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Chicago’s South Park by Fredrick Law Olmsted

During the month of April, the Library of Congress celebrated the bicentennial of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903), farmer, journalist, publisher, conservationist, and the first American landscape architect, who designed the grounds surrounding the U.S. Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, and many other notable public and private green spaces. To celebrate, the Great Hall is hosting an “Olmsted Bicentennial exhibit through June 4, among other programming.


b&w film copy neg.

Frederick Law Olmsted. Engraving by T. Johnson from a photograph by James Notman. 1893. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

In addition to Olmsted’s personal papers and the papers and records of Olmsted Associates, many of which have been digitized and made available online by the Manuscript Division for this occasion, the Library of Congress also holds the papers of Olmsted biographer Laura Wood Roper (1911–2003), which were gifted to the Library of Congress in 1992. This collection includes correspondence, research notes, reports, plans, clippings, and maps used for her biography of Olmsted. Included in the Laura Wood Roper map collection are four maps and plans, which are a part of the Geography and Map Division collections. Olmsted contributed to the creation of each of the items in the collection, which depict Chicago’s South Park, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Staten Island, and Hartford, Connecticut. I will focus on the Chicago South Park Plan for this post, since it was completed using Olmstead’s plan.

In 1870, Olmsted, Vaux & Company, owned by Olmsted and his business partner, Calvert Vaux, were hired by the newly established South Park Commission in Chicago to design a 1,055-acre park, including outer promenades, on the South Side of Chicago. During the following year as preliminary construction on other Olmsted, Vaux & Company projects around the United States were completed, the original plans for the Chicago South Park were destroyed in the Chicago fire of October 9, 1871 and construction on the Chicago park was delayed.

Shown below is an 1871 design plan for Chicago South Park. This plan was originally part of the text Chicago South Park Commission, Report Accompanying Plan for Laying out the South Park. Olmsteds initial design plans, such as the one below, did not include the topographic detail that implementers of the plan would have to consider. This presentation plan was intended to help administrators visualize the design.


“Chicago South Park Commission: Plan of the South Open Ground, the Upper Plaisance, the Midway Plaisance, the Lake Open Ground, the Lagoon Plaisance, and the Parkway Quadrant” in Chicago South Park Commission, Report Accompanying Plan for Laying out the South Park. Olmsted, Vaux & Company. 1871. In the Laura Wood Roper map collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Close-up of Bird's eye view of Chicago, 1892

Close-up of the completed South Park Plan in Bird’s-eye View of Chicago. Roy Peter. 1892. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.


Due to an economic recession, preliminary construction of Chicago’s South Park was delayed until 1873, and even then only limited progress was made to the site. Ultimately, the public park was completed as planned almost two decades later when this public space was prioritized for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

This Bird’s-eye View of Chicago in 1892 shows the progress made on the area just prior to the Exposition. Look closely at 3. World’s Columbian Exposition, 4. Midway Plaisance, 5. Washington Race Track, and 6. Washington Park to see Olmsted’s completed vision.


Bird’s-eye View of Chicago. Roy Peter. 1892. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

I have only highlighted one of the many masterworks of Fredrick Law Olmsted in this post—Olmsted created many of the well-known urban green spaces we continue to enjoy everyday. Discover a project near you in this Map of Olmsted Projects created by the National Association for Olmsted Parks.

For more reading on Olmsted and his masterworks:

Laura Wood Roper. FLO—A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

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