for public visitation as owners deeded the estates to the public in their wills.


Emerald Necklace (plan of 1894)


Franklin Park 1885

Jamaica Park 1892

Back Bay Fens 1879

Muddy River 1881

Commonwealth Avenue

Boston Common

Public Garden

Arnold Arboretum


Mariposa Big Tree Grove and Yosemite Valley

California 1864

Olmsted contributed to the creation of sate parks and national parks in America. He helped write legislation making the Mariposa Big Tree Grove and the Yosemite Valley into state parks reserved “for the free enjoyment of the people.”

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