As a young boy, Frederick Law Olmsted was curious about the Biblical figure John the Baptist, the prophet who reportedly ate locusts and wild honey. So when he found a honey-locust tree Olmsted tried to eat one of its pods. But instead of changing his interest when he found it inedible, young Frederick chose to plant a pod from the same tree and patiently nurture it into a sapling. Such was the spirit of the man who would go on to shape the face of public spaces and recreation in America.
Although known primarily as a landscape architect, Olmsted was first a respected journalist who presented significant research he’d done on slavery in America. He abhorred slavery on moral grounds but chose to attack it in a more objective way, arguing that slavery was bad for the Southern economy (the roughly 8,000 plantation owners hoarded the wealth), which in turn kept the vast majority of citizens in Southern states uneducated and illiterate (he reported that the South’s illiteracy rate was 30 times greater than in his home state of Connecticut).
His breakthrough moment as a landscape architect came when he won the international competition to design Central Park in Manhattan in 1858. His winning design was the first he’d ever drawn and executed.
Beauty mattered to Olmsted. He understood that it had the power to make society better, more humane, more integrated. And combining beauty with public spaces brought people of different religions, cultures, and economic classes together in harmony. Olmsted wanted equal access for all citizens to these “public” parks, which until then was a foreign concept.
An incredibly prolific designer, Olmsted’s commissions include such noteworthy spaces as the Capitol Grounds in Washington D.C., Niagara Falls State Park, the Universities of Stanford, Yale, Chicago, U.C. Berkeley, and Wellesley, the Emerald Necklace in Boston, the Mariposa Mining Estate in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the entire parks and parkway system in Louisville, Kentucky.
During the Civil War Olmsted served as the Executive Secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a precursor the Red Cross, and personally recruited three regiments of African American soldiers in New York for the Union Army.
After the war he became a leader of the conservationist movement in the United States, and influenced the decision to designate Yosemite Valley as a public reserve as well as saving Niagara Falls from being industrialized for the use of electrical power plants.
Colleague Daniel Burnham said of Olmsted, “An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views.”
And this world is a more beautiful place in every way because of it.
Frederick Law Olmsted is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr Ross Porter.