Frederick Law Olmsted: A Well Designed Bicentennial

An half-length portrait of an elderly Olmsted with a thick white beard, wearing a suitcoat and looking left

Frederick Law Olmsted. Engraved by T. Johnson; from a photo by James Notman. 1983. Prints and Photographs Division.

This is a guest post by Barbara Bair, a historian in the Manuscript Division.

This month, the Library is recognizing this week’s bicentennial of the birth of writer, administrator and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of the U.S. Capitol grounds and public parks and spaces around the country. Activities include an Olmsted Bicentennial exhibit in the Jefferson Building and a series of By the People crowdsourcing transcription challenges for online volunteers.

The Library holds the largest collection of manuscript materials in the nation related to Olmsted’s long career, as well as the records of the 20th-century successor firm operated by his sons.

The Manuscript Division holds both Olmsted’s personal papers and the records of Olmsted Associates. The landscape architecture firm based in Brookline, Massachusetts, was operated by Olmsted sons Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.  and John Charles Olmsted, and featured  many talented associates. These collections are digitized and available online.

The bicentennial exhibit charts Olmsted’s life from his youth through modern reinterpretations of the public parks he designed. The five-case display is on view on both sides of the Great Hall through June 4. It features items from the Manuscript Division, the Prints and Photographs Division and the general collections in combination with reproductions of drawings and photographs from the National Park Service’s Olmsted Archives at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline.

A crowd lunches during a 1907 May Day party in Central Park, one of Olmsted’s most famous projects. Prints and Photographs Division.

In April up to the anniversary on the 26th, the Library’s By the People crowdsourcing transcription program also hosted a weekly series of special “By Design: Frederick Law Olmsted and Associates” campaign challenges. Based on the subject file in the Olmsted papers manuscript collection, the challenges gave online volunteers a chance to get up close and personal with Olmsted. The volunteers transcribed select printed and handwritten materials from his papers or items from various geographical regions that were the focus of Olmsted’s many projects and proposals.

Olmsted gained experience growing up in the woodlands of the Connecticut Valley and on trips in New England and New York, including to Niagara Falls and Lake George. He widened his observations through travels as a young man to England, Europe and China. As a journalist and travel writer in the fraught decade before the Civil War, he published observations of park and garden systems internationally and wrote of the economy and sociology of the slaveholding American South and Texas.

His breakthrough as an innovative planner of public parks came just before the war, when he partnered between 1857 and 1861 with architect Calvert Vaux to implement their award-winning design for Central Park in Manhattan. After the war began, Olmsted served as general secretary for the U.S. Sanitary Commission and helped devise a system of “floating hospital” ships to transport the ill and wounded of the Union Army.

After the war, he proposed projects located in all regions of the country and parts of Canada, emerging as the  foremost spokesperson for the public parks movement. His treatises on the planning, access and use of public parks influenced the creation of the Emerald Necklace system of greenways in Boston and the formation of Yosemite National Park by an Act of Congress in 1890.  The Olmsted legacy reached into Canada with Mount Royal Park, and was manifested at Niagara Falls, in the Stanford and University of California, Berkeley, campuses in California and Gallaudet University in the District of Columbia.

He was an important mentor to his son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and step-son, John Charles Olmsted. He also mentored a stream of young associates, most affiliated with Arnold Arboretum and Harvard University.  After his death in 1903, the work of the Olmsted firm was carried on into the next half-century from his Fairsted home and headquarters in Brookline.  Associates of the firm included Edward Clark Whiting, who was responsible for much of the firm’s planning for Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.

The Library joins the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Cultural Landscape Foundation, the National Association for Olmsted Parks, the National Park Service, local Olmsted park conservancies and many other institutions and organizations across the nation in recognizing the ongoing impact and history of Olmsted’s theories of public parks and two generations of Olmsted family landscape designs.

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