Olmsted’s Enduring Gift (Published 2022) (2024)

By Ruth Fremson and Audra D. S. Burch

The man behind many of the nation’s beloved public spaces, Frederick Law Olmsted, was born 200 years ago on April 26. His creations are more essential to modern American life than ever.

The freedom of hymns sung in the rain

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and lonely night strolls in Central Park;

the break dancer spinning in the afternoon light

and the couple who said, “I do,” along the Emerald Necklace in Boston;

the man clutching an American flag outside a vigil on the U.S. Capitol grounds;

and the hillside headstones standing sentry at the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, Calif.,

all belong to the legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted —

landscape architect, social reformer and believer in public parks as a democratic ideal.

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The man behind many of the nation’s beloved public spaces, Frederick Law Olmsted, was born 200 years ago on April 26. His creations are more essential to modern American life than ever.

Photo Essay by Ruth Fremson
Essay by Audra D. S. Burch

“a grateful sense of
peculiarly fresh and pure air”

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Central Park, Manhattan

On the bicentennial of his birthday in April — aptly the season of spring blooms and rebirth — it is worth remembering Olmsted’s enduring imprint on the nation. In plots of earth and green, Olmsted saw something more: freedom, human connection, public health.

A New York Times photographer captured every season in Olmsted-designed spaces, from the woodlands of Prospect Park in Brooklyn to the slopes of Cherokee Park in Louisville, Ky., to the campus of Stanford University to a green island in Detroit.

Collectively, the images capture something else: that Olmsted’s vision is as essential today as it was more than a century ago.

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Cherokee Park, Louisville, Ky.

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Central Park, Manhattan

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Central Park, Manhattan

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Belle Isle, Detroit

“Where there were parks, they gave the highest assurance of safety, as well as a grateful sense of peculiarly fresh and pure air.”
— Frederick Law Olmsted

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Central Park, Manhattan

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U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.

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Prospect Park, Brooklyn

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Belle Isle, Detroit

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Central Park, Manhattan

“turf in broad,
unbroken fields”

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Cherokee Park, Louisville, Ky.

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Prospect Park, Brooklyn

His parks helped sustain Americans’ mental and physical health and social connections during the darkest days of the pandemic. As Covid-19 lockdowns unlaced nearly every familiar aspect of life, parks were reaffirmed as respite, an escape from quarantine.

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Delaware Park, Buffalo

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Iroquois Park, Louisville, Ky.

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Prospect Park, Brooklyn

“The most essential element of park scenery is turf in broad, unbroken fields, because in this the antithesis of the confined spaces of the town is most marked.”

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Belle Isle, Detroit

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Stanford University, California

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Prospect Park, Brooklyn

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Niagara Falls State Park, New York

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Olmsted Park, Boston

“The park should, as far as possible, complement the town. Openness is the one thing you cannot get in buildings.”

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Central Park, Manhattan

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Deepdene Park in Olmsted Linear Park, Atlanta

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Central Park, Manhattan

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U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.

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Central Park, Manhattan

“nothing of the bustle
and the jar of the streets”

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Central Park, Manhattan

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Frederick Law Olmsted, circa 1895. Historic New England — Gift of Joseph Hudak, Firm of Olmsted Brothers, Brookline, Mass.

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A card catalog and piles of Olmsted’s drawings and blueprints at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Mass.

For Olmsted, much of the story of public spaces began in 1850, when he visited England’s Birkenhead Park. He was charmed by its approach — free for all people — which influenced his own thinking about what it means to have a park without social or economic barriers.

Along with a collaborator, Calvert Vaux, Olmsted designed Central Park in the late 1850s. The oasis on the island of Manhattan was meant as a calming antidote to the dizzying rush of city life.

Central Park was the first of many.

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Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, Calif.

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Belle Isle, Detroit

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Martin Luther King Jr. Park, Buffalo

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Jamaica Pond, Boston

“We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day's work is done, and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and the jar of the streets, where they shall, in effect, find the city put far away from them.”

“if life is to be
more than the meat”

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Central Park, Manhattan

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Niagara Falls State Park, New York

In Boston, Olmsted carved a garden through dense blocks, a green haven strung through the city, known as the Emerald Necklace. Karen Mauney-Brodek, president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, describes a public park’s steadying effect in staccato phrases:

“You are moving. From streets to sidewalks. By parked cars and intersections and stoplights. And then, finally, an open space. You feel the air, and then,” she says, her words slowing, “a sense of calm, a sense of freedom.”

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Prospect Park, Brooklyn

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Belle Isle, Detroit

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Prospect Park, Brooklyn

“For those who cannot travel, free admission to the best scenery of their neighborhood is desirable. It is, indeed, necessary, if life is to be more than the meat.”

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Niagara Falls State Park, New York

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Prospect Park, Brooklyn

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Belle Isle, Detroit

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Shawnee Park, Louisville, Ky.

“enjoyment of scenery employs
the mind without fatigue”

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Belle Isle, Detroit

“The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it, tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.”

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Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, Calif.

Before he turned to a career designing some of America’s most iconic parks, Olmsted, the son of a Connecticut merchant, was a farmer, seaman and journalist who traveled the American South, writing dispatches about slavery.

Olmsted understood the promise of the park as a social force that would become an amenity in city life over the decades. In his view, parks were imbued with an exquisite kind of healing power. They were beautiful, born of nature, reimagined by man. He idealized them as literal common grounds forging communities, unstratified by race or class or faith.

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U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.

Some of Olmsted's spaces also became the staging grounds for social justice protests; the U.S. Capitol became the site of a riot. One year later, a vigil was held to mark and mourn the event.

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Stanford University, California

You will find “all classes largely represented, with a common purpose,” he wrote, “each individual adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of all others, all helping to the greater happiness of each.”

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Belle Isle, Detroit

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Central Park, Manhattan

“tranquility and
rest to the mind”

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Central Park, Manhattan

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Belle Isle, Detroit

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Arnold Arboretum, Boston

“The beauty of the park should be the other. It should be the beauty of the fields, the meadow, the prairie, of the green pastures, and the still waters. What we want to gain is tranquility and rest to the mind.”

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Back Bay Fens, Boston

The young nation that Olmsted served might be unrecognizable to him today, except for the rituals preserved and encouraged by his own creations:

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Central Park, Manhattan

Restoration and recreation.

Wonder and discovery.

Solitude and community.

And sometimes, simply — sitting still.

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Belle Isle, Detroit

Olmsted’s Enduring Gift (Published 2022) (2024)
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