Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (2024)

In the Center of New York City lies Central Park, the eye of an urban hurricane, green, sunny, and tranquil. So it has remained for over one hundred years, the gray storm around it spiraling out many miles into the once-quiet farming country surrounding Manhattan Island. Twenty other cities in the United States and Canada have set aside similar parks, all of them monuments to the tenacity, vision, and artistic skill of Frederick Law Olmsted, who also laid out the Fenway in Boston, presented the first plan for the Berkeley campus of the University of California, and designed the grounds and suggested the great terrace of the United States Capitol. His accomplishments seem so worthwhile and far-sighted today that it is hard to imagine they were once stigmatized as impractical dreams.

Olmsted left another monument: his personal and professional papers comprise some 60,000 separate items which cover the span of years from 1838 to 1903. His well-known books on the South in the 1850s gained him a lasting reputation as an acute and perceptive observer, but these represent the writings of a few years. The major part of his writing was for a private, or at least a limited public, audience. Olmsted’s best and most representative letters and papers are printed here for the first time and contain accurate and shrewd observations of nineteenth-century American life from one who witnessed and participated in the major events of his day. In his various roles as park planner, gentleman farmer, or newspaper correspondent, he was always looking to the future, even to anticipate the needs of the freed slave in adjusting to independent citizenship. Just as his designed parks were intended to enhance the lives of future generations living in greatly expanded cities, his planned suburbs were to be part of a metropolitan area far beyond the imagining of the real-estate speculator of his day.

[4Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (1)]

Frederick Law Olmsted, the first child of John Olmsted and Charlotte Hull, was born on April 26, 1822. Fortunately, his father, a well-established dry-goods merchant in Hartford, Connecticut, was able to support his growing family comfortably, so that he could travel with them on extensive vacation trips, send the children to the best private schools, even abroad for further education. But John Olmsted’s first wife died shortly after the birth of another son, and he did not trust his own generous instincts in the rearing of their first-born. He thought the village ministers of Connecticut could do a better job than he, both in providing a daily example of piety and moral probity and in teaching the child how to read, write, and calculate.

Frederick Olmsted had already tried several schools in Hartford by the time he was seven, when he was sent to live with the Reverend Zolva Whitmore, a Congregational minister of North Guilford who enjoyed gardening and flowers. Much later in his life Olmsted was to look back on this stay as a rural idyll. His lessons at the village school and duties on Whitmore’s farm were not so onerous that he could not listen to the talk at the village store in the evening, go on his own exploring expeditions in the woods and fields, or satisfy his curiosity about such rural activities as beekeeping and the drilling of the local militia.

The free and pleasant life at North Guilford came suddenly to an end, perhaps because the elder Olmsted thought his son should have a more rigorous education. Unfortunately, in his attempt to find the ideal tutor, John Olmsted moved his son twelve times before his elementary and high school education were considered complete in 1840.

If the first of these experiments was the happiest, the longest and loneliest was his five years at Newington, Connecticut, in a drafty clapboard building that the minister, Joab Brace, had set up in his farmyard to house four pupils. Brace, who was stern and awesome, kept the little boys under his care busy from before dawn until bedtime. When he was not occupied by his lessons, Olmsted was set to hours of wood-chopping. Joab Brace did not take time to conduct Olmsted’s scripture lessons. He delegated those to some bigger boys and girls of the village, whom Olmsted thought ignorant, bullying, and conceited.

At vacation times Olmsted returned home to several half-brothers and -sisters much younger than he, and to a brother, John Hull Olmsted, who came to share more and more in his life. John must have provided the sympathy, ready ear, and sense of humor that Olmsted’s busy father and stepmother apparently could not give this energetic, independent, and perhaps somewhat obstreperous young man. Another person who had the patience and time to devote to young Olmsted was his scholarly uncle, Jonathan Law, a friend of John Greenleaf Whittier, who read Latin poetry to his[5Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (2)]nephew, shared his library with him, and gave him a plot in his garden for experiments in horticulture.

The senior Olmsteds were fond of taking long family trips, sometimes by public coach or canal boat, and often in the family carriage, to the White Mountains, the Maine coast, and into upper New York State. They stayed at the local inns along the way and searched out the picturesque views described in the travel books of such writers as Timothy Dwight and Benjamin Silliman. Although they themselves were inarticulate about such matters, the elder Olmsteds were eager for their children to appreciate the beauties of landscape in which they found evidence of the goodness of God. When we consider the tastes of his family and their interest in travel, it seems no accident that the boy who was to become a great landscape architect had read such eighteenth-century English writers on the picturesque as Uvedale Price and William Gilpin. They instructed the British gentry on how to lay out their country estates and how to appreciate scenery on their travels.

Olmsted’s wide, indiscriminate reading and his vacation trips with his family meant much more to him than the tedious memorizing and catechizing that the village schools and country parsons demanded. He had hoped to go on to Yale, but his formal education was cut short when he was fifteen by a case of sumac poisoning that spread to his eyes and threatened him with blindness. A New York doctor advised him to forgo college and spend as much time as possible outdoors until his eyes were better. His father sent him off to study civil engineering with Frederick Augustus Barton, then teaching in Phillips Academy at Andover, Massachusetts.

The regime of Professor Barton for the next three years turned out to be much to Olmsted’s liking. He learned some of the rudiments of surveying, but spent most of his time fishing, hunting, or collecting rocks and plants. He also amused himself by drawing plans of hypothetical towns and cities. It was a period of his life which he enjoyed recalling later, maintaining that the instruction in surveying, the town planning, and the outdoor life were unwitting preparation for his later career as a landscape architect.

John Olmsted, though, could not have foreseen a connection between this boyhood idyll and his son’s future professional life. He decided that the boy should next learn French and see how he liked business. He arranged that his son start clerking at the store of James Benkard and Benjamin H. Hutton, importers of French silks on Beaver Street in New York. Olmsted missed his carefree life at Barton’s and did not find the attractions of his job or the city enough to keep him in New York much more than a year and a half.

After a period back in Hartford enjoying the whirl of parties there[6Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (3)]and making visits to New Haven to see his brother and other friends at Yale College, Olmsted suddenly decided to go to sea. On April 24, 1843, he left New York on the bark Ronaldson under Captain Warren Fox as an apprentice seaman bound for Canton, China. The voyage around the Cape of Good Hope and on to Hong Kong lasted until September. Olmsted was sick and miserable much of the time. To the end of his life, he remembered the wretched conditions of life on board the Ronaldson and the rain and spray dripping down on his bunk in the forecastle.

The Ronaldson had to wait until December to load a cargo of tea, cassia, and raw silk, because another Gordon and Talbot ship had to be filled first and shipment of tea from the interior of China was delayed. Sickness and duties on the ship kept Olmsted from seeing much of Canton in spite of the weeks the ship lay at anchor in Whampoa Reach. The voyage home, starting on December 30, was made wretched by scurvy and overwork which drove the crew close to mutiny. Olmsted’s nearly disastrous adventure ended on April 15, 1844, when the Ronaldson docked in New York.

Home again, the twenty-two-year-old Olmsted decided that, instead of becoming a civil engineer, a merchant, or a ship captain, he would be a scientific farmer. This seemed the best and most useful life both for himself and to serve his countrymen, the majority of whom were farmers too. As a start, Olmsted visited his uncle David Brooks’s nearby farm in Cheshire, Connecticut, for a few months in late 1844 and early 1845. During May, after looking for another place near Boston or Northampton, he settled at Joseph Welton’s farm, close to Waterbury, Connecticut, with which he was very pleased. Welton made a great impression on Olmsted. Much later he recalled that he had hardly ever known so good a man: not one of his teachers had been more conscientious or led a more simple, healthy, moral life.

He took time off from the practical study of agriculture to visit his brother, John, then starting his sophom*ore term at Yale in the fall of 1845. Although Olmsted was not an enrolled student, he probably had a chance to hear some of Benjamin Silliman’s lectures on chemistry and scientific agriculture. He joined John and some of his friends in experiments in Silliman’s laboratory, and they included him in their discussions and social life.

The months spent in New Haven seem to have been a turning point in Olmsted’s early life. Until he had made the decision to become a scientific farmer, he had been following the advice of his father and his family. Now, on his own, he had found a career that would benefit his fellow countrymen, coincide with the noblest aims of science, and happily fulfill his own love of outdoor life. At the same time, the romantic tastes that he had gained earlier through an acquaintance with the writings of Benjamin Silliman, Timothy Dwight, William Gilpin, and Uvedale Price were supported by his Yale friends, among them Governor Roger Sherman Baldwin’s pretty daughter[7Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (4)] Elizabeth. By introducing him to the writings of Emerson and Lowell, who seemed to think the way he did, she convinced him that the ideas he had come upon in his random and informal education were quite respectable and worthy of pursuit. Other friends, such as Frederick Kingsbury and Charles Loring Brace, probably also urged him to read widely. In the summer he wrote Kingsbury that he was reading Richard Whately’s Elements of Logic, James Mill’s History of British India, the Federalist Papers, and some poetry, fiction, and ecclesiastical literature.

After spending the following spring and summer with George Geddes near Syracuse, New York, where he had a chance to observe the methods used on a prize-winning farm, Olmsted decided that he was ready to start his career as a scientific agriculturalist at Sachem’s Head, Connecticut. The farm that his father bought him there was close enough to New Haven for Olmsted to keep up with the debates and social activities of his brother’s class at Yale, but was too rocky and infertile to be a commercial success. Accordingly, in the spring of 1848, he moved to a much better farm which his father bought him on Staten Island.

Dr. Cyrus Perkins, one of Olmsted’s neighbors, advised him to put his farm into top condition right away. Despite protests from his more economical father, Olmsted eagerly applied his neighbor’s advice. He spent thirty-four dollars an acre to prepare a field for wheat planting. This investment, he explained to his father, would reap a profit in about eight years, but then it would be time to redo the ground. To Olmsted’s surprise, the application of Dr. Perkins’s seductive theory never made the farm profitable.

In the management of his new farm, though, the twenty-six-year-old Olmsted showed the administrative ability that became one of his most striking traits in later life. He shrewdly made use of the old and run-down buildings and equipment, had his hired men do their chores on an hourly schedule, and required his foreman to give him a report on the day’s work every evening before supper. Olmsted recalled later that his crops of wheat and turnips won prizes for him at the Richmond County agricultural fairs. He won a silver spoon for his pears in 1852.

Olmsted did more than tend his own garden; he became secretary of the Richmond County Agricultural Society, founded to persuade the local farmers to refine their tastes in architecture and landscapes, to make their houses more convenient, their roads better, and their tools and farming methods up-to-date. In a few years, Olmsted also started one of the earliest cylindrical drainage tile works in America, so that the local farmers could practice the latest English method of removing excess water from the soil by laying a network of tile pipes under their fields. He was a strong advocate of a plank road for Staten Island to lower transportation costs for his neighbors. Another of his projects dealt with the planting of imported fruit trees to improve the types grown in America.

[8Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (5)]

But as Olmsted learned by reading the agricultural journals of the day, farming was much more than a way to produce food. It could be the most healthy, virtuous, and happy way of life of all if the farmer learned to cultivate not only turnips but his rural taste as well. To please himself and to set an example for his farming neighbors, Olmsted transformed his Staten Island farm from a dirty and somewhat disagreeable spot into a gentleman’s country seat. He moved the barns to a new location behind a knoll and changed the driveway so it approached the house in a graceful curve. A small pond behind the house was just a mudhole until he shored its edges with stones and plantings and protected it from contamination. The cost of Olmsted’s improvements to his property was small, and was, according to Frederick Kingsbury, as successful as anything he was ever to do later as a landscape architect. His neighbors were impressed with his accomplishment, and one, William Henry Vanderbilt, who became a successful railroad promoter and manager like his father, asked Olmsted to make similar improvements to his farm at New Dorp, Staten Island.

Andrew Jackson Downing, the nationally prominent landscape gardener of Newburgh, New York, influenced Olmsted’s approach to farming and his taste in landscape design and architecture. Olmsted had met him and read both his books and the magazine he edited, the Horticulturist, in which he urged his readers to practice scientific farming, improve their livestock breeds, and grow better strains of fruits and vegetables. Olmsted imported French pear trees for himself and others. He also took to heart Downing’s plea that his fellow citizens should tastefully arrange and embellish their dwellings and property for both convenience and beauty. He sold shade trees and evergreens and gained a modest reputation among his neighbors for “some special knowledge, inventiveness, and judgment” in landscaping and the placing of buildings.

The life of a gentleman farmer, even with the addition of the nursery, did not satisfy Olmsted completely. His interest in the outside world was stimulated by frequent visits from his brother, John, then studying medicine in Dr. Willard Parker’s office in New York, and other Yale friends such as Charles Loring Brace, now a student at the Union Theological Seminary. When these two proposed to go to England and the Continent on a walking tour in early 1850, Olmsted was beside himself with envy. John was going because his health had broken down from incipient tuberculosis. Brace, depressed by the death of his twenty-one-year-old sister, Emma, agreed to join him. Brace, like Olmsted, had found that his purely theological interests were waning and hoped that his travels would help him to prepare for a career of Christian service in social work. Olmsted tried to persuade his father that he should accompany the two because both his ailing brother and the impractical Brace could use his help. He argued further that he would learn much more about farming by traveling abroad than by staying at home. Olmsted’s[9Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (6)]father agreed to let him go along. His brother was delighted to have him but hoped that the farm would be left in good hands while he was gone and wondered if others would understand Olmsted’s sudden decision to leave it.

The enthusiastic and detailed letters home showed Olmsted’s delight in travel and in writing about everything he encountered along the way. He was beginning a pattern which he would follow the rest of his life whatever his occupation: the combination of frequent trips away from home with detailed observation and reporting.

On April 30, Olmsted joined his brother and Charles Loring Brace aboard the Henry Clay to sail to Liverpool. Their walking trip through England, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Ireland, and Scotland kept such a leisurely pace that the Olmsteds did not embark for home until October. Charles stayed on almost another year.

The only comprehensive record of the walking tour is contained in the two volumes that George Palmer Putnam, the New York publisher, invited Olmsted to make out of his journals and letters upon his return. Unfortunately, the books tell nothing of the adventures in Europe, but only of the walk through the English countryside. Perhaps this is because the pace of the book reflects that of the original journey. The first volume of Olmsted’s Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England hardly gets the reader more than sixty miles from Liverpool after a detailed account of the voyage across the Atlantic from New York.

When he came upon Birkenhead and its impressive new stone docks along the Mersey River across from Liverpool, Olmsted was greatly excited. Starting in 1836, the Edinburgh architect Gillespie Graham had laid out the streets around Hamilton Square with buildings in a Doric style, and Olmsted remarked that it was the only town he had ever seen built with the advanced technology, taste, and enterprise that supposedly characterized the nineteenth century. He was delighted with Birkenhead’s public park, which Edward Kemp had completed in 1847 from preliminary plans of the Crystal Palace designer, Joseph Paxton: “Five minutes of admiration, and a few more spent in studying the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty, and I was ready to admit that in democratic America there was nothing to be thought of as comparable to this People’s Garden.” Olmsted’s strong approval of Birkenhead and its park showed that he had already formed the ideals that would dominate his later landscape career in America.

The travelers found England “green, dripping, glistening, gorgeous,” but were critical when they found things they did not like. Olmsted could admire English agricultural methods and at the same time deplore the condition of the farm laborer. Although he respected the generations of good taste that went into the furnishing of a nobleman’s house, he nevertheless[10Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (7)]concluded that such was not the proper nursery for a nineteenth-century statesman.

The great private estates and parks of the English nobility, although hardly appropriate for a democratic society, gave Olmsted examples of the way landscape architects could mediate between man and nature to achieve beauty. He wrote:

Probably there is no object of art that Americans of cultivated taste generally more long to see in Europe, than an English Park. What artist, so noble, has often been my thought, as he who, with far-reaching conception of beauty and designing power, sketches the outline, writes the colours, 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.

He admired Eaton Park, outside of Chester, unaware that the famous eighteenth-century landscape gardener, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, may have designed some of it. He found the formal gardening around Eaton Hall, a style reintroduced by W. E. Nesfield in the nineteenth century, curious but not disagreeable. He was unreservedly delighted by the deer park bathed in late-afternoon sunlight. He and his companions settled down under a tree to take it all in, gazing across

a gracefully, irregular, gently undulating surface of close-cropped pasture land, ... trees scattered singly and in groups—so far apart as to throw long unbroken shadows across broad openings of light, and leave the view in several directions unobstructed for a long distance. Herds of fallow-deer, fawns, cattle, sheep, and lambs quietly feeding near us, and moving slowly in masses at a distance....

Olmsted, John, and Charles Brace arrived in London on June 21 after spending nearly a month walking from Liverpool into Wales and thence down into the south of England and the Isle of Wight. The nineteen days in London were filled “running from one fine thing to another.” They visited the ragged schools and model lodgings for the poor, Kew Gardens, the picture galleries, the House of Commons, and they attended a Fourth of July dinner for the United States Ambassador to Great Britain, Abbott Lawrence. The group then went on to Paris and the Continent for a month. This portion of the trip was not recorded in Olmsted’s subsequent book or in letters home. They spent several weeks in France and Germany before returning to London on August 5. The remainder of their tour included a bit more of England, “dirty, wretched, hospitable” Ireland, and then some time in Scotland, from whence they sailed for New York on October 5, leaving Charles Loring Brace to study theology in Berlin and to travel in Europe for another year.

Back at the Staten Island farm in late October, Olmsted wrote Brace in November urging him to stay abroad as long as he could afford to. He[11Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (8)]recalled that while they were traveling, “they were all living a great deal more—loving oftener, hating oftener—and reaching a great many more milestones.” Everybody at home seemed frivolous and materialistic. He found his own farm shabby in comparison with what he had seen in Scotland. Happily, he was soon absorbed in farming, and he branched out into the nursery business. He also started making a book out of his letters and journals of the English trip.

In February 1851 Olmsted revived a high-minded correspondence he had begun two years before with Emily Perkins of Hartford, the daughter of a prominent lawyer. His occasional visits to Hartford strengthened their friendship and admiration for each other. Apparently, he overcame her reluctance to consider marriage. By August they were unofficially engaged, but Emily Perkins did not want to make it public because of the fuss of congratulations. Olmsted, too, displayed some doubts. He wrote a friend that he did not want to get married until late November, after he had sold the sixty thousand cabbages he was growing for the New York market.

In her last letter to Olmsted, Emily Perkins complained about the bother of buying carpets and furniture but said that she was about to announce their engagement publicly, which she did. Olmsted, apparently cheerful about his prospects, was then stunned by a letter from Emily’s mother reporting that her daughter had had a change of heart and wanted to break off the engagement.

Emily’s mother also asked Olmsted to meet her in New Haven to discuss the matter. It is not clear what happened next, except that Olmsted released Emily Perkins from the engagement toward the end of August. She went off to visit relatives, regain her composure, and let the gossip at home die down. In Worcester, Massachusetts, she met her future husband, Edward Everett Hale, who was rapidly becoming a leading Unitarian minister. In October Olmsted’s father was puzzled by Olmsted’s reaction to the breakup with Emily Perkins. He wrote a friend: “Pray tell me what it is makes Fred so happy since his disappointment, as it is called. He seems like a man who has thrown off a tremendous weight. Can it be that he brought it about purposely?”

Olmsted may have felt under particularly intense pressure to get married. One of his close friends, Frederick Kingsbury, had married in April. Another friend who was close to the family, Sophia Stevens, had married in August. His brother, John, despite severe doubts about his health, suddenly decided to marry their Staten Island neighbor, Mary Cleveland Bryant Perkins, in October.

After his engagement fell through, Olmsted, already busy as a farmer, took up again his project of writing a book about the trip through England. On the basis of his first chapters, George Palmer Putnam, the New York publisher, urged him to go ahead with a book of about 250 pages. The[12Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (9)]book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, appeared in 1852.

The charm of Walks and Talks brought Olmsted a modest literary reputation. One of the most appealing qualities of the hook was its reflection of the author’s abundant and intelligent curiosity. His descriptions evoked everything he saw, from drab Liverpool slums to hedgerow scenery. With a good ear for dialect, he set down his conversations with farmers, innkeepers, and servants to illustrate a wide range of British opinion and character. He was to use the same technique later in his books on the ante-bellum South. In the dialogues Olmsted revealed himself to be a good talker with a gift for both humor and wry comment.

In his book Olmsted recorded his observations on English character and countryside and his feelings as an American visitor. He felt a strong love for the land of his ancestors and found the British friendly and sympathetic, even to the point of celebrating the Fourth of July with their American friends. But the existence of Negro slavery in the United States spoiled the close rapport Olmsted felt he otherwise had with ardently democratic Englishmen. He wrote that there was “a hundred times more hard feeling in England towards America from this cause, than from all others. ...” The English, he found, scolded him—unjustly, he thought—for his part in allowing slavery to exist, as if all Americans, except for a few martyrs called abolitionists, were equally responsible and condemnable for it. He wished that southerners would send lecturers to England to explain why northerners had nothing to do with slavery and could not be expected to defend it.

Upon his return Olmsted found that the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act by Congress in September 1850 had brought the federal enforcement of slavery to his very doorstep. The Act provided for federal commissioners to pursue and recapture escaped slaves for their owners anywhere in the country. Northerners could no longer aid fugitive slaves without punishment from their own government. It was becoming harder to remain uninvolved with slavery. Olmsted decided that if called upon, he would take in an escaped slave and shoot anyone who came after him. He exchanged letters on the subject with Charles Loring Brace, still in Europe. Brace, a red-hot abolitionist, came home in the fall of 1851 eager to get his friends to adopt his position; but despite his best efforts, bolstered by a visit each from Theodore Parker and William Lloyd Garrison to the Staten Island farm, he could not turn Olmsted into a whole-hearted abolitionist. Olmsted thought that slaves, like children, needed to be helped towards the exercise of intelligent judgment before they could be given the duties and rights of freedom.

Soon Olmsted had a chance to see slavery first hand. In 1852, Henry J. Raymond, the editor of the one-year-old New-York Daily Times (as it was called until 1857), was looking for someone to send South as a roving reporter. He told Brace, who sent Olmsted to see him. Raymond did not[13Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (10)]inquire into Olmsted’s views on slavery, nor did he ask him to follow the editorial position of the Times. All he expected of Olmsted was that he confine his letters to firsthand observation. It was a satisfactory arrangement for both.

On December 11, 1852, Olmsted took the train for Washington to start on a four months’ journey through the slave states. He traveled through the South by train, stagecoach, and steamboat, and made side trips on horseback. First he went through the eastern slave states as far south as Savannah, then pushed westward through central Georgia and Alabama to Mobile. By late February he had reached New Orleans. After an unsuccessful attempt to explore eastern Texas, he started for home on a route that took him through the interior of the slaveholding South, going from New Orleans to Vicksburg. Heavy rains and flooding prevented Olmsted from seeing the Yazoo cotton lands north of Vicksburg, so he postponed that important investigation until a later trip and took a steamer from Vicksburg to Memphis. From there, he journeyed along the eastern base of the Appalachians, returning to Staten Island on April 6, 1853.

Olmsted’s descriptions, day by day, of his travels through the seaboard South appeared first in the New-York Daily Times and later in his book A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States. He relentlessly built up an image of southern life as being as wretched and violent as that on any frontier, with the important difference that life in the West—under a free labor system—was usually changing for the better; it was increasing in civilized comfort, safety, and opportunity. Olmsted undercut the myth that southern chivalry and hospitality were so benign and creative that they justified the institution of slavery. Instead, he pictured a stagnant, even retrogressive, society that, at its best—on the James River in Virginia—was little better than it had been one hundred years before.

Fortunately for his readers, Olmsted was not so bent upon showing the South’s backwardness that he told of nothing but the vexations and discomforts of a traveler used to English roads and inns. In one of his happiest bits of writing he described getting lost in eastern Virginia while riding a sprightly mare named Jane Gillin; elsewhere he describes the removal of underwater cypress stumps from a swamp as a form of titanic dentistry.

Olmsted’s brother went with him on his second trip through the South and wrote up the Texas portion from Olmsted’s notes and letters. The book, A Journey through Texas; or, A Saddle-Trip on the South-western Frontier, mentions only briefly their rail and steamboat trip from Baltimore to New Orleans. Of special note to the reader would have been their two- or three-day visit in Nashville with Samuel P. Allison, a Yale classmate of John’s, who nearly persuaded both Olmsteds that the aristocratic society in the South was superior to any equivalent in the North.

The horseback trip across Texas from Natchitoches, Louisiana,[14Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (11)]made in late December and early January, facing into the cold northwest winds, sleet, and rain, was almost unrelieved misery. It was made no better by a monotonous diet of fried pork, corn bread, and muddy coffee, and drafty sleeping quarters, which were all the slave-owning Texans could provide for travelers. The Olmsteds had high praise, however, for the Texas General Assembly at Austin, comparing it favorably with both British Houses of Parliament, but they had little else good to say for Texas society until they came to the German settlement of New Braunfels, near San Antonio. Here one could see the Olmsteds’ ideal: the magic of free labor creating an oasis of civilization in the midst of the ignorance and barbarism fostered by a slave economy.

At New Braunfels the jaded travelers experienced “a sudden and complete transfer of associations.” The little inn at which they stopped was exactly like the ones they had encountered on their walking tour of the Rhine three years before. The meal they had, too, was nothing more or less than they would have had along the Rhine: soup, two courses of meat, vegetables, salad, fruit, “coffee with milk, wheat bread from the loaf, and beautiful and sweet butter. ...” The neat little town with smiling schoolchildren and cheerful and cultivated inhabitants must have overwhelmed the Olmsteds. Although it is not mentioned in Journey through Texas, John Hull Olmsted, who had taken the saddle trip to improve his health, for a time was strongly tempted to send for his family and settle near the town.

After their arrival in San Antonio the Olmsteds’ western adventures began. The brothers spent several weeks camping beside streams on the live oak prairies; these, they discovered, were inexpressibly beautiful in the early spring when the burnt-over prairie grass returned, bright green and studded with wild flowers. The landscape was the best pastoral scenery the Olmsteds had ever observed; the low massing of the picturesque live oaks set in smooth, rolling greensward as fine, they thought, as that of any English park. After a few adventures, such as battling a prairie fire they had inadvertently set, the travelers returned to San Antonio to prepare for a journey into Mexico.

They had planned to go on to California, but the route westward was blocked by a tribe of Lipan Indians on the warpath. A week or so before hostilities began, the Olmsted brothers had seen enough of these Indians to convince them that the legend of the noble savage was a humbug—their camps were filthy and disgusting, and the best expression that an Indian could summon up was “either a silly leer or stupid indifference.” Prevented from going to California, they headed for Mexico with John Woodland, a remarkably virtuous and perspicacious Texas Ranger, as their guide. He had been born in London, but had grown up in America and spoke Mexican and Indian tongues perfectly. His knowledge and preparations probably saved the party from attack by bandits and Indians.

[15Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (12)]

John Hull Olmsted described their short jaunt into northern Mexico with a fine eye for the beauties of the countryside, architecture, and the Mexican women. Their official greeting upon crossing the border set the tone for the whole excursion: five Mexicans wrapped in serapes, sitting immobile, rose like an opera chorus and saluted them gracefully as they approached. The trip must have been truly enjoyable, because the stern remarks that appear at the end of the story about the fixed stagnancy and slow national decay caused by the religious enslavement of the Mexican mind seem a conscientious Yankee afterthought. There is little in the earlier descriptions to warrant such a condemnation.

The last weeks of the journey through Texas were spent traveling along the almost impassable muddy and swampy roads of the Gulf Coast back to the Mississippi River. In the Journey through Texas John confessed that the 2000 miles of exposure, abominable diet, and fatigue of the last stage of the trip through the wet country were debilitating and depressing to him. His tuberculosis must have flared up, especially with the “hot, soggy breath of the approaching summer,” for at one point, lagging behind his brother, he became so weak that he fell from the saddle and lay for half an hour alone, hardly breathing and unable to speak.

John Hull Olmsted took the steamer from New Orleans to New York, but the persistent Frederick set off alone on horseback to make a late spring and early summer’s trek through the infrequently visited southern hill country. Starting in lower Mississippi, he went through the mountains of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. When he reached Richmond, Virginia, he returned to New York by steamer. Olmsted found the farmers in the hill country who had no slaves were more amiable and prosperous than their slave-owning neighbors. One man he talked to considered slavery unprofitable on small holdings, but even if it were profitable he and other farmers he knew would not own slaves because those who did became passionate, proud, and ugly. Slavery, he thought, was a curse on the country. Slaveholders should be reimbursed for their property, but he agreed with those who thought slaves should be sent off to Liberia.

After arriving home in August 1854 Olmsted apparently was convinced that the South might abandon slavery if free farmers were given a chance to compete with slave-owners. To strengthen the antislavery sentiment among the Germans of West Texas, he secretly gathered funds to support Adolf Douai’s German newspaper, the San Antonio Zeitung. He began working with the New England Emigrant Aid Society, which was building up a colony of free farmers in Lawrence, Kansas. He helped them raise money to buy a howitzer to protect New Englanders and other free farmers emigrating to Kansas against the attacks of slave-owning southerners. He hoped he could gain support of the New England Emigrant Aid Society for the German colonies in West Texas, but the fortunes of these free farmers grew worse[16Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (13)]under the harassment of the pro-slavery Texans. The Emigrant Aid Society concentrated on the more hopeful prospects of Kansas.

Olmsted’s final attempt to put his Free Soil theory to the test was made in the summer of 1857, when he asked the assistance of the Cotton Supply Associations of Manchester and Liverpool, England, to send free laborers into West Texas to join the Germans in growing what he still maintained would be cheaper and better cotton than that which could be purchased from the slave plantations. He had to give up this plan because the German Free Soil faction under Douai were forced to sell their newspaper due to pressure from the Texans and conservative Germans, and the English were reluctant to meddle in the affairs of the United States in this matter.

Even though Olmsted was unable to convince all the intelligent and enlightened slave owners that it would be to their interest to change to a free labor system, his articles and the books that followed wrung from them some reluctant praise and won him a great many favorable reviews from northerners and from the English. Even such abolitionists as Theodore Parker and William Lloyd Garrison, who disliked his conciliatory and gradualist tone, praised his picture of southern society. Although Horace Greeley had sent correspondents down South, and many others, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Charles Dickens, wrote descriptive articles and books, Olmsted’s writings received special praise from readers such as Charles Darwin for being particularly informative. Most southern papers and magazines declared that Olmsted was grossly unfair, but the New Orleans Delta found him manly and honest. A “Native Southerner” wrote in the New-York Daily Times that although it was clear that he was looking at things through “a pair of sharp Northern eyes,” Olmsted’s candor and intelligence were remarkable.

In the spring of 1855, Joshua A. Dix, a young friend of Charles Loring Brace, asked Olmsted to become a partner in Dix and Edwards, a firm which published the American edition of Charles Dickens’s magazine, Household Words, and Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. The twenty-four-year-old Dix probably wanted Olmsted for the capital he could bring into the partnership. His other partner, Arthur T. Edwards, agreed to contribute $500, but Olmsted was to put up $5,000, which he persuaded his father to lend him. He was allowed to draw $1,500 a year from the firm’s account to support himself. In return, Olmsted saw that his connection with Putnam’s Monthly would give him influence in cultivated circles. The prospect of a salary appealed to him, because it looked unlikely that the Staten Island farm would ever support him unless he gave it his full attention, something he had not been willing to do for almost five years. Leaving his Staten Island farm in the hands of his reluctant brother, he embarked upon his career as a New York publisher with enthusiasm.

Putnam’s list of contributors was impressive. James Russell Lowell, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the elder Henry James had written for it. Olmsted[17Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (14)]had long thought that this “great country and cursedly little people” needed the democratic and spiritual uplift that a well-edited magazine could supply. He had hoped for a journal which was a cross between the Westminster Review and the New York Daily Tribune. It looked as if he could help make Putnam’s fit the formula.

Olmsted left the major editorial decisions to George William Curtis, the writer and lecturer, who became another partner. He also had the experienced advice of Charles A. Dana, writer for the New York Daily Tribune, and Parke Godwin of the New York Evening Post. They all contributed articles and reviews as well. Although Olmsted spent most of his time answering correspondence and dealing with rejected authors, he did make some last-minute revisions for Henry David Thoreau on his Cape Cod manuscript and persuaded the magazine to publish Herman Melville’s story, “Benito Cereno.”

Olmsted’s association with Putnam’s Monthly was perhaps the happiest part of his work for Dix and Edwards. It gave him an opportunity to meet such contributors as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry W. Longfellow, Asa Gray, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. He must have enjoyed the literary parties of Anne Charlotte Lynch, who, since 1845, had entertained a circle of writers including Edgar Allan Poe, Horace Greeley, and Margaret Fuller. His own place in the literary world allowed him to give a breakfast for James Russell Lowell and to attend a dinner at the Press Club for William Thackeray.

Olmsted’s most important project as a partner of Dix and Edwards was his trip to England to persuade publishers and authors there to consign their books to his firm in return for a guarantee of royalty payments from the sales in the United States. Without an enforceable international copyright law, however, Olmsted’s months in London trying to make consignments were a waste of time, because other American publishers could pirate an English work and undersell the legitimate edition. After encouraging Olmsted to commit the firm to foreign royalty payments in return for the right to publish overseas authors in the United States, Dix and Edwards failed to honor the commitments he had made, because of declining sales and financial mismanagement.

When Olmsted returned to New York in the fall of 1856 empty-handed, Dix and Edwards was close to failure. The firm managed to bring out Olmsted’s Journey through Texas in January 1857, but went bankrupt before getting a chance to publish his last volume of southern travels, A Journey in the Back Country. Fortunately, Mason Brothers in New York and Sampson Low, Son and Company of London issued it in 1860. Although the demise of his publishing business was assured, Olmsted still hoped to continue writing books and articles on social questions that interested him. Henry Raymond of the New-York Daily Times wished to send his former correspondent to Kansas to report on the warfare between the free-soil and slavery factions.[18Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (15)]Charles Dana of the New York Daily Tribune wanted him to go to Utah to write about the Mormon settlement. Olmsted, himself, was tempted to sail for Jamaica to see at first hand the results of Negro emancipation on the sugar plantations.

None of these projects materialized. Prospects of a literary life faded for Olmsted as Putnam’s Monthly and the successor firm to Dix and Edwards tottered toward failure, which eventually came in August 1857. Olmsted had already begun to seek other ways to support himself and payoff his debts to his father left over from the failure of Dix and Edwards. He had long since abandoned farming. The Staten Island farm could not be made profitable. The ailing John had tried in vain to sell it before he left in January 1857, with his family, to seek a more healthy climate. In late June, Olmsted wrote Dr. Samuel Cabot, Jr., of the New England Emigrant Aid Society that he wanted to throw his heart and soul into a project of encouraging British farmers and others to settle West Texas and raise cotton for the textile mills at home. His hopes faded when he learned that English politicians and manufacturers refused to meddle in internal American affairs and that fear of angry proslavery Americans would deter emigration.

Meanwhile an entirely unexpected opportunity was in the making. The movement to build a great central park for New York, which the journalist and poet, William Cullen Bryant, and the influential landscape gardener, Andrew Jackson Downing, had championed for years, was on the brink of success. Soon the park work would provide Olmsted with a job and start him on an unanticipated career in landscape design. For the next forty years, except for an interruption during the Civil War, Olmsted’s considerable administrative and artistic skills would be employed throughout the country building landscape parks and suburbs.

The New York State Legislature had just appointed eleven commissioners to take over the immense landscaping project in the middle of Manhattan. The commissioners, who were trying to keep some of the patronage of the park away from the city Democrats, were looking for an unpolitical man of Republican sympathies to manage both the labor force building the park and the park police. He would have to work under the incumbent Democratic engineer-in-chief, Egbert Viele, a holdover from the earlier Central Park Commission appointed by the mayor. Word of the job opening came to Olmsted in August when he was at work on the proofs of his book, A Journey in the Back Country, at a seaside inn outside New Haven.

By chance, Charles Wyllys Elliott, one of the commissioners and an admirer of Olmsted’s, encountered him at the inn. He urged him to apply for the job, and Olmsted decided to try. He hurried to New York to collect signatures from the most notable men he could find for his petition to the Central Park Commission. He hoped that his grasp of the problems of agricultural labor as a scientific farmer, as shown in his books on England and[19Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (16)] the South, would persuade people to sign. Probably his reputation as an author and his connection with Putnam’s Monthly helped to secure the signatures of William Cullen Bryant, George Palmer Putnam, and most important of all, Washington Irving. Asa Gray, the Harvard botanist and cousin of Charles Brace, sent a warm endorsem*nt. With these signatures and the names of Peter Cooper, August Belmont, and David Dudley Field on his petition, he overcame the competition of John W. Audubon, son of the great ornithologist, and of Joel B. Nott, whose father, Eliphalet Nott, was a well-known preacher and inventor, and was president of Union College. The Republican commissioners, a minority on the Board, wanted a Republican superintendent. The Democrats agreed to concede, but only if the new man were not “practical,” that is, someone who would use the job to gain political power. Olmsted was literary and “unpractical,” making him acceptable to the Democrats but not politically useful to the Republicans.

When Olmsted took up his new duties, only the most vague and dispirited beginnings were being made in the effort to improve the 770 rocky and treeless acres of Central Park, following the topographical survey and unimaginative plan which Egbert Viele had made for the park at his own expense. The land cried out for much improving. It was either rocky and barren or malodorous swamp. At best, it was adorned with a few scrubby bushes. The only touches of civilization were those provided by the local squatters living in shacks and engaged in slaughtering cows and pigs, bone boiling, and goat farming.

From the beginning, Egbert Viele resented the Republican underling forced upon him by the park commissioners. When Olmsted presented himself in the dignified dress of a young gentleman, Viele sent him with a deputy for an embarrassing tour of the park, which was in many places knee-deep in mud. To add to Olmsted’s burdens of a difficult job and a resentful superior, he was under pressure day and night from New York City politicians and their unemployed constituents to give every man who presented himself a position regardless of his qualifications. The Panic of 1857 made Central Park the only likely employer for thousands of jobless. The new superintendent did manage to put more than 900 men to work, but he took pride in the fact that they worked efficiently and he would not be forced to take on more, even when besieged far into the night by mobs waving banners demanding “Bread or Blood.”

In the fall of 1857, Olmsted needed all the distractions that his new job could provide him. He had accepted it, although the salary was but $1,500 a year, because it gave him the only chance he could see to support himself without his father’s help. He had been bitterly humiliated by the financial failure and disappointments of his literary and publishing career, which he had hoped would make him influential and financially independent, as gentleman farming had not. Instead, he was more in debt to his father than[20Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (17)]ever. Added to these woes was the sorrow he felt because his brother, always his friend and confidant, was dying of tuberculosis in Europe, where he had gone to seek a climate that would prolong his life. In a way, Olmsted’s youthful high spirits died with John in 1857; he sought to escape his troubles and sorrows by plunging deeper and deeper into his new job. Compulsive overwork became a habit that would last a lifetime.

Olmsted’s first great opportunity as a landscape designer came in October 1857, when Calvert Vaux invited him to collaborate on a new design for Central Park. Vaux was a young English architect who had been Downing’s partner and who had taken over the landscape practice when Downing died in 1852. Vaux decided to enter the competition for a new Central Park that the design commissioners had instituted when they decided to discard Egbert Viele’s plan. At first Olmsted hesitated, fearing to wound his superior’s feelings, but he concluded that nothing could soothe Viele’s injured pride.

He was fortunate to have the chance to work with the charming, enthusiastic, and intelligent Vaux, who had had seven years of experience as a landscape designer in the United States when he met Olmsted. Vaux’s first two years as an assistant to Downing must have been especially valuable because Downing, at the height of his fame, had just been commissioned by President Fillmore to create a “national park” on the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument with a cross axis to the White House. This project, Olmsted wrote later, was the first great public undertaking in landscape architecture carried through by the government.

Designing Central Park with Calvert Vaux was Olmsted’s apprenticeship in landscape architecture. As he later admitted, he would have been at a loss to know what to do without the professional help Vaux provided. The two men worked together at night or whenever Olmsted could get away from his superintending duties and the swarm of job seekers who plagued his office and home. Their plan, entitled “Greensward,” won the competition when they submitted it in the spring of 1858.

The Greensward design followed the English precedents of park planning as they had been transmitted through Humphry Repton and his American disciple, Andrew Jackson Downing. The most important compositions were pastoral, made up of massed foliage framing vistas of meadow or greensward. The designers reasoned that horizontal passages of scenery were most appropriate for a large urban park, because the intent of its landscape should be to soothe rather than excite the spirits of the city dweller agitated and wearied by the jarring sights and sounds of the crowded streets.

Olmsted and Vaux wanted the users of the park to have a respite from not only the sights but the dangers of lower Broadway. Olmsted and Vaux designed Central Park so that the footpaths, bridle paths, and carriage roads were separate from each other and never crossed except at over- and[21Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (18)]underpasses. The pedestrian never had to fear being run down. The horseman could have his canter and the carriage owner his drive without accident while moving through the refreshing and beautiful landscape.

The man out for a holiday stroll in Central Park might want to see others in a gregarious mood as well as view the scenery. Accordingly, Vaux and Olmsted planned a mall, which offered promenaders a wide walk and benches sheltered by an arch of American elms, and a terrace with a fountain overlooking Central Park Lake. Here people of all ages and occupations, freed from the bustle of a city sidewalk, could mingle in a common enjoyment of fine weather and lovely scenery. The designers hoped that their mall, like public promenades they had seen in England and Europe, would be a democratic institution where park frequenters could meet without being hindered by artificial social distinctions.

Central Park, located in the middle of Manhattan, formed an enormous barrier two and one-half miles long and half a mile wide to any traffic going east and west across the island from above 59th Street to 106th Street. The Commissioners required that plans submitted for the competition have east-west roads running across the park to accommodate future crosstown traffic. Olmsted and Vaux did not want this noisy and dangerous city traffic streaming across the park in full view of those who wanted to enjoy rural scenery, so they designed four transverse roads sunken below the landscape, screened by careful planting, and crossed by park roadways and paths on wide bridges. The sunken transverse roads and the ingenious separation of the rest of the traffic paths and carriage ways were features unique to their design. The transverse roads could accommodate crosstown traffic even at night, when Olmsted and Vaux suggested that the park should be closed. In no other plans submitted for the competition were such provisions made to integrate the park with the city plan.

Impressed by Olmsted’s work as superintendent and his part with Vaux in winning the design competition, the Board of Commissioners of Central Park made Olmsted architect-in-chief in May 1858 and raised his salary to $2,500 a year. They abolished the office of chief engineer, a move which must have permanently estranged Egbert Viele from Olmsted. Even with Viele off the scene Olmsted had to contend with persistent and noisy opposition to his work from politicians and members of the Park Commission. Robert J. Dillon, for instance, one of the commissioners who had voted against the Greensward Plan, came forward with his own ideas for the park, getting editorial support in the Tribune and notice in the Times and Herald. In place of the scenic emphasis of the Vaux and Olmsted plan, Dillon wanted the main feature of Central Park to be a grand avenue, like the Champs Elysées in Paris, starting from the middle of the south end of the park and extending in a straight line to the old reservoir, crossing Central Park Lake on an impressive wire suspension bridge. As a way to reply to Dillon’s[22Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (19)]proposals, Olmsted invited his friends Henry J. Raymond of the Times and Charles A. Dana of the Tribune to have breakfast with him one morning on a large boulder overlooking the southern end of Central Park. When the gentlemen were at their cigars, he pointed out to them the line of Dillon’s proposed gigantic boulevard and all the irreplaceable landscape effects which would be destroyed in its construction. After this breakfast party Dillon lost two supporters and even admitted himself that his scheme was impractical.

At the same time that Olmsted was learning to practice his new profession and deal with newspapers, he quite suddenly took on the cares of a large family. His dying brother had written him a farewell note in which he said, “Don’t let Mary suffer while you are alive.” Olmsted carried out the request by marrying John’s widow in June 1859, thereupon assuming the support of three small children.

It would be impossible to say in what proportions love and duty were compounded in this marriage. Olmsted had not taken particular notice of the pert little Mary Perkins when they first met at her grandfather’s house in 1848, but he did express his delight when she and John became engaged in 1850. Following the summer of 1851, when his own fiancée, Emily Perkins of Hartford, had broken off her engagement to him after a little more than a month, Olmsted made no effort to find himself a wife. The one he “inherited” from his brother on June 13, 1859, was ambitious, strong-willed, energetic, and demanding. She could not have been relaxing company for the high-strung Olmsted, but must have gained his respect because of her intelligence and wide range of interests. Thus, within two years, Olmsted had embarked upon what was to become his lifetime profession and had suddenly become the head of a family of five.

These heavy professional and family commitments, acquired so close together in time, must often have conflicted with each other. Not only did Olmsted have to meet the demands of his young family; he also sometimes had to direct the labors of as many as 4000 men on the park. He had driven himself so hard by late summer in 1859 that his health gave way and he became subject to intermittent fevers. The Park Board granted him a leave of absence from the end of September until early December. He used the time to travel abroad by himself to study park design and management on the Continent and in England.

In Paris he had the good fortune to meet Jean Alphand, a civil engineer who had, since 1854, been in charge of laying out the beautiful great public parks of Paris at the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes. He must have learned from him about the uses of pampas grass and large-leafed, hardy, subtropical trees and bushes that added much to the luxuriance of the Paris parks and seen, too, how the new boulevards spread parklike greenery throughout the city. In London he visited Sir Richard Mayne, the commanding officer of the London Metropolitan Police, who could tell him about[23Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (20)]the problems of policing the West End parks, information which enabled Olmsted to set up an excellent police force in Central Park.

Upon his return, Olmsted and Vaux extended their collaboration beyond the limits of Central Park. They landscaped an estate in New Rochelle and in the spring started work on plans for the grounds of the Hartford Retreat for the Insane. More importantly, the commissioners in charge of laying out Manhattan north of 155th Street appointed them landscape architects and designers for the project. This was the first time that Olmsted had had a chance to make suggestions about the future growth of a large city area. He and Vaux thought that the upper part of Manhattan should remain suburban. To keep the area from losing its charm as had Jones’s Woods and Clifton on Staten Island, he advocated an elaborate street system that would discourage direct traffic, recommended that areas be specifically set off for shops and services, and suggested public green spaces to protect the district from urban encroachments.

Just before Olmsted left for Europe in late 1859, the Central Park Board appointed one of the commissioners, Andrew Haswell Green, to be their comptroller. When he returned, Olmsted sensed that Green was usurping the designers’ authority to carry out their Central Park plan. The comptroller looked with the suspicion of an economical and conscientious administrator on all suggestions Vaux and Olmsted made. Green must have been difficult in the way that only the self-righteous can be. He took a great deal of pride in his part in the building of Central Park, but Olmsted felt so obstructed and harassed by the dominating comptroller that he threatened to resign in late January 1861 unless he regained complete control over his park work and did not have to get the comptroller’s approval for every dime he spent. The park commissioners persuaded him to withdraw his resignation by admitting that his complaints were justified and by pointing out that his resigning would jeopardize the passage of a bill before the New York State Legislature to extend the park from 106th street to 110th. The committee that introduced the bill had just vindicated every aspect of Central Park’s management from hostile criticism.

Even after he had taken his first job on Central Park, Olmsted continued writing commentary on the South. He thought that he had done too much work on his Journey in the Back Country not to finish it, and was able to get it published by Mason Brothers of New York in 1860. The English edition of Back Country sold so well that the London publishers, Sampson Low, Son and Company, asked Olmsted to prepare for British readers a condensed version of all three of his books about the slave states. Mason Brothers offered to publish it in America using the English plates. The public demand for accounts of southern society, increasing with the sectional tensions that would soon tear the country apart, justified the new undertaking. Olmsted explained to the publishers that his duties on Central Park were too[24Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (21)] pressing to allow him time to do the volume alone. They permitted him to get Daniel R. Goodloe, editor of the abolitionist National Era in Washington, D.C., to help him prepare the book, to be called The Cotton Kingdom.

Goodloe accepted the job eagerly but had to be restrained from including his own thoughts and inferences and from writing a “copious introduction” which would assert that, contrary to Olmsted’s thesis, it was not the basic inefficiency of slave labor that was keeping the South poor. Rather, Goodloe felt, it was the one-crop system, which was wrecking the soil and absorbing all the capital and labor of the South. Olmsted’s contention that inefficient and unmotivated slave labor was preventing the South from becoming a prosperous and civilized section of the country remained the principal conclusion one could draw from the generous selections from Olmsted’s other books that Goodloe assembled in The Cotton Kingdom.

The Cotton Kingdom was published in England shortly after the Civil War broke out, and it sold well both in Britain and in the United States, even though it showed signs of being a rather hasty compilation and was longer than anyone of the previous volumes. Olmsted had added new comments about the southern attempts to secede from the Union: the South, he stated, could not become an independent people because there was no natural boundary to divide us as a nation. We were united by mountain ranges, valleys, and the great waters of America. The South had to share in our free institutions or our American republic would fail as we submitted to the yoke of a slave society.

With the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Olmsted decided to leave the Central Park job. He was disqualified from the fighting because he had badly injured his leg in a carriage accident the summer before. Instead, he thought of joining the Navy or of getting a job managing escaped slaves as free laborers, but an opportunity for him to serve the Union cause came from a different quarter. It was created by the vast medical needs of the newly recruited army; the wants of the new forces were on a scale far greater than those which the Army Medical Bureau, crippled by peacetime neglect and an aging staff, was capable of answering, even when bolstered by the scattered efforts of the volunteer relief organizations.

A committee of prominent New Yorkers with the Unitarian minister Henry Whitney Bellows at their head sought to remedy the lack and to focus volunteer efforts with an overall organization modeled on the British Sanitary Commission, which had accomplished vital services in the Crimean War. By June 13, 1861, the members of this group had persuaded President Lincoln to sign an executive order establishing a “Commission of Inquiry and Advice in respect of the Sanitary Interests of the United States Forces.”

Seven days after Lincoln signed the order for a Sanitary Commission, Henry Bellows asked Olmsted to be its general secretary. Olmsted was[25Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (22)] granted a three-month leave of absence from Central Park so that he could go to Washington, D.C., to direct the stream of supplies from relief societies where they were needed, act as intermediary between the Sanitary Commission and the War Department, and appoint and supervise all the subordinate agents to carry out the great task. Leaving Calvert Vaux and Ignaz Pilat (an Austrian landscape gardener who supervised the planting) to go on with the park work, which continued throughout the war, Olmsted arrived in Washington in late June to set up his office. And so began what Olmsted later considered his greatest single public service.

Olmsted’s new job demanded that he apply the most advanced practices of the public health movement of his day to protect the health of the Union army. An unanticipated result was that after the war he became one of the leaders in the struggle to control and prevent disease in our great cities by providing parks, pure water supply, adequate sewage systems, and the careful siting of dwellings for sunlight and air. More immediately, his letters of the time show that he had an unusual chance to serve the Union cause and observe at first hand the common soldiers and their leaders in the great battles of the Civil War.

Olmsted soon impressed the commission with his remarkable organizing powers and captured the devotion of his well-chosen subordinates. As Henry Bellows realized, he was capable of planning far ahead. He anticipated that the war might last two or three years and cost the government as much as six hundred million dollars—a shrewd guess, compared to the naive optimism of the day.

The disastrous battle of Bull Run on July 12, 1861, demonstrated at once to Olmsted the impossibility of fighting a war with an undisciplined mob of volunteers who were wretchedly clothed, shod, fed, and sheltered. Most of the wounded had been left behind on the battlefield, unattended in the retreat. Olmsted’s Report on the Demoralization of the Volunteers, written within a week of Bull Run, was such a damning indictment of government and army policies that the Sanitary Commission decided to postpone its publication until the public’s confidence in the war effort had returned.

The officials of the Army Medical Bureau ignored the Sanitary Commission’s recommendations as long as they could—even the advice that they follow army regulations was distasteful to them. In the early days of its battle against the Commission, the Medical Bureau gained some curious allies. Besides Henry J. Raymond, editor of the New-York Daily Times, who was on their side because he was a personal friend of Surgeon General Finley, they had the unhappily married editor’s admiring friend, Elizabeth Powell, who was a voluntary superintendent of nurses at a hospital near Washington. She insisted that the Surgeon General was a beneficent, godlike creature and that Olmsted, though a “man of consummate abilities,” worshiped power “and the handling of millions” and was in conspiracy to raid the public[26Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (23)]funds. Her praises of the martyred Finley and censure of the diabolical Olmsted appeared in the Times articles signed by “Truth.”

Mrs. Raymond’s outrage and the publication of a masterful Report to the Secretary of War by the Sanitary Commission, which Olmsted had written, forced the editor of the Times to abandon his attack and end his “silly platonic friendship” with Miss Powell. The Report won praise in this country and in Europe as a convincing discussion of the various causes that affected the army’s morale and efficiency. It even persuaded Raymond that the Sanitary Commission’s purpose was to see that the health of the volunteer army was fully protected under all conditions.

The Army Medical Bureau ignored the Report and continued for a time to resist the efforts of the Sanitary Commission to improve the sanitation and medical care of the Union armies. During McLellan’s costly and futile Peninsula campaign in the spring and early summer of 1862, Olmsted wrote his superiors that the Sanitary Commission had had to supply the army with nearly all its medical aid and supplies. His devoted assistants toiled night and day in the field and on the river steamers which the army had lent them for conversion into hospital transports. One of his aides, Frederick N. Knapp, was sent home afterward worn out and almost deranged. The highly intelligent and adoring Katharine Prescott Wormeley, who later went on to a distinguished career as a literary translator, found working at Olmsted’s side to have been the major experience of her life. His ability to bring order out of great confusion and provide medical care to an army despite great difficulties impressed her deeply.

Before the end of the Peninsula campaign, the Army Medical Bureau began to cooperate with the U.S. Sanitary Commission because William A. Hammond, the Sanitary Commission’s favorite candidate, replaced Finley as surgeon general. He carried out many of Olmsted’s suggestions for reforming the Medical Bureau and took further aid and advice from the commission in a constructive spirit. Gradually, the Medical Bureau was able to supply more and more of the relief needed by troops on the battlefield and in hospitals. A year after Hammond became surgeon general, Olmsted reported that the bureau was now supplying nine-tenths of the medical care of the army.

While the enormous organization of the Sanitary Commission worked more and more smoothly, sending relief agents and stores to camps, battlefields, and hospitals, and coordinating the efforts of 7,000 aid societies in northern cities and towns, Olmsted was growing more and more restive in a subordinate’s role. As early as February 1862 he had been thinking about other jobs that he might be doing, such as the management of contraband slaves freed by the Union army. As time went on, the commissioners thought he was trying to pick quarrels with them. The group of men who were his superiors were disposed to be sympathetic and admiring, but there[27Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (24)] seemed to be no way to soothe his feelings. George Templeton Strong, a wealthy lawyer whose diary has proved a remarkably informative record of his times, was one of Olmsted’s superiors. Strong found him the most extraordinary man he had ever known, with rare talent and energy, absolute purity and disinterestedness. After two years, though, he sensed that Olmsted wanted complete control over the Sanitary Commission’s activities. Strong confided to his diary that he detected in the general secretary a monomania for elaborately thought-out and generally impractical paper schemes and that his appetite for power was turning him into “a lay-Hildebrand.” Two months after Strong had visited Washington to find Olmsted working feverishly day and night in five-day stretches, he was reconciled to the idea that the Sanitary Commission needed a new general secretary.

Olmsted’s last services to the commission were in the spring and early summer of 1863. He went west to Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis, and down the Mississippi to Grant’s encampment before Vicksburg, on a trip which was supposed to bring the western branches of the Sanitary Commission under the tighter control of the national organization. General Grant gave the U.S. Sanitary Commission the exclusive use of a steamer to bring in medical supplies to his army and forbade the competing state sanitary commissions to operate within the area under his command. Olmsted, though, was not successful in his efforts to persuade the branch sanitary commission officers to submit fully to national control or even to cooperate with one another. To make matters worse, Olmsted found that the Executive Committee to which he reported was disposed to be more lenient toward the western branches than he was. In July he directed the great stream of supplies and relief to the battlefield at Gettysburg; and in August he resigned from the Sanitary Commission because he thought the commissioners had not supported his efforts to run the organization in a unified and efficient manner.

The difficulties which Olmsted had come to find unendurable arose not only because of the independence of the western commissions and the obstructive attitude of the Executive Committee but also because officials in the federal government, such as Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, were consistently suspicious and hostile toward the Sanitary Commission throughout the war. Stanton viewed the appointment of the strong-willed and competent William Hammond as surgeon general as a threat to his own authority, partly because Hammond was friendly to the Sanitary Commission and, once in office, adopted some of their suggested reforms for the Army Medical Bureau. Stanton refused to cooperate with him and finally had the personal satisfaction of discharging him in August 1864 because of an unfounded accusation that he had been responsible for irregularities in the letting of contracts for hospital supplies.

When Olmsted left, the Sanitary Commission lost some of its direction and purpose. It never again had an executive secretary who tried so[28Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (25)] conscientiously to give unified management to all of its far-flung activities. Olmsted, himself, was at a loss as to what to do next. Because of political pressure, Vaux and Olmsted had been forced to resign from the Central Park job in the middle of May. Olmsted had hoped to become associated with Edwin L. Godkin, a rising young journalist, in publishing a weekly newspaper that would strengthen interest in national public policy, support the war effort, the arts and literature, and promote loyalty to the Union. Despite the best efforts of fund-raisers like George Templeton Strong, Olmsted could not commit himself to the project because it had not yet attracted enough money. Olmsted needed a well-paying job to support his family and payoff the $12,000 debt to the creditors of Dix and Edwards that he had incurred with the failure of the firm in 1857.

There was such a job available, but it was in California. The position of resident manager of a gold mining property in the Sierra Nevada foothills could be his at $10,000 a year in gold, plus $10,000 of the company’s stock per year. To take the job would mean that he would have to leave his friends, give up any part in the Central Park project, and abandon the possibility of serving his country in the Civil War. Yet the California episode, which ended in 1865 when the mines failed, was a turning point in Olmsted’s life. Thereafter he was no longer dependent upon his father’s generosity. The isolation of the mining frontier gave him a chance to ponder the tendencies of American life and history, and when Governor Low asked him to report on the future use of Yosemite Valley for the state of California, he took advantage of the opportunity to outline a national policy for preserving natural scenery.

In August of 1863, a group of New York investors, including George Opdyke and Morris Ketchum, bought the Mariposa Estate in California, which had been owned at one time by John C. Fremont. They paid $10,000,000 to Trenor Park, a San Francisco lawyer who was in possession as its resident manager. The group needed a resident manager of its own to run the property, upon which there were seven gold mines. From his work for Central Park and the Sanitary Commission, Olmsted had acquired a reputation for being a brilliant administrator. The investors must have realized that his exhausting war duties had left him in poor mental and physical health, but they decided to take the chance that he would recover in California. The New Yorkers, who called themselves the Mariposa Company, promised Olmsted “complete, entire control of the whole operation.”

Olmsted accepted the job after seeking the advice of his father, his friend George Templeton Strong, and David Dudley Field, the prominent New York legal reformer and lawyer who was one of the new owners of the Mariposa Company. Olmsted must have hoped that the California climate would improve his frail health and that the excellent salary would at last allow him both to pay off his publishing debts and support his family. His[29Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (26)]salary as architect-in-chief of Central Park had not been enough, and he had only accepted half of the $4,000 that had been offered by the Sanitary Commission. For Olmsted there had to be a higher justification for his leaving the East in the midst of a civil war than money or health. Embarrassed by the fact that he seemed to be accepting a call to a richer parish, he tried to justify his decision by arguing that he would be grasping his only definite opportunity to advance civilization. His presence on the mining frontier of California would be an “influence favorable to religion, good order and civilization.”

The friends who had hoped that Olmsted would help them gather funds to start a weekly newspaper loyal to the Union cause were rudely surprised by his sudden departure. It is probable that neither Edwin L. Godkin, the scholarly journalist, nor Professor Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard—the two most interested in the project—knew the extent of Olmsted’s financial burdens.

In September 1863 Olmsted sailed alone from New York for California via the Isthmus of Panama. His family was to follow in the early spring. The major experience of the trip was discovering in the dense and luxuriant jungle of Panama a “sense of the superabundant creative power, infinite resource, and liberality of Nature-the childish playfulness and profuse careless utterance of Nature.” After this sight of tropical luxuriance, his arrival in California in the midst of one of its worst droughts was depressing. To get to Bear Valley, where he was to live on the forty-five-thousand-acre Mariposa Estate, he had to spend a long day traveling by carriage from Stockton through the hot and dusty Central Valley. The climate of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada was cooler and the scenery more attractive than in the Central Valley, but he was appalled by the dryness and the stunted vegetation.

Olmsted immediately set about getting the best information about the future prospects of the seven gold mines on the Mariposa Estate. These, together with the mills, workshops, warehouses, wagon roads, railroads, and water system, made up the greatest single mining property in California, save for the New Almaden quicksilver mines. Josiah Dwight Whitney, head of the California State Geological Survey, lent him the services of two geologists, the French-trained William Ashburner and the brilliant twenty-two-year-old Clarence King, who later became head of the United States Geological Survey. Even with such expert assistance, the unhappy truth about the Mariposa mines (which Trenor Park already knew) came to light very slowly.

In 1847 John Charles Fremont had acquired the Mariposa Estate in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada from the Mexican governor of California, Juan B. Alvarado. Gold was discovered there in 1849. The mining operations had looked promising during the early 1850s, and Fremont must have made[30Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (27)]some money at the start, but it was not long before the estate was in debt. Mining within its limits had to be suspended entirely on several occasions. The basic and unremediable difficulty with the mines was that they were on the wrong end of the mother lode. The enticingly rich quartz outcroppings that Fremont’s men had discovered in the southern mother lode district decreased abruptly in value when they were followed down to a moderate depth. To make matters worse, some of the gold occurred in sulphide ores and could be extracted only by following the newly imported chlorination process. This method was known in California, but because the needed machines were lacking and the process was only efficient in treating large amounts of sulphide ore, the use of it did not spread from Grass Valley and Nevada City, profitable mother lode mines to the north, for more than six years.

Until Olmsted appeared in the fall of 1863, the Fremont Estate had been successfully exploited by the only method possible: trading on the supposed future value of the property. This is exactly what Trenor Park had done when he acquired a one-eighth interest in the estate as one of Fremont’s creditors and gained control of the property as resident manager in June 1860.

When he had made a fortune advancing large sums on the security of the estate, Park decided to sell the mines. By exploiting only the richest veins and neglecting any development work he made the mines produce $100,000 worth of gold a month, which persuaded the New York buyers to pay him $10,000,000 for the property. He gave possession when accounts were cleared for $1,400,000. Park had a large part in forming the Mariposa Company, which bought the Estate; then the shorn lambs chose Olmsted, as it turned out, to disillusion them.

Not realizing the poor prospects of the mines, Olmsted took the advice of another member of the San Francisco law firm that had defended Fremont’s claims, Frederick Billings, later the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Billings told the new manager soon after his arrival that his success with the enterprise would depend upon “radical and expensive” operations. Olmsted made demands for funds from New York, which the company had never expected would be necessary, in order to build a fifty-five-stamp mill, continue the development of other surface installations, divert water from the Merced River to the estate, and improve the housing and living standards for employees and staff. Olmsted could not get the money necessary for all of his projects because the company was more heavily in debt than he realized. Even at its height, production of gold could not always keep up with the expenses, let alone payoff the debts. Geologist Benjamin Silliman’s optimistic report of May 1864 and two short-lived bonanzas helped to obscure the truth about the mines until January 1865.

Happily, Olmsted did not have to be trapped in the wreckage of the[31Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (28)]Mariposa Company. While in California he took advantage of more promising financial and professional opportunities. Starting in 1864, he invested part of his salary and a loan from his father in California stocks which eventually would augment his income handsomely. Thanks to his reputation as a designer of New York’s Central Park, several clients consulted him on California projects. The directors of Mountain View Cemetery had him design their grounds at Oakland and, in early 1865, he gave advice for the design of two estates south of San Francisco. That spring he agreed to make a preliminary plan for a campus, village, and park for the College of California.

Frederick F. Low, governor of California, appointed Olmsted in September 1864 to a board of eight commissioners to take over the Yosemite Valley and the adjoining Big Tree Grove, which the United States had withdrawn from the public lands and ceded to California to preserve for the public. Olmsted was, in effect, head of the commission. The governor stipulated that Olmsted was to review all propositions for the improvement of the grant and all applications for leases. Also, Low asked Olmsted to prepare a preliminary report for the California Legislature on the uses appropriate for the Yosemite grant and how best to provide for them.

Before state funds were made available, Olmsted advanced $500 of his own money to pay Clarence King and his friend on the California State Geological Survey, James T. Gardiner, to make a topographical map of the Yosemite Valley. Olmsted himself had visited the Yosemite, which was close to the Estate. His family had spent part of the summer of 1864 there, and in the last week in August Professor William Brewer of Yale, another State Survey geologist, joined Olmsted and his stepson John for a pack trip through the High Sierra adjacent to the grant.

Olmsted was far more aware of the national importance of the Yosemite as a scenic reserve than most Californians were. In his report to the state legislature he pointed out that this magnificent scenery was so valuable a resource for the health of everyone that it should belong to all the people and never be parceled out to private owners. Setting aside and caring for large public reservations of natural scenery was one way, he suggested, that the government could protect the pursuit of happiness of all against the selfish aims of a few.

The report he wrote was not directly influential, because it was suppressed. It anticipated, however, the argument used later in establishing Yellowstone Park in 1872 and in the National Park Act of 1916: the federal government has a duty to set aside natural areas of extraordinary beauty and significance and manage them for the benefit and free use of the people.

At the time he delivered his report to the Yosemite commissioners, Olmsted was fortunate in having the encouragement of some distinguished visitors to the Yosemite Valley, among them Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield (Mass.) Republican, and the speaker of the United States House[32Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (29)] of Representatives, Schuyler Colfax. Bowles, who struck up a friendship with Olmsted, was so impressed with his ideas that in his book about the trip he proposed that the admirable example of the Yosemite park be followed throughout the Union at such places as Niagara Falls and the Adirondacks.

Several difficulties with the grant prevented prompt and effective steps to establish a permanent Yosemite State Reservation based on Olmsted’s recommendations. The grant of the United States public lands to California provided no federal funds with which to reimburse those who would have to relinquish property within the reservation. As a result, more than a decade of litigation over the holdings of J. M. Hutchings and others who held lands in the valley hampered the public use of the area. Some of the eight commissioners chosen by Governor Low had divided loyalties. William Ashburner and Josiah D. Whitney were leading members of the California State Geological Survey, which had to battle continually for funds from the legislature to carry on its scientific work because the legislators doubted its practical utility. Whitney—the head of the survey—fought the diversion of the scanty public funds to any other enterprise, worthy or not. He tried to prevent the legislature from contributing to the College of California; and it seems highly likely that Ashburner and Whitney, taking advantage of their position as commissioners, prevented Olmsted’s Yosemite report—which they knew asked for $37,000—from ever reaching the legislature.

More important than the fact that the Yosemite Commission received only a tardy and meager appropriation of $12,000 (compared to $30,000 for the survey), the legislators, who never saw Olmsted’s report, were unable by themselves to formulate a well-defined policy for administering the reservation. Perhaps if they had had the benefit of the Olmsted report they would have realized the national significance of the Yosemite, the necessity of protecting it from private exploitation and of making it accessible to the general public without spoiling its beauty. As it was, the state floundered so badly in its administration of the grant that the valley and the Big Trees were returned to federal care in 1905.

Olmsted’s first opportunity to do independent landscape designing came during the fall of 1864, when the trustees of the new Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California, asked him to plan their cemetery. He began work in December. The assignment must have been especially satisfying to him because, unlike his work on Central Park, the Sanitary Commission, and the Yosemite Commission, he had a free hand to do exactly what he thought was best, with the assurance that his designs would be faithfully carried out.

Olmsted’s plan was a bold departure from what he had done in the East: the planting was specifically appropriate to a semiarid country and to a cemetery. He made no attempt to create broad vistas of turf framed by[33Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (30)]luxuriant trees. Instead, the effects he thought suitable for the native oaks and cedars were much more formal. Rather than turning to the English picturesque tradition of landscape, he made use of what he remembered of the Mediterranean villa gardens he had seen on his trip to Rome in the spring of 1856.

The cemetery has a broad central avenue with regularly spaced trees on either side. At the farthest end there is a formal, terraced circle and fountain. The paths and roads which lead off this to the cemetery lots are curved to follow the topography rather than a geometrical plan, but the planting of drought- and wind-resistant ground cover, low bushes, and small trees indigenous to the region make an effect completely different from the pastoral Central Park. Little if any watering is necessary to maintain the planting through the dry season.

The trustees of the College of California asked Olmsted in March of 1864 to supply them with a plan for a village and a college campus on land which they held a few miles north of the town of Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco. In this design, he decided that the village should have a plan similar to that of Llewellyn Park, which Eugene A. Baumann and Alexander Jackson Davis had laid out in 1857 on a rugged and picturesque hillside in the Orange Mountains of New Jersey. The streets and avenues of Olmsted’s town followed the topography rather than an unyielding rectangular grid. The campus and residence area were to be close together in the center of the plan, because he thought that an academic community should not be too separated from everyday life—though an ordinary, dusty, noisy, commercial town, in his opinion, was a distracting place for a scholar. In the plan he provided a road around the outskirts of the village to divert any future north and south traffic away from the center of town.

Olmsted was careful to provide for the wants of the residents of his proposed village. He planned a small park secluded from the rest of the village for mothers and young children. Each house was to have two to five acres of land around it and be well set back from the road. He hoped that the architecture of the houses would not be ostentatious and would harmonize with their grounds, encouraging the out-of-door living that is so much easier in California than elsewhere. Although the Mountain View Cemetery plan was carried out, only a few parts of Olmsted’s California College plan remain: the original line of Piedmont Avenue in Berkeley and parts of Strawberry Creek. Olmsted’s idea of planting trees and bushes and ground cover that could survive the dry season without watering has been discarded in California. Almost everywhere on the Berkeley campus are lawns and flowers that require sprinkling from April to October during the dry season.

In 1865, with the collapse of the Mariposa Company only a matter of time, Olmsted had to worry again about his future occupation. He thought he might turn back to writing and gathered notes for “a heavy sort of book”[34Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (31)]about the social tendencies of American civilization in the past fifty years, which, after his stay in California, he considered were generally for the good. Since the project for a weekly newspaper with E. L. Godkin did not yet have enough financial support, Olmsted tried to buy the San Francisco newspaper, the Daily Alta California, and persuade his friend Godkin to come out from New York to help him edit it. The Daily Alta, however, was not for sale. He thought, too, of becoming the president of a railroad or of an insurance company, only to discover that one had to have access to a large amount of capital to move into such a position.

By August 1865 Olmsted had decided to leave California. Godkin had written him that at last he had gathered enough money to publish the first number of the Nation, as the new weekly was called, and wanted Olmsted’s help on further issues. Calvert Vaux wanted to know whether to accept for Olmsted and himself their re-appointment as landscape architects of Central Park and take on the designing of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Olmsted wrote back to Vaux and Godkin that he would accept the proffered jobs and resigned from the Mariposa Company in September.

During his last few months on the Pacific coast, Olmsted joined a campaign to provide a park for San Francisco. As a result, the Municipal Board asked him to suggest a location and prepare plans for a park. Although his design was not carried out, being considered too elaborate and expensive, the report he wrote is one of his most interesting because it goes far beyond the immediate project of a park to discuss city planning.

The appropriate street plan for a city built upon extraordinarily steep hills like San Francisco, Olmsted advised the board, was not a rectangular grid of streets, because the grades resulting from carrying streets directly up and down the hills would be practically impossible for horse-drawn vehicles and for pedestrians. To save effort, annoyance, and danger, he recommended that the city layout the streets to climb the hills with easy grades by having them follow winding courses (presumably of a spiral or switchback pattern). The other problem San Francisco faced was the extreme danger of fire in the windy dry season. To prevent fires from spreading out of control throughout the city, Olmsted planned a sunken parkway to form a firebreak, dividing the city in two. It also was to be a pleasant thoroughfare, better protected from the cold winds off the Pacific than were ordinary San Francisco streets.

The Municipal Board followed neither of Olmsted’s suggestions. If they had respected the handsome shapes of the hills when they laid out the streets, the city might have become more beautiful and convenient than it is today; and Olmsted’s boulevard might have confined the great fire of 1906 to only half the city. But, as Josiah Royce said of San Francisco when there was no longer any choice, its citizens had not yet learned that most civilized of arts—to enhance rather than destroy nature in the building of cities.

[35Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (32)]

The opportunity to work with Calvert Vaux on Prospect and Central parks and with E. L. Godkin on the newly founded Nation beckoned Olmsted and his family home. On October 13, 1865, Olmsted sailed from San Francisco to New York, bringing with him plans for Mountain View Cemetery and the California College grounds to be finished and engraved in the Olmsted, Vaux and Company office. The forty-one-day trip back by steamer down the Pacific coast, across the Isthmus via the Nicaraguan land route, and thence to New York on another steamer was miserable but well worthwhile, since Olmsted’s greatest professional opportunities lay ahead of him in the East.

Two days after Olmsted’s arrival back in New York in November, George Templeton Strong took him to dinner at Delmonico’s. He found the man who had become so difficult in his last days with the Sanitary Commission looking well, “as bright as ever,” and full of talk about his California experiences. Olmsted was in much better health than when he had left New York two years before; and thanks to his good salary and the comfortable returns he was getting on his California investments, he could payoff his publishing debts and no longer had to turn to his father for money. He was sure that he had a profession to follow. The opportunities for a landscape architect that he had found in California, and the renewal of his work with Vaux in New York, must have showed him that his services were needed in this new field and that he could support himself and his family by practicing the art.

The landscape architects of Prospect Park returned to the Arcadian ideal of landscape beauty they had first tried to pursue in their design of Central Park in New York. The rolling and well-wooded site of the Brooklyn park made their task much easier than it had been on the rocky spine of Manhattan Island. When both Central Park and Prospect Park were within a few years of completion, George Templeton Strong weighed the merits of the Brooklyn park against his favorite:

This park beats Central Park ten to one in trees. Its wealth of forest is most enviable. I think we cannot match its softly undulating lawns. But we beat it in rock and the boxes of landscape. Prospect Park’s attempts at rock are pitiable, most palpable piles of boulders. We beat it also in water and bridges and other like structures. But it beats us in views and is a most lovely pleasance....

As in the San Francisco and College of California reports, Olmsted and Vaux’s recommendations for Prospect Park contain many thoughts on city planning. They instructed the Brooklyn commissioners in the history of street systems from the Middle Ages onward. They made the point that a park would be of no use to Brooklyn unless it were accessible. The means of access, they argued, should make a pleasurable transition from city to country[36Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (33)]scenes. Furthermore, they advised that as more scattered parks came under the jurisdiction of the commission, these should be connected to each other by shaded drives like the new boulevards in Paris.

They designed two boulevards or parkways based on the plan of the Avenue de l’Impératrice (now Foch) in Paris, having a central pleasure drive for carriages flanked on either side by pedestrian paths which, in turn, were bordered by service roads for delivery and local traffic with sidewalks for pedestrians along their outside edges. Each road or pathway was made separate from its neighbor by a strip of turf and a line of trees. The Eastern and Ocean parkways were built to provide pleasant greenbelts around the city which would enhance the value of the adjacent land for villa sites.

Until July 1866 the arduous and apparently unpaid work Olmsted did for E. L. Godkin as an associate editor of the newly founded magazine, the Nation, distracted him from his budding career as a landscape architect. He shared editorial duties with Godkin, and after the first issue appeared in the summer of 1865, he tried to placate the disappointment of Major George L. Stearns, wartime recruiter of black troops for the Union army, who had raised money for the magazine expecting it to give substantial support to the rights of freed slaves. Despite Olmsted’s efforts, Stearns and others withdrew their support from the venture. Olmsted stood by Godkin. He had made a heavy investment of his time and energy in the Nation, which was the kind of magazine he had envisioned in 1852 and had tried to make Putnam’s into in 1855. The Nation often took editorial positions with which Olmsted could agree. He, too, advocated an international copyright law and the protection of merchant seamen from arbitrary ship’s officers, and he was angered by California’s cession of parts of the Yosemite Valley to squatters. It may have been his suggestion to have a correspondent for the Nation travel through the postwar South to report what he saw and heard, leaving the public to draw its own inferences.

In 1867, Vaux and Olmsted continued to expand their joint practice of landscape architecture. In addition to their heavy responsibilities connected with Central Park and Prospect Park, they took on park work at New Britain, Connecticut and Newark, New Jersey; and they began to design other parks in Brooklyn. Over the next five years they also wrote reports for the park commissions of Fall River, Providence, Albany, Philadelphia, and Hartford.

One of their most important commissions came in 1868, when Emery E. Childs asked them to layout a model suburban village to be called Riverside, nine miles west of the center of Chicago on David A. Gage’s 1,600-acre farm overlooking the Des Plaines River. The designers now had their first great opportunity to replace the real estate speculator, the politician, and the surveyor in town planning when the Riverside trustees voted to adopt their plan.

[37Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (34)]

A month after visiting the site, Vaux and Olmsted had drawn up a preliminary plan and drafted a financial agreement with the trustees of the village. At the outset, they made it clear that their plan was not going to be a landscaped park with houses placed in it. The purpose of the Riverside plan was different from that of a park. Instead of helping to create the illusion of uninterrupted countryside stretching away as far as one could see, the suburban landscape was to suggest domesticity, seclusion, and community.

The landscapers carefully brought all the elements of their plan into keeping with an overriding theme of “rural effect and domestic seclusion.” Rather than placing shade trees at regular intervals along the streets as was the custom in Chicago, the designers planted maples, elms, and horse chestnut trees irregularly so as to display foliage along the curving streets in great and varied masses. To keep the visual tone of the village muted and tranquil, undisturbed by any architectural whimsies, each property owner had to plant one or two trees between his house and the roadway.

Riverside was to be a fortunate combination of rural scenery and civilized comfort. The roadways, unlike most country highways, were built for dust-free and mud-free travel all year round. The Riverside Company piped gas and pure water to every house. Vaux and Olmsted sincerely believed that suburbs like Riverside, which were appearing throughout the country, represented “the best application of the arts of civilization to which mankind has yet attained.” They tried to make Riverside a place which could foster the “harmonious cooperation of men in a community, and the intimate relationship and constant intercourse, and interdependence between families.” To this end, they provided for greens like those of country villages, croquet grounds, ball fields, boat landings, skating facilities, and vine-draped pavilions.

Like most of Olmsted and Vaux’s plans, the one for Riverside went further than its apparent purpose. Olmsted and Vaux wanted to make the suburban village serve the interests of the people of Chicago. The designers proposed that a six-mile parkway should be built from Riverside to the outskirts of Chicago to allow businessmen to commute on horseback; it would also provide pleasant, tree-shaded riding paths, walks, and a carriage road for families who wished to come out from Chicago to the parks and picnic grounds of Riverside for holiday recreation and rural fetes.

The trustees adopted the expensive and elaborate Olmsted, Vaux and Company plan after a lengthy, soul-searching debate. The landscape architects asked $15,000 for their plan and a 7 percent commission upon gross expenditures, which would have brought them, if the estimates were correct, $112,500. In spite of the financial depression after the Chicago fire, the village of Riverside was laid out substantially following the Vaux and Olmsted design, except for the proposed parkway, which fell victim to lack of funds and opposition from the landowners of Cicero and Chicago. The plan[38Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (35)]eventually became a very prosperous investment for the trustees in spite of the initial expense, but during the financial crisis the trustees defaulted on their payments to Olmsted, Vaux and Company, and the lots that they were given in lieu of payment sold for very little.

In the middle 1870s, Olmsted collaborated in an even more comprehensive, original, and far-seeing city planning project than the design of Riverside. This was the plan the New York Department of Public Parks asked him to prepare for the Twenty-third and Twenty-fourth wards of New York, consisting of the recently annexed area of the Bronx between the Harlem river and Yonkers. His collaborator in this plan was not Calvert Vaux but an experienced civil engineer who had worked for the Croton Water Board, John James Robertson Croes.

The Public Park Department wanted the two to design a rapid transit system and a network of streets for the area. Olmsted and Croes divided the work between them: Croes did the preliminary topographical survey, the design for the rapid transit system, and the plan for the main road pattern; and Olmsted did the secondary roads for the residential sections. The scheme Olmsted and Croes developed for the wards was a marriage of railroad engineering and picturesque park planning, and as a result, it was the first important departure after Central Park from the New York Street Commissioners’ rectangular block system of 1811.

The topography of the area was the determining consideration for every detail of the plan; this was both good railroad practice and orthodox late-eighteenth-century landscape design. Croes first determined the site of a loop of tracks which would encircle the wards and a connecting line which cut through the middle. This had to be done before anything else, because the proposed steam rapid-transit lines had to be as straight and as level as possible, and also because the designers wanted to apply the principle of grade separation which Olmsted and Vaux had first used in Central Park. At no place were the tracks to be crossed on a level by any of the roadways. Croes’s proposed steam rapid-transit lines were far cheaper to build, less ugly, and much quieter than the new elevated railways being built at that time over the streets of Manhattan, and they were far safer and faster than the horse and cable cars already running in the streets of many American cities.

Once the site of the railroad lines and main roads had been settled for the plan, Olmsted proposed that a curving secondary road system be established that would follow closely the contour lines of the varied topography. Such a scheme, he argued, would be less expensive and more appropriate for a suburban district than a straight street system. These roads would, like the primary thoroughfares, cross the railway lines only at over or under-passes.

The remarkable proposal was drawn up by Croes and Olmsted during a short period in the affairs of the city of New York when the Department[39Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (36)]of Public Parks was under the control of a reform group who had broken the hold of the Tweed ring. When the time came to carry out the Olmsted and Croes ideas, though, the reform politicians had been thrown out of office by a reconstituted Tammany Hall group of Democrats who had found a way to get back into power under the Self-Government Charter granted New York City by the state legislature in 1873. Olmsted’s health broke down under systematic harassment from the Tammany politicians and their friends in office. Just after he requested and received a leave of absence from his job as landscape architect to the Department of Public Parks, the Office of Design and Superintendence of the New York Parks was abolished and all salaried officials discharged.

The fate of the Twenty-third and Twenty-fourth ward plans was not sealed when Olmsted left for Europe with his stepson John. Croes remained to defend the plans in an unequal battle with entrenched politicians, real estate speculators, and the Gilbert and New York Elevated Railway Companies, who were eager to obtain franchises from the city to build iron bridges down the streets of the annexed districts now that the Sixth Avenue extended almost the length of Manhattan Island. They were so proud of their structures that they even suggested that an elevated line would be a picturesque addition to Central Park.

The opportunity to create a handsome suburban district was a victim of the power struggles, cupidity, and narrow vision of the age. The chance to have an inexpensive and rational rapid transit system, perhaps better than any ever built in America, was lost. Later citizens of New York were asked to pay for the subway system after millions had already been spent on the ill-advised elevated lines.

Olmsted’s experiences with the interference of politicians made him consider leaving New York when he returned from his European trip. His ties to the city had been gradually loosening for more than a decade. He had given up his partnership with Calvert Vaux in 1872 for “reasons of mutual convenience” and perhaps because he no longer really needed his help. In the meantime, too, his practice of landscape architecture was hardly confined to New York. Many of his clients were ranged around Boston, and he had already started work on the Boston parks and others in cities such as Montreal.

An important reason for Olmsted’s decision to leave New York must have been his growing friendship and professional association with the architect Henry Hobson Richardson, who had moved from New York to live in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1874. He probably knew Richardson as early as 1867, when they both lived on Staten Island. The architect, then just beginning his career, had charm, gaiety, exuberant energy, and eager sympathy, which must have been a great comfort to Olmsted when conducting the obstinate affairs of Central Park and business with his demanding private[40Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (37)]and public clients elsewhere. Also, Richardson’s informal architectural style, combining craftsmanship and integrity, must have attracted him more than Vaux’s fussy and staccato Victorian Gothic.

In 1871 Olmsted and Richardson had worked together on the Staten Island Improvement Commission, a remarkable example of what nineteenth century cooperative planning could produce. It integrated the knowledge of geologists, public health doctors, and sanitary engineers with the aesthetic and social theories of Olmsted and Richardson to create a comprehensive plan for the island, taking into account both the natural ecology and the future needs of its inhabitants for housing, transportation, water supply, and open space.

Even though an important impulse for the report was a mistaken attempt to rid the island of malaria by preventing the creation of miasmas from undrained and stagnant bodies of water, the thoughts expressed in the report accorded so well with a rational, far-seeing development of Staten Island that the community missed a great opportunity to plan for the future when the commission did not adopt the report. Olmsted and H. H. Richardson also collaborated on the buildings and grounds for the State Hospital at Buffalo, New York.

Richardson urged the Olmsteds to move to Brookline, even offering to sell them some land he owned and build a house there for them. They did come in 1882, although Olmsted kept his New York office open until 1883. Olmsted was greatly relieved to be away from the frustrations and strains of life in New York during the Gilded Age. He confessed to his friend, Charles Loring Brace, that he now felt he was living again “after several years of real despair.” He told Brace that he enjoyed suburban life beyond description and thought of Brookline as one of the best governed and most civilized places in America.

After his move to Brookline, Olmsted was no longer in a subordinate’s role. Even when he worked on the Boston parks, the commissioners, unlike those in New York, showed him the respect due a professional. His private clients, the Appletons, Hunnewells, and Charles Eliot Norton, must have been far more sympathetic to his aims than the wealthier and more ostentatious patrons he could have had in New York. He heartily disliked the latter’s lavish displays, and so did his Boston neighbors.

Olmsted had the pleasure of collaborating with the Falstaffian Richardson on several of his projects in New England. Richardson designed a bridge of Roxbury puddingstone for the Fenway. The simple, undecorated arch of rough-faced stone over the Muddy River was so perfectly in keeping with Olmsted’s landscape that it served as a model for many other park bridges, including those in Franklin Park. Olmsted landscaped several of Richardson’s suburban railroad stations on the Boston to Albany line. In his book on Richardson, Henry-Russell Hitchco*ck concedes that Olmsted’s[41Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (38)]contribution in one of their joint projects was probably more distinguished than the architect’s. Richardson’s town hall at North Easton, an awkward building with abrupt shifts of scale, style, and construction, could at best be considered, he writes, only as a successful part of Olmsted’s splendid, naturalistic treatment of the rocky hillside site and the great stairs rising up through the ledges.

The Olmsted firm took on an impressive number of clients from all over the country. One of Olmsted’s stepsons, the methodical and hardworking John, became a partner in 1884 and had a large part in keeping the stream of work moving through the office smoothly. During this time, the firm designed great public parks for many cities, including Bridgeport, Buffalo, Boston, Detroit, and Rochester, and for the Niagara Falls Reservation. Its members also designed various subdivisions, among them that of the Newport Land Trust in Rhode Island and Chestnut Hill in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Olmsted, characteristically, took a long-range and comprehensive view of any project about which he was consulted. When asked to propose a plan for the United States Capitol grounds in 1874, he discussed the Capitol’s relationship to the Mall and to the White House. His plan of Riverside, Illinois, included a proposed parkway to downtown Chicago, six miles away. He saw Prospect Park as a part of a system of public open spaces linked by parkways throughout the greater New York area. His plans for Boston were equally comprehensive.

In 1878, the commissioners of the Boston Park System wanted to abate the peril and stench of the polluted, stagnant water gathering behind the city in the Back Bay by draining it into the Charles River. They also wanted to provide more access from Boston to the surrounding towns. Olmsted suggested that they could meet both objectives and extend the Boston park system if they built the necessary causeways, bridges, roads, interceptor sewers, basins, tidal gates, and dams so as to form a green necklace of pleasure drives, parks, and ponds around the city. His proposed Arborway and Fenway would give access to the western suburbs and link Franklin Park and the Arnold Arboretum to the Charles River and to the tree-lined Commonwealth Avenue which ran downtown to the Public Garden and the Common. The brilliant scheme, completed in the early 1890s, provided a precedent for the extension of the Boston park system to include the Blue Hills Reservation and Middlesex Fells and the damming of the Charles River in 1910.

Although Olmsted encompassed the Boston region in his plan, he also remained sensitive to the unique qualities of the Franklin Park site in West Roxbury. The stony 500 acres, partly wooded and partly pasture, were, he thought, a good site for a country park. He wrote that there was not within or near the city “any other equal extent of ground of as simple, and pleasingly[42Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (39)]simple, rural aspect.” It could be favorably compared with other parks, such as Fontainebleau, outside Paris. “The woods of Fontainebleau,” he wrote, “that have been the models of a thousand painted landscapes, being mostly of artificially planted trees, grown stiffly for the timber market, and not for natural beauty, are no more art-educative than the woods that may be had on Franklin Park. And though the region to which the name Fontainebleau is applied is so much larger, it offers the student no better examples of landscape distance, intricacy, obscurity, and mystery than may be had in Franklin Park.” He presented this landscape to the public by means of six miles of driveways, thirteen miles of walks, and two miles of bridle path.

Olmsted displayed his architectural acumen as well as his landscaping abilities when commissioned to design the United States Capitol grounds in 1874. He wanted to keep the Capitol the dominant feature in his plan yet provide grounds which would be attractive and cool in Washington’s sticky summer heat. To do this, he shaded the walks and carriageways with low, thickly branching trees which shut out the sun but allowed a good view of the building.

William Thornton’s design for the U.S. Capitol (approved in 1793) provided Olmsted with his major problem. The architect had designed the main façade to face east, mistakenly assuming the major growth of Washington would be in that direction instead of to the west. Olmsted proposed to give the neglected west side, which was most often seen, appropriate grandeur. The western slope of Capitol Hill being too steep for a grand avenue, Olmsted suggested a great terrace below the building with steps down to more level ground. This handsome foundation would make the Capitol look larger than it was. The idea seemed so unusual and radical to the Congress that the legislators took ten years to approve it; they feared that the vast structure would hide rather than enhance the Capitol. The success of the terrace on the western front and the enormous plaza on the eastern side demonstrate that Olmsted could design for monumentality as well as natural beauty.

Olmsted faced another challenge when Senator Leland Stanford asked him for advice about his plans for a university in California he planned to found in memory of his son, who had died in 1884. Olmsted went to the West Coast in the fall of 1886 with his son Frederick and junior partner, Harry Codman, to select a site for the proposed university on Stanford’s 7000 acres thirty miles south of San Francisco. Olmsted suggested that it would be best to have the main group of college buildings on a commanding site in the coastal range foothills west of Palo Alto, which were covered with the remains of a forest of firs, pines, oaks, and redwoods. Stanford, however, wanted the campus on the large, flat, meadowlike portion of the property, where his son had spent hours riding horseback.

Olmsted acceded gracefully to Stanford’s desire about the site but[43Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (40)]stood firm when it was suggested that the new university be a re-creation of a New England college with brick Georgian architecture, broad stretches of turf, and wine-glass elms. He explained to Stanford that the planting and the building should be appropriate to the semiarid climate of California. It would be far better to model the campus on the gardens and buildings of the Mediterranean countries than to imitate Harvard or Amherst. To achieve this Mediterranean effect, which he deemed appropriate to Stanford, Olmsted took great pains to select plant materials from Spain and the North African coast which would thrive in Palo Alto’s warm, dry climate.

The firm of Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge, which succeeded to the practice of H. H. Richardson when he died in 1886, designed the college in a Mediterranean-Romanesque style. The one- or two-story buildings were arranged to form arcaded quadrangles, and they embodied the Richardsonian motifs: short columns with decorated capitals, the hemisphere arch, and heavy stone walls. All buildings had pitched roofs of tile supported by wooden trusses. Instead of sodding the quadrangles, Olmsted had them paved with stone blocks and planted with ornamental palms. No watering would be necessary to maintain his plantings through the dry season.

The architecture and landscaping of Stanford University was a departure from the usual American academic style. Olmsted’s quadrangles surrounded by low, arcaded buildings created a less pretentious though more formal effect than that found on most other college campuses. Evolving a landscape style for a Mediterranean climate in the United States was a new idea for transplanted easterners in California, but the Stanford campus was later copied all over California in mission-style school and college buildings. The group of buildings is undeniably handsome, but perhaps if it had been situated on a hillside, as Olmsted had first suggested, it would have made an even more striking pattern in the California landscape.

The vast difference in appearance between Central Park and the Stanford University grounds should not surprise anyone acquainted with Olmsted’s flexible and non-doctrinaire approach to design. For instance, he saw no more conflict between informal and formal schools of design than he did between the work of the shoemaker and the hatter. The approach used in any design should be that which provided best for fullness of life by meeting the client’s requirements within the possibilities of the local climate. The formal architectural design advocated by many of Olmsted’s opponents would not have been right, he argued, for Central Park, which was supposed to provide relief from city sights and sounds. In the temperate and wet climate of New York, it was possible to provide scenes similar to those of the great English parks. At Stanford, on the other hand, the picturesque landscape of England or New England was out of place: luxuriant foliage and sweeping vistas of greensward should not be expected in a warm, dry[44Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (41)]climate. Here, the necessary shade should be provided by formal arcades, as in Mediterranean countries, and the grounds embellished with native and foreign plants that did not need constant watering.

In his last years in the profession Olmsted had to work with a group of men who insisted that the formal architecture and landscape of the Renaissance was appropriate at all times and places. It was right, they claimed, not only for a town house or a government building but for a seaside villa, a mountain retreat, or a world’s fair. The leader of the architectural generation that followed Richardson’s was the dominating and persuasive Richard Morris Hunt. He confirmed the desire of Richardson’s former assistants, Charles F. McKim, Stanford White, and William R. Mead, to abandon Richardson’s heavy, Romanesque style for public buildings and churches and his informal, wooden shingle style for houses, saying these styles were barbaric and undisciplined.

Hunt worked with Olmsted on several estates for the Vanderbilts and Twomblys, and on the Vanderbilt mausoleum, but there must have been some strain in the compromise between these two opinionated gentlemen. In the twenty years before their collaboration Hunt had lost two aesthetic struggles with Olmsted and his friends. In 1866, the park commissioners refused to carry out his grandiose gateway designs for Central Park, which they had approved three years before. Public protest and Olmsted and Vaux’s complaint that the architectural designs were out of keeping with a rural park had changed their minds. In 1876 Hunt lost a heated battle against Olmsted, Leopold Eidlitz, and H. H. Richardson over whether the design for the New York State capitol at Albany should be Renaissance or Romanesque in style. To plan George W. Vanderbilt’s estate, “Biltmore,” with Richard Morris Hunt, and the Chicago World’s Fair with Hunt and McKim, Mead, and White, the sixty-seven-year-old Olmsted had to utilize all his gifts of compromise.

Happily, on Vanderbilt’s vast mountain estate, covering many square miles near Asheville, North Carolina, there was room for both Olmsted’s English deer park and Hunt’s proposed mansion, a late Gothic French chateau. Olmsted confessed to a friend that the plan had cost him more worry than anything else he had done. Yet the two schools of thought blended magnificently-the formal grounds immediately around the castle and the rolling pastoral landscape of meadow and forest stretching off to the mountains beyond. The beautiful, winding drive into the estate was a triumph of picturesque unexpectedness and surprise, bursting upon Hunt’s chateau and its sweeping view only at the end.

It is ironic that at the New York dinner given for the artists and architects of the Chicago World’s Fair, Daniel Burnham, who had directed their efforts, should have hailed Olmsted as the best adviser and chief planner of the exposition. The landscape architect’s concept of what the exposition[45Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (42)]should be like had differed completely from that of most of the architects who decided its final appearance. Instead of dazzling Americans with a vision of architectural magnificence which looked like a permanent white city, Olmsted had hoped for a frankly temporary bit of colorful pageantry. The architects and artists of the fair, like Burnham, must have sensed Olmsted’s disgruntlement and may have thought to show him their respect and friendship by the gesture.

After the fair, Olmsted continued to concern himself with the immense number of projects his firm took on, such as the park designs for Louisville, Milwaukee, and Buffalo, and gave particular attention to Biltmore. He also had a part in the firm’s design of the Charles River dam and their embankment scheme for Boston and the perimeter parks and parkways of the Metropolitan District Commission. These imaginative and far-seeing plans transformed the appearance of Boston and its expanding suburbs by preserving and enhancing the remaining natural scenery.

By 1895, though, Olmsted realized that his memory was becoming unreliable and that his energies were declining. He told his partners that he could no longer be counted upon to play an important part in the firm’s complicated and wide-ranging practice. By this time, the office in Brookline was firmly in the hands of his stepson, John C. Olmsted, his son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and Charles Eliot, the son of the president of Harvard. Ambitious European tours and enforced rest with his worried family could no longer bring back Olmsted’s health and enthusiasm. Plagued with insomnia and fits of anxiety and anger, he lapsed into senility. His family committed him to McLean Hospital outside of Boston in 1898, where he died in 1903.

Olmsted left behind him an enormous amount of work accomplished: twenty great city parks, many college campuses, private estates, and institutional grounds. (Ironically, he had designed the grounds of McLean Hospital, where he spent his last years.) Despite the natural appearance of their great landscaped parks, citizens of such places as Louisville, Buffalo, and Montreal have come to realize that Olmsted did more for them than add a few benches and paths to previously existing scenery. Often the park site had been desolate and unpromising or hardly fit for public use. Perhaps, though, it is just as well for the repose of park frequenters that the artificial landscape they enjoy does not memorialize Olmsted’s many struggles with real estate speculators, politicians, and budget trimmers.

As the scion of a generous, well-to-do family, Olmsted had the painful luxury of being able to take his time in choosing a career. From the beginning, he sought an occupation which would help to advance civilization: as a gentleman farmer, he tried to educate his neighbors both in methods and in taste, and as a writer, he attempted to reveal the effect of slavery on the civilization of the southern states. Putnam’s Monthly and Dix and Edwards,[46Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (43)]partly under his management in the 1850s, were intended to raise the level of literary taste and information nationally, by publishing only the best wherever it might be found.

He began his work on Central Park, embittered by his publishing failure and in deep sorrow over his brother’s death, as “a forlorn hope” to enhance civilized values in New York, and achieved astonishing success. When the existence of American civilization was threatened by the outbreak of the Civil War, Olmsted, as executive secretary of the Sanitary Commission, took the lead in providing for the medical and sanitary needs of the Union armies defending it. Exhausted by this service in the summer of 1863, he left to run a gold mine in California. He viewed even this endeavor, by which he recouped his publishing losses, as a chance to improve the society of the frontier. While there he seized the opportunity to plan Yosemite Park and design a campus and village for the College of California.

Olmsted’s subsequent career as a landscape architect was built on the observation that the majority of American people would soon be living in or around cities. He had long since given up the notion of his scientific farming days that the quality of American life would be determined by the farmer. His bias was not anti-urban; rather, he looked toward the creation of a new kind of city, centralized at the core and dispersed at the periphery. Partly because of the boss-ridden politics of his day, Olmsted had little part in the social, economic, and architectural planning of the center city, but his designs for parks, suburbs, and estates were intended to bring city comforts and natural beauty together into a life-giving and civilized amalgam, and create a happy environment for future generations of Americans.

Olmsted’s great work was done at a time when the landscape architect and the sanitary engineer combined forces to plan for our cities. He lived into the period when architects like Daniel Burnham assumed the major role in comprehensive planning and put great emphasis on designing an unabashedly formal and monumental downtown. But Olmsted’s legacy of open space and suburban planning combined well with what was to come and has remained an important corrective influence. We can still look to his work for guidance in controlling suburban sprawl, in giving access to open space within the city, and in preserving such examples of sublimity in our landscape as Niagara Falls and the Yosemite Valley. As farmer, author, administrator, and park planner, Olmsted fought selfish and short-sighted thinking with imaginative proposals to enhance the life of his own times and that of future generations.

Charles Capen McLaughlin

Frederick Law Olmsted: His Life and Work (2024)
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