Thursday, April 25, 2013

Frederick Law Olmsted, born April 26, 1822

Frederick Law Olmsted, oil painting by John Singer Sargent, 1895
Frederick Law Olmsted was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on April 26, 1822. His father, John Olmsted, was a prosperous merchant who took a lively interest in nature, people, and places. Frederick Law and his younger brother, John Hull, also showed this interest. His mother, Charlotte Law (Hull) Olmsted, died before his fourth birthday. His father remarried in 1827 to Mary Ann Bull, who shared her husband's strong love of nature.

Phillips Academy
When Frederick was almost ready to enter Yale College, having graduated from Phillips Academy in 1838, sumac poisoning weakened his eyes. He attended lectures at Yale for a short time, and then gave up college plans. He worked as a seaman, traveling to China and the East Indies, a merchant, and a journalist.

He was 39 years old when the Civil War began.

In January, 1848, Olmsted settled on a farm which his father helped him to acquire, located on the south shore of Staten Island, New York.  

Staten Island
This farm, originally named the Akerly Homestead, was renamed Tosomock Farm by Olmsted. (The house in which Olmsted lived still stands at 4515 Hylan Boulevard.)

Olmsted Home on Staten Island
In 1850 he traveled to England to visit public gardens, where he was greatly impressed by Joseph Paxton's Birkenhead Park.  He subsequently wrote and published Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England in 1852. This supported his getting additional work.

Birkenhead Park
He was commissioned by the New York Daily Times (now The New York Times)  to embark on an extensive research journey through the American South from 1852 to 1857. His dispatches to the Times were collected into three volumes: A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856);  A Journey Through Texas (1857);  and  A Journey in the Back Country in the Winter of 1853-4 (1860).  A one-volume abridgment, Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom (1861), was published during the first six months of the Civil War at the suggestion of Olmsted's English publisher.  To this he wrote a new introduction ("The Present Crisis") in which he stated explicitly his views on the effect of slavery on the economy and social conditions of the southern states.
"My own observation of the real condition of the people of our Slave States, gave me ... an impression that the cotton monopoly in some way did them more harm than good; and although the written narration of what I saw was not intended to set this forth, upon reviewing it for the present publication, I find the impression has become a conviction.
'. . . The citizens of the cotton States, as a whole, are poor. They work little, and that little, badly; they earn little, they sell little; they buy little, and they have little – very little – of the common comforts and consolations of civilized life. Their destitution is not material only; it is intellectual and it is moral... They were neither generous nor hospitable and their talk was not that of evenly courageous men.'
He argued that slavery had made the slave states inefficient (a set amount of work took 4 times as long in Virginia as in the North) and backward both economically and socially. The profits of slavery fell to no more than 8,000 owners of large plantations; a somewhat larger group had about the standard of living of a New York City policeman, but the proportion of the free white men who were as well-off as a Northern working man was small. Slavery meant that "the proportion of men improving their condition was much less than in any Northern community; and that the natural resources of the land were strangely unused, or were used with poor economy."

Calvert Vaux
Andrew Jackson Downing, the landscape architect from New York, was one of the first who proposed the development of New York's Central Park.  A friend and mentor to Olmsted, Downing introduced him to the English-born architect Calvert Vaux.  Downing had brought Vaux from England as his architect collaborator.  After Downing died in July 1852, Olmsted and Vaux entered the Central Park design competition together.   Vaux had invited the less experienced Olmsted to participate in the design competition with him, having been impressed with Olmsted's theories and political contacts. Prior to this, in contrast with the more experienced Vaux, Olmsted had never actually designed and executed a landscape design.

Plan for Central Park
They were announced as winners in 1858.  On his return from the South, Olmsted began executing their plan almost immediately.  The design of Central Park embodies Olmsted's social consciousness and commitment to egalitarian ideals. Influenced by Downing and his own observations regarding social class in England, China, and the American South, Olmsted believed that the common green space must always be equally accessible to all citizens. This principle is now fundamental to the idea of a "public park", but was not assumed as necessary then.
View of Willowdell Arch with the team that created Central Park.
Standing on the pathway over the span, from Right: Frederick Law Olmsted, Jacob Wrey Mould, Ignaz Anton Pilat, Calvert Vaux, George Waring, and Andrew Haswell Green
Photographed in 1862.
Olmsted argued that great public parks, such as his proposed Greensward, would function as the "lungs of the city" — green open spaces where city dwellers could breathe clean air. More accurate, in hindsight, was the emphasis Olmsted and Vaux placed on good sanitation — on well-drained land, well-circulating waterways and well-designed sanitary facilities — which reflected their knowledge of the sanitary movement and the connection the nascent field of public health had made between polluted water and disease. 

Central Park, New York City, New York
Drawing influences from English landscape and gardening, Olmsted’s principles of design encourage the full utilization of the naturally occurring features of a given space, its “genius”; the subordination of individual details to the whole so that decorative elements do not take precedence, but rather the whole space; concealment of design, design that does not call attention to itself; design which works on the unconscious to produce relaxation; and utility or purpose over ornamentation. A bridge, a pathway, a tree, a pasture: any and all elements are brought together to produce a particular effect.

Central Park
On June 13, 1859, Olmsted married Mary Cleveland (Perkins) Olmsted, the widow of his brother John (who had died in 1857).  He adopted her three sons (his nephews), among them John Charles Olmsted. Frederick and Mary had two children together who survived infancy: a daughter, Marion (born October 28, 1861) and a son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.  Their first child, John Theodore Olmsted, was born on June 13, 1860 and died in infancy.

John Charles Olmsted, nephew and adopted son
For two years during the Civil War, Olmsted took leave as director of Central Park to serve as the general secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission, which was dedicated to improving the sanitation of the Union Army's military camps and the health of Union soldiers.  
Olmsted during the Civil War
Military attitudes reflected the wider contemporary acceptance of chronic illness as a part of everyday urban life. Periodic epidemics of smallpox and yellow fever got people's attention, but in the 19th century, crowded housing and bad sanitation made killers of more common ailments such as tuberculosis, malaria, and respiratory and digestive diseases.  A turning point — a growing awareness of the harmful effects of poor sanitation — came in the wake of the Union army's horrible defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, in July 1861, in Manassas, Virginia. Beyond the military reasons for this defeat — including the inexperience of the new troops — the Sanitary Commission showed how the soldier's poor living environs had contributed to the rout, and the U.S. government finally gave Olmsted and his medical colleagues access to the camps. In his report in September 1861, on Bull Run, Olmsted showed how "excessive fatigue . . . heat, and . . . want of food and drink" led to the "demoralization" of the troops.  The Sanitary Commission inspected and made recommendations not just about the soldiers' exhaustion levels but also about design issues such as the location of camps, the provision of drainage and waste disposal, the ventilation of tents, and the storage and preparation of food.

Seal of United States Sanitary Commission
In 1862 during the Peninsula Campaign, Olmsted headed the medical effort for the sick and wounded at the White House Plantation in New Kent County, Virginia.

White House in Virginia
In addition, he helped to raise three colored (African American) regiments in New York City, and organized a fair which raised one million dollars for the Sanitary Commission. 

In 1864 he was appointed Commission of Yosemite and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove in California.

In 1865, Olmsted co-founded the magazine The Nation

Plan for Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York
Olmsted and Vaux continued their partnership to design Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York, from 1865 to 1873.  Olmsted, Vaux and Company also designed Chicago's Riverside parks; the park system for Buffalo, New York; Milwaukee, Wisconsin's necklace of parks; and the Niagara Reservation at Niagara Falls. 

Workers in Prospect Park
Olmsted was a frequent collaborator with architect Henry Hobson Richardson, for whom he devised the landscaping schemes for half a dozen projects, including Richardson's commission for the Buffalo State Asylum. 

Henry Hobson Richardson
In 1883, Olmsted established what is considered to be the first full-time landscape architecture firm in Brookline, Massachusetts.  He called the home and office compound "Fairsted."  (It is now the restored Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.)  From there, Olmsted designed Boston's Emerald Necklace, the campuses of Stanford University and the University of Chicago, as well as the 1893 World's Fair in in Chicago, among many other projects.

"Fairsted" in Brookline, Massachusetts
Olmsted was an important early leader of the conservation movement in the United States. He helped convince Congress to set up the first national park at Yosemite Valley.  To honor his early work, the promontory Olmsted Point in Yosemite National Park was named after him.

In the 1880s he was active in efforts to conserve the natural wonders of Niagara Falls, which was threatened with industrialization by the building electrical power plants. At the same time he campaigned to preserve the Adirondack region in upstate New York. He was one of the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1898.  He also worked on the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. 

Olmsted walking with his daughter, Marion

In December 1895, a mental breakdown and senility forced Olmsted to retire.  He moved to Belmont, Massachusetts and took up residence as a patient at McLean Hospital, whose grounds he had designed several years before. 

McLean Asylum, Massachusetts

He remained there until his death.

He died on August 28, 1903; he was 81 years old. 

He was buried in the Old North Cemetery, Hartford, Connecticut.

Olmsted Family Grave

After Olmsted's retirement and death, his sons, John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.,  continued the work of the firm, doing business as the Olmsted Brothers.   

Employees of the Olmsted  Brothers
 The firm lasted until 1980.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.

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