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Frederick Law Olmstead, Founder of American Landscape Architecture - 2003-08-09


It's often referred to as "New York City's Backyard." Central Park, or at least the idea for is is 150 years old this year, and New Yorkers have been celebrating with special concerts, exhibits, and lectures. Talk to almost anyone who lives in Manhattan, and they'll tell you that without the 260 hectares of green space that comprise Central Park, the city would be unlivable. Over the next few weeks, we're going to take a look at the role Central Park plays in the life of New York City. But first, we thought we'd take a look at the man who designed the park, Frederick Law Olmstead and the impact he had not just on New York, but also on dozens of other cities across the United States.

By the time Frederick Law Olmstead settled at the suburban Boston estate he called "Fairstead" in 1883, his reputation as America's premiere "park maker" was secure. In addition to Central Park in Manhattan, he'd also helped to design Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Franklin Park in Boston and the nearly 20 hectares of green space that surround the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC. The men he trained would go on to design public parks in dozens of other American cities, including Atlanta, Georgia, Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky.

Mark Schwartz is a park ranger at the Fairstead estate, which was designated a national historic site in 1979. As he leads a tour of the grounds, he explains that Fairstead's south lawn, with its rolling hills and wide-open spaces, reflects the so-called "pastoral" style that characterizes all the urban parks designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and his firm.

"Olmstead liked the pastoral style because of the mood of relaxation and serenity that many pastoral landscapes have for people," he said. "And when he was thinking about the stress of cities, he could think of no better relief than to use pastoral landscapes."

The 19th century was a time of great change in the United States. Machines were rapidly replacing people out on the farms, and in the cities, factories in need of workers were springing up almost overnight. Thousands of native-born Americans poured into New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, looking for work. They were joined by immigrants, coming first from Ireland, and then from Italy, Poland, and Russia. Mark Schwartz says this massive increase in America's urban population caused problems. And those problems were the reason Frederick Law Olmstead's ideas about urban planning and landscape architecture captured the attention of city officials.

"Cities were expanding rapidly, and often haphazardly," said Mark Schwartz. "And they were getting crowded. They were getting dirty. There were outbreaks of cholera. People were living in very crowded conditions. And Olmstead was one of those people who saw parks as giving an antidote."

An antidote not just to the physical ailments like cholera that come with crowded living conditions, but also to the social ailments like anger and apathy that can develop in a society when rich and poor are completely separated from one another, each never knowing the humanity of the other.

"This is an important social agenda that Olmstead had for his parks," he said. "He saw parks as great democratic spaces, as places where people of all social classes, ethnic backgrounds could meet and enjoy each other's company, and just take pleasure in the variety of people that are part of society."

Public parks weren't the only thing Frederick Law Olmstead designed throughout his career. He was a big advocate of suburbanization and, as mentioned earlier, chose to settle in a suburb himself, Brookline, Massachusetts. But the stately suburban neighborhoods Olmstead and his protégés created in the late 19th century, places like Druid Hills, near Atlanta and Hyde Park, just outside Chicago are very different from the sprawling and unwieldy suburban neighborhoods that characterize many of America's newer cities today. Mark Schwartz says officials in Los Angeles, California, for instance, didn't adopt Olmstead's vision when they had the chance.

"The Olmstead firm, back around 1930, came up with a plan for a series of parks in Los Angeles, and it was a plan that Los Angeles did not implement for a number of reasons, and cost, apparently, was one of them" explained Mark Schwartz. "And Los Angeles today finds itself with a dramatic shortage of green space and lots and lots of sprawl."

There are efforts now to revive the plan that wasn't implemented more than seventy years ago. But those efforts are complicated by the reality that much of the space in and around Los Angeles that might have been parkland is now occupied by private homes and businesses. Modifications to the plan can be made, of course, but not by Frederick Law Olmstead's design firm. The company continued to operate for nearly eighty years after its founder's death in 1903, but finally, in 1980, it closed its doors for good. Still, the Olmstead legacy lives on and not just in the form of parks and neighborhoods. There are now about five dozen colleges in the United States that offer degrees in landscape architecture. Back in the 1850s, when Olmstead was designing Central Park, there were none.

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