How Frederick Law Olmsted transformed American life
Cities are the places to be for those who crave wealth, renown, intellectual companionship, choice food and drink, splendid art, high conviviality, sex any way you like it: the richest possibilities shimmer before your eyes as you walk down the street. But you also learn to keep your eyes to yourself much of the time, and to stay out of other people’s way; at some time or other, loneliness, fear, and desolation afflict nearly every city dweller, gorgeous or homely, sultan or serf. And for many, it’s a short step up from hell pretty much all the time. Cities represent the summits of civilization, yet they are also swamplands of barbarism.
Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), the grandmaster of American landscape architecture, felt all the pains of city living and made it his vocation to relieve them as much as possible. The balm he applied was the beauty of nature, hard to come by in the urban streets of his day, where roaming pigs ate the garbage flung into the gutters, where houses were packed so tightly together that middle-class people starved for light and air, and where the lower classes lived in unspeakable tenements deemed more than suitable for such wretched refuse as they. Olmsted worked to make cities less grim and forbidding. He designed public parks that were among the finest features of civilization that American cities could boast of.
In most of those cities, the work remains to this day enduring testimony to Olmsted’s artistry, public-spiritedness, administrative skill, and ability to convince men who thought mostly about money of the need for tranquil, comforting, restorative places in the midst of the sharp-edged jostle.
Olmsted was what used to be called a man of parts, in the days before men became no more than some small part or other. He lived the venturesome 19th-century American life par excellence, barreling his way into this and that line of work before finding his calling, failing hugely here, muddling along indifferently there, succeeding grandly on occasion, and finding out just what the country held of horror, injustice, swindle, accomplishment, splendor, and promise.
Olmsteds had lived in the environs of Hartford, Connecticut, since 1636, and John Olmsted, Frederick’s father, was an exceptionally prosperous dry-goods merchant there. The boy read a lot and roved the New England countryside, often on his own, acquiring self-reliance and love of nature. A bad dose of sumac poisoning in 1836 left his eyes in such sorry shape for several years that he was forbidden heavy-duty reading at the very age he should have been starting college. Instead, at 18 he got a job as an apprentice clerk and bookkeeper in a New York dry-goods store. A year and a half of counting bolts of wool was as much as he could take. His head full of seafaring lore—Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast seduced him, as it did many young men—he shipped out on a China trader just before his 21st birthday. Seasickness, brutish companions, a martinet captain, meager rations, and scurvy sucked the romance out of the enterprise, and sailor became another profession he would have no more of.
Student of science was his next choice, as he audited classes for a semester at Yale, where his brother John was enrolled; but illness again put an end to his studies. A summer on a model farm in upstate New York in 1846 infatuated him with the possibilities of the latest agricultural technology; an encounter with the landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, editor of the new monthly The Horticulturist, would eventually open further possibilities.
In 1847 his father bought him a 70-acre farm on the Connecticut coast. Olmsted employed his recently acquired know-how to improve the place, and the next year his ever-open-handed father spent $13,000 (nearly $400,000 in today’s money) on a 125-acre farm for his son on Staten Island, called South Side. Olmsted made a go of it as a serious farmer, helped to found and run a county agricultural society, and designed and put his own back into building a rudimentary landscaping project.
But farming, much as he loved it, was not enough; he had to move, and he did get around. In 1850 he spent seven months having a look at Great Britain, and in 1852 his first book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, was published. The English countryside enchanted him, with its serene domestication that left room for nature to show itself handsomely: “The country—and such a country!—green, dripping, glistening, gorgeous . . . hedges, English hedges, hawthorn hedges, all in blossom; homely old farm-houses, quaint stables, and haystacks; the old church spire over the distant trees. . . .” There could not have been a greater contrast than with the urban morass of Liverpool—“the confused tide of life with which the busy streets were thronged,” the “unmingled stream of poverty.”
To bring the best of the countryside to the city, then, would be a momentous aesthetic and moral achievement. Accordingly, the most agreeable and influential sight during his tour was the People’s Park in the Liverpool suburb of Birkenhead, a simple but elegant wonderland of greenest grass, shrub, and flower in edenic abundance, a flock of sheep, a pagoda on an island, cricketers at play, women and children disporting themselves. “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 with this People’s Garden.” An essay about this park that appeared in The Horticulturist leads off the admirable new collection of his writings, Frederick Law Olmsted: Essential Texts.1
A friend from Yale days secured him a gig as the New York Daily Times correspondent in the American South. Olmsted traveled extensively there between 1852 and 1854, turning out numerous newspaper articles and three books, which would be condensed by a shrewd editor into a single volume, The Cotton Kingdom (1861); his animadversions on slavery as moral abomination and economic debacle made their mark on the emerging Republican Party.
In 1855 he left the Staten Island farm in his brother’s hands, moved to Manhattan, and joined the staff of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, an upstart publication with stardust ambitions, publishing Melville, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Fenimore Cooper; Olmsted ate up his new position, whose duties included meeting with Emerson, Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Washington Irving. An eight-month business trip to Europe in 1856 saw him studying the parks in London and Paris, the latter the recent gift of Napoleon III to his people. The next year, however, the publishing firm went under, and Olmsted was sunk along with it. It was high time for him to discover what he was really made for.
The discovery was largely a piece of luck. A chance conversation with a fellow Putnam’s alumnus filled Olmsted in on plans to build a large park on 800-odd acres in the middle of Manhattan. The board needed to appoint a park superintendent, responsible for the work crews and for forming the park police, and a virtuous Republican such as Olmsted would be the ideal man for the job. Olmsted bit. The Board of Commissioners decided to hold a design competition for the park, and Olmsted ended up entering it with the eminent Calvert Vaux.
Olmsted’s love for the sweeping pastoral greenery of the English countryside, reproduced in the parks he had admired, inspired his signal contribution to the plan, which he and Vaux called Greensward. On the lower west side of the park, massive outcroppings of rock were to be blasted away, the ground smoothed out, and two feet of soil laid down to make broad open spaces. The larger of these, a 30-acre spread, came to be known as the Sheep Meadow. The balance between this placid pastoral landscape and rip-roaring picturesque, which were and are to be found in the wilder areas known as the Ramble and the Ravine, won the day.
Olmsted and Vaux had to revise their winning plan when it came to the actual building of the park. That was not always a bad thing. For example, the exquisite Bow Bridge, which crosses the lake between the Terrace and the Ramble, is one of the park’s most treasured showpieces, but Olmsted and Vaux did not want to build it. They wanted the elegant formality of the Terrace and the wild abandon of the Ramble to be worlds apart, but they were overruled by city bureaucrats. Although Olmsted was architect-in-chief of the park from 1858 to 1861, all sorts of rivals, both serious designers and political hacks, had their own ideas of what was best, and his authority was ever in doubt.
He did not take well to the compromises imposed on his work. At one point, he had to withdraw from the job for a spell, unnerved by the endless disputes. In June 1861 the commissioners, fed up with the heavy expense of Olmsted’s aesthetic extravagance, demoted him to his previous position of superintendent and replaced him as chief.
Days later, a greater duty would call Olmsted away to Washington. President Lincoln had formed the United States Sanitary Commission, a civilian body to oversee the Union troops’ health and report to the Army’s Medical Bureau. Olmsted was enlisted to become chief executive officer. The failures of the Union Army in the early going of the war appalled Olmsted, who blamed defeat and demoralization on systemic military and government rot. He swiftly turned the commission into a large and efficient bureaucracy. It systematically inspected camp conditions concerning everything from food, water, and clothing to discipline and medical care. He pushed for reform of the sclerotic Medical Bureau, organized a flotilla of hospital ships, and generally improved the daily lot of the ordinary soldier so that the original confusion was a thing of the past.
Weary of the war’s horror, he left the commission in the summer of 1863 and accepted an offer to manage the Mariposa Estate in California, a gold-mining operation on 44,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills. It was a down-and-dirty, shoot-’em-up sort of life there, and Olmsted, with characteristic virtuous solicitude, did what he could to civilize the savage frontiersmen. But his plans for making a fortune while elevating the community imploded when the mine’s finances did, in 1865.
The Mariposa mine was a scam that turned into a scandal—but a choice bit of luck for Olmsted nonetheless. He reacquainted himself with the art of landscape design and picked up commissions for a park system in San Francisco, a private college campus in Berkeley, and the Mountain Valley Cemetery in the hills of Oakland. Only the cemetery design would eventually be realized, but across the country big things were waiting.
Vaux had gotten the pair of them their old jobs back at Central Park and had won them the assignment to design Prospect Park in Brooklyn. From here on in, Olmsted would devote himself to landscape architecture. (Mostly, anyhow. He did find time on his return to New York to serve as associate editor of the new weekly the Nation.)
It was in this guise, at Olmsted, Vaux & Co. and successor businesses, that Olmsted would leave a lasting imprint on the American terrain, shaping cities and suburbs after an image of republican community and Romantic scenic beauty.
His purview took in far more than parks and parkways; he was an urban planner with an overarching moral intention. Olmsted’s writings in Essential Texts, from newspaper articles to public lectures to encyclopedia entries, display the passions that directed his work. Above all, Olmsted seeks the recovery of grace and ease and poetry in daily life, eroded by the merciless hustle that is the bane of crowded cities, as he told the Prospect Park Scientific Association in 1868: “Thus it must be that parks are beyond anything else recreative, recreative of that which is most apt to be lost or to become diseased or debilitated among the dwellers in towns.” Living in close quarters with hundreds of thousands of people can be a perpetual psychic assault of all against all, and occasional refuge is a necessity to maintain morale, or even sanity. Anyone who has ambled down the Long Meadow in Prospect Park knows how wonderfully far from the Brooklyn streets Olmsted has taken you.
To happen upon a landscape of unfamiliar beauty may move you to tears, Olmsted writes in “Landscape Gardening” (1878): “After long and intimate acquaintance with such a landscape it will often be found to have a persistent influence which may be called its charm—a charm possibly of such power as to affect the development of the character and shape the course of life.”
In the very long 1870 lecture “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns,” Olmsted insists that the charms of the parks can and do exert a persistent influence on the public life by reminding the multitudes who stalk the streets of their common humanity:
Consider that the New York Park and the Brooklyn Park are the only places in those associated cities where, in this eighteen hundred and seventieth year after Christ, you will find a body of Christians coming together, and with an evident glee in the prospect of coming together, all classes largely represented, with a common purpose, not at all intellectual, competitive with none, disposing to jealousy and spiritual or intellectual pride toward none, each individual adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of all others, all helping to the greater happiness of each. You may thus often see vast numbers of persons brought closely together, poor and rich, young and old, Jew and Gentile.
It’s the Peaceable Kingdom, or a Whitmaniacal festival, in the heart of town. Olmsted’s transports on behalf of his creations can get more than a bit rich; his love of John Ruskin’s writings on art served his design work well but did not benefit his prose style. But Olmsted’s writings are primarily of interest in the way they illuminate the work he did. Besides Central Park and Prospect Park, he built five major parks in New York City. Mount Royal Park in Montreal and Belle Isle in Detroit made inspired use of wild beauty. Cornell, Yale, Smith, and Trinity College all bear traces of his hand; the Columbia Institute for the Deaf and Dumb (now Gallaudet University), Lawrenceville School, and Stanford University are largely his doing. The U.S. Capitol grounds owe much of their inviting refinement to him.
The innovative Chicago suburb of Riverside, Illinois, with its curving streets and idiosyncratic lots, set the standard for leafy congeniality with modern convenience. He collaborated with the architect Henry Hobson Richardson on the domestic projects of well-to-do clients, far and away the most spectacular being the Biltmore Estate, near Asheville, North Carolina, of George W. Vanderbilt, grandson of the legendary Commodore.
And Olmsted did what he could to ameliorate the suffering of those confined in insane asylums, at least giving them something lovely to look at, in Hartford, Buffalo, and the famous McLean Asylum outside Boston. With an excruciating turn of the screw, Olmsted spent the last five years of his life at McLean as a patient suffering from dementia. In a moment of lucidity, he wrote of his furious dissatisfaction with the grounds, “They didn’t carry out my plan, confound them!”
But the story shouldn’t end like that. For Olmsted lived with an intensity that will be remembered when the sad ending is forgotten. Vitality and cultivation were joined in his thinking, and he intended his work to be the basis of a distinctively American culture that would rival the best Europe had to offer. In an 1866 paper,2 Olmsted laments that the hustling citizens of San Francisco are bent on taking care of business with the idea of getting around to proper living later, preferably somewhere far away and more conducive to the spending of their fortunes. This, he understood, undermined the possibility of building a true civic culture in the city, indeed in all cities. The answer was in providing them with good reasons for taking the leisure that, in part, would transform these centers of labor into something more enduring:
To offer inducements to men of wealth to remain, and to all citizens to pursue commerce less constantly, to acquire habits of living healthily and happily from day to day, and of regarding San Francisco as their home for life, instead of always looking to the future and elsewhere for the enjoyment of the fruits of their industry, must be a primary purpose of all true municipal economies, and no pleasure ground can be adequate to the requirements of the city, the design of which is not, to a considerable degree, controlled by this purpose.
To make American cities places where people not only work but live—live richly, whether they are wealthy or not—was Olmsted’s sterling ambition. He took America a long way toward civilization, and he deserves to be recognized as one of the best of us.
1 Edited by Robert Twombly, Norton, 344 pages.
2 This report is collected in Civilizing American Cities: Writings on City Landscapes, edited by S. B. Sutton, MIT Press: 1971; reprinted by Da Capo Press, 1997, 310 pages.
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