Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks
edited by charles e. beveridge, lauren meier, and irene mills
johns hopkins, 448 pages, $74.95

The achievement of Frederick Law Olmsted is so stupendous that one cannot stand far enough back to take it all in. First there are the parks—Manhattan’s Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Boston’s “Emerald Necklace,” Chicago’s Jackson Park, Montreal’s Mount Royal, to name only the most prominent. These have indelibly shaped our notion of what a city park is—an ensemble of meadows, trees, and water arranged for the purposes of recreation, aesthetic pleasure, and public health.

But Olmsted also gave us Riverside, Illinois, the prototype for that other familiar object of the American landscape, the planned community. As the writer of the study that created Yosemite National Park, he can be regarded as the spiritual founder for the national park system. In the end, Olmsted defies criticism. How can one evaluate a landscape architect whose greatest achievement was to create the profession of landscape architecture itself?

The material for a comprehensive evaluation is now at hand. Beginning in 1977, the Frederick Law Olmsted Papers Project has published eleven volumes of his copious writings; the final two volumes are to present the visual material. The first of these has now appeared, Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks, which reproduces the plans, sketches, and photographs of thirty-one of his most important projects. Here is as attractive a graphic record of his achievement as we are likely to get.

Olmsted was thirty-six when his plan for Central Park was accepted, and he had no formal training in landscape architecture. Nor had anyone else, for at that time, parks were laid out by architects, gardeners, or surveyors. Up to that point, he had led a highly erratic life, filled with false starts and brave experiments that make for fascinating biography. Fortunately, there are two very good ones, one by Laura Wood Roper (1973) and another by Witold Rybczynski (1999), and they demonstrate that one cannot make sense of the second half of Olmsted’s life without understanding the first.

Olmsted was born in 1822 to a prosperous family of fabric merchants in Hartford, Connecticut. He and his brother were both groomed for Yale, but at the age of fourteen, he injured his eyes in a freakish case of sumac poisoning, “making me for some time partially blind . . . and the oculists advised that I should be kept from study.” There is something poetic in his lifelong work with nature being determined by this first unhappy encounter. This one fact, though, was not enough to close off the possibility of formal studies. Other factors were evidently at play, including a certain stubborn restlessness. For a time he was a clerk but decided he did not like the indoor work. He then enrolled as a common seaman and undertook a year-long voyage to China in 1843. A stint at Yale as a “special student” lasted only a semester. Finally, in 1848, Olmsted’s father helped him buy 125 acres on the south shore of Staten Island, where he was to establish himself as a “scientific farmer.”

Even here Olmsted could not sit still. In 1850 he set off with his brother and a friend on a six-month walking tour of England, planning to live on 75 cents per day. He did not intend to write a book about it, but as it happened, the publisher George P. Putnam (whose wife was a cousin of the Olmsteds) was then introducing the paperback book and thought that Olmsted’s trip would be an ideal subject for one of these novel volumes. The result was Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England (1852), a charming and thoroughly unsystematic distillation of extracts culled from Olmsted’s pocket diary and family letters. With his knowledge of agriculture, he was a perceptive observer (who correctly foresaw that cheap American wheat would soon devastate the English rural economy). But his interests were omnivorous, and he had keen powers of observation, including a stenographer’s gift for transcribing amusing conversations verbatim.


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The book brought Olmsted literary celebrity and a more ambitious writing project. Early in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared and instantly became the subject of acrimonious national debate, much of it partisan and ill-informed. The newly founded New-York Daily Times (as it was then called) seized the opportunity to send him on a fact-finding tour of the American South, with a strict injunction to report only what he personally saw and experienced. Or, as Olmsted put it, to deliver “matter of fact . . . after the deluge of spoony fancy pictures now at its height.” He set out in December of that year and spent the next four months traveling through Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, mostly on foot; two further journeys took him as far as Texas. He was still traveling when the first of his dispatches appeared in the paper, and to protect his anonymity, they were signed simply “Yeoman.”

Olmsted’s letters were later edited to form three books, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856), A Journey Through Texas (1857), and A Journey in the Back Country in the Winter of 1853-4 (1860). Olmsted later revised and abridged them as The Cotton Kingdom, which appeared in 1861 and remains in print. It still makes for remarkable reading. One has the sense that he found the American South a far more alien and unfamiliar place than England. The ostensible framework for his journey was the economics of slave agriculture, and at every stop, he gathered exhaustive statistics: the cost of slaves and their care and feeding; the cost of land and its cultivation; annual productivity and profit. He did not generalize, distinguishing carefully between the raising of cotton, tobacco, and sugar. This was the sort of hard factual information that the “scientific farmer” was ideally equipped to analyze. But as it happened, he did much more.

Olmsted was morally opposed to slavery but did not believe it to be, as his biographer Laura Roper observed, “uniquely evil.” He had considerable experience with other kinds of forced servitude, from the life of Irish tenant farmers to that of a merchant sailor (on the sea he had witnessed floggings of the most savage sort). And so his writings on the South had the distinction of being moral without being polemical. He did not set out to gather only the data that discredited slavery. He paid attention to matters of diet and living conditions, working hours and family life, education and punishment, providing exact figures whenever possible (for example, that Louisiana was the only state that legally required slaves to receive meat with their meals, four pounds per week). He spoke to individual plantation owners and poor white farmers, slaves and free blacks, transcribing their accounts immediately after the interviews.

It is remarkable how little specific spoken dialogue we have from the antebellum South, and one is struck again and again by the vivid immediacy of Olmsted’s interlocutors, such as the Louisiana planter who told him about the “universal” practice of slave-owners forcing themselves upon their female slaves:

There is not a likely looking black girl in this State that is not the concubine of a white man. There is not an old plantation in which the grandchildren of the owner are not whipped in the field by his overseer.

With The Cotton Kingdom, Olmsted emerged as a thinker of great synthetic power, able to organize a great deal of information into a coherent whole. He offered a kind of Tocquevillian sweep of a complete economic, cultural, and social order that would disappear in just a decade. There is nothing like it in the literature of the American South. Had he remained a journalist, he would have been one of the great commentators on American life. Instead, in 1857, in a decision that remains inexplicable, he applied for the position of superintendent of Central Park. Recognizing that his résumé was highly erratic, he looked to find a common thread and decided that he was an expert in “Economy in the application of agricultural labor.”

Central Park had already been surveyed and provisionally laid out, but with unhappy results. Clusters of trees alternated with open meadows without unity or coherence. Straight streets cut directly through the park, inflicting the city grid on what should have been rolling natural scenery. The few paths that did curve and meander did so halfheartedly, like someone trying unsuccessfully to relax from attention. But worst of all, the park terminated abruptly at the edges, without any attempt to screen the city by a veil of trees. It was the work of a West Point–trained military engineer, and it looked it.

Lobbying discreetly, Olmsted was able to arrange for a competition for a new design that would remedy the failings of the first. Competitors were given a long list of requirements to be squeezed into the park’s 778 acres: a five-mile carriage drive “wide enough to admit of its being used by a large number and variety of vehicles at the same time”; a second and separate drive “more secluded in its character”; fifty acres of level ground to be reserved for “military exercises.” The views were also to be taken into account, and from the higher ground, there were to be platforms for seeing the Hudson and the East rivers, the public buildings on the islands, and the distant Palisades—“in short, a complete panorama of New York City and its suburbs.”

One particularly vexing condition required “transverse roads at convenient distances.” Carried out literally, this requirement would have sliced the park into so many discrete episodes interrupted at intervals by busy cross streets. But there was no way around it: A fire truck, for example, needed to be able to cut directly across the half-mile park instead of driving two and a half miles to go around it. Such was the program that Olmsted set out to tackle in the final months of 1857.

Olmsted was supremely qualified for the competition but for one glaring deficiency, his absolute lack of any artistic experience. What he needed was a collaborator who would remedy this weakness without challenging his considerable strengths. It was a stroke of great good luck that just the right man appeared at this moment. This was Calvert Vaux, an English-born and London-trained architect who happened to be a superb watercolorist. Vaux would prepare all the technical drawings needed to depict the park precisely and the ravishing sketches that would help sell it. He would also design all its many incidental structures. This was a role that Vaux understood quite well. He had performed the very same service for Andrew Jackson Downing, America’s first great landscape designer, who had recruited him from London in 1851.

Downing and Vaux had designed a monumental park for the Mall in Washington, D.C., that was in many respects a dress rehearsal for Central Park. Here, too, a rectangular parcel of real estate in a city of exquisitely formal geometry was to be transformed into something resembling natural scenery. Under the circumstances, Downing and Vaux performed brilliantly. They first wrapped the periphery with a mantle of trees to screen out the city and then variegated the interior to show a lively assortment of different kinds of landscape: pastoral meadows, picturesque woods, gardenesque plantings, and even a formal parade ground. Between the Mall and the White House was to be a stately triumphal arch, designed by Vaux. But try as he might, Downing could not master the four broad transverse roads that sliced the Mall into fragments. The best he could do was to run gentle serpentine drives at right angles to these roads, crossing them occasionally with bridges. Nonetheless, it was a thrilling proposal, and it is curious to think that if Downing had not died in 1852 in a steamship explosion, Washington would have had at its heart something more akin to Central Park than the chilly monumental axis that is the National Mall.

O

lmsted and Vaux spent five months making their competition entry and the colossal drawings that were needed (the competition terms specified a scale of one hundred feet to the inch, which meant drawings over ten feet long). The first thing one notices about their design is that, despite its many intricacies and incidents, it is an imaginative whole. The controlling idea was that as soon as one entered the park, one was to forget the city. No elaborate formal gateways would tie the park to the surrounding city, nor would there be anything else that recalled the relentless gridded geometry of the New York street plan. Instead, the drives that led into the park curved at once to the side so that visitors quickly lost sight of the city. Even the park’s one formal feature, the quarter-mile-long mall that leads to Bethesda Terrace, was deliberately skewed at an angle so that it would not reprise the city grid.

But the most brilliant innovation, which of all the competitors only Olmsted and Vaux devised, was the treatment of the transverse roads. Surely recalling the subdivided Washington plan, they rejected a park subdivided “into five separate and distinct sections, only connected here and there by roads crossing them.” They submerged the four transverse roadbeds out of sight and masked them behind seven-foot embankments; carriage drives and footpaths carried over them on rustic stone bridges. Although the park was, physically speaking, broken into five separate sections, its visual sense was that of continuous and uninterrupted nature. It was this brilliant solution that made their project, which they entitled Greensward, easily the best of the thirty-three competition entries.

Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks lets us see that Olmsted and Vaux did not succeed solely through imaginative planning; a good deal of shrewd salesmanship was involved. They revived the technique perfected three quarters of a century earlier by Sir Humphry Repton, England’s great designer of romantic landscapes, in his celebrated “Red Books.” These were handsomely bound leather volumes of before-and-after views, cleverly arranged with overlays that showed with a flick of the finger how a drab and bleak field could be transformed into sumptuous lavish nature. The drawings for Central Park were delightfully manipulative, juxtaposing dry contour drawings with gloriously evocative watercolor drawings. These were clearly the work of Vaux, not Olmsted, who was never a gifted draftsman. (It is the one failing of this book not to indicate the authorship or presumed authorship of the drawings shown, a serious lapse in a book intended to serve as a reference.)

Whatever the reason—Vaux’s lyrical drawings or Olmsted’s persuasive prose—Greensward won handily, and deservedly. More than a century and a half later, despite an endless roster of disfigurements, architectural encroachments, and other indignities, Central Park still holds a legitimate claim to being America’s finest manmade object.

T

he designs and projects shown in Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks create a picture of a tireless worker who, having found his calling belatedly in mid-life, never strayed from it. In fact, the old wanderlust remained. Shortly after the Civil War broke out, Olmsted relinquished his position as park superintendent to become executive secretary to the Sanitary Commission. This was the private relief organization chartered by the federal government to address all the humanitarian needs of an army of more than two million men: hygiene, nutrition, mail delivery, organizing hospital ships, and so forth. Here again, Olmstead’s fitful career path was an asset, for he seemed to know an uncanny amount about every field. It is difficult to imagine any other administrator able to think so lucidly about logistics on a national level, which he had learned to do a decade earlier during his systematic study of the American South.

Olmsted lasted only two years in the punishing position, but before resuming landscape architecture and his partnership with Vaux, he made two final detours. In 1863, he became superintendent of the Mariposa Estate, a vast gold-mining operation in the Sierra Nevada of some seventy square miles. This would prove a boondoggle—the East Coast financiers of the operation were unscrupulous, and they expected Olmsted to loot the estate to pay his own salary—and at the end of 1865 he was back in New York. But his unhappy stint brought one great benefit. He made a thoughtful study of the Yosemite Valley in which he proposed that the “choicest natural scenes in the country” should not become the “monopoly . . . of a very few, very rich people.” Instead, the government should act to establish “great public grounds” consisting of “all places favorable in scenery to the recreation of the mind and body.” Olmsted’s own survey of the Yosemite Valley, reproduced in this book, would be the genesis for the first of these great national parks.

Before returning permanently to landscape architecture, Olmsted characteristically took one last detour and founded The Nation. But he had now discovered his calling. The bulk of Plans and Views of Public Parks consists of those great parks designed by Olmsted in the thirty-year campaign from 1865 to 1895. His last great achievement was the design of the grounds of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. Here his career came full circle. Off to the side of the main exhibition buildings, he created a romantic, densely wooded island, in the same spirit of natural scenery that he cultivated at Central Park. But visitors were much more struck by the monumental axes and formal classicism of the fair’s main buildings. The plan showing this heroic City Beautiful ensemble dwarfing the now rather old-fashioned vignette of nature is the most poignant image in the book.

Not long after this, John Singer Sargent painted a full-length portrait of Olmsted. It is an unsettling image, the designer ambling through nature, looking strangely befuddled. In fact, it was the look of senility, which caused him to retire abruptly in 1895. He died eight years later in an asylum, the grounds of which he had designed.

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lmsted’s work is so lovely and unassailable that one is surprised to realize how unoriginal it was. His entire repertoire of motifs—pleasing juxtapositions of trees and meadows, serpentine paths that hug the contours of the land, rustic bridges and pavilions, sudden passages of rugged terrain and ravines—was thoroughly conventional. So too were his aesthetic values, which might be summarized as variety, contrast, and surprise. These were the principles of the picturesque, which erupted onto the scene suddenly in eighteenth-century England and with worldwide consequences. They were already old long before Olmsted’s birth. Whatever his achievement was, and it was spectacular, it did not consist in the invention of a new approach to landscape. What then, exactly, did Olmsted do?

The birth of picturesque theory in England coincided with devastating changes to the landscape. As Nigel Everett’s brilliant 1994 book, The Tory View of Landscape, shows, some seven million acres of common land and open fields were removed from public use through a series of parliamentary enclosure acts between 1760 and 1815. Grazing and hunting rights that had been recognized since the Middle Ages were swept away, sometimes along with entire villages and their parish churches. Much of the feudal landscape of England, and its complex fabric of traditional customs, privileges, and obligations, was incrementally turned into mere productive real estate. It was only natural that such a convulsive transformation should produce a counter-reaction, and that a deeply nostalgic and romantic conception of landscape should make itself apparent in gardening, painting, and literature. This is the rueful sense of longing and loss that one senses in the parks of Repton and the paintings of Constable.

None of these circumstances applied to the United States, which had no landed aristocracy and where all land was real estate and nothing more. Removed from the matrix of cultural tensions and energies that made it such a complex, tragic object, the picturesque English garden degenerated into mere fashionable affectation. But this has always been the case when European art movements are transplanted to America. Movements with complex social roots, and born out of the struggle between official academic taste and the avant-garde, such as Impressionism or Surrealism, arrive in America as cut flowers, simply a set of novel and appealing forms, free of ideological content.

If there was a coherent American view of landscape, it was certainly not a Tory view. If anything, it was a Whiggish one, committed absolutely to what were then spoken of reverently as “internal improvements.” This is the utilitarian spirit that led New York in 1811 to plat off the entire island of Manhattan into an unrelieved grid of 200-by-920-foot blocks, without a speck of public land. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that when influential merchants finally introduced large-scale picturesque planning to America, as they did in the 1830s with the first romantic rural cemeteries, they justified them on purely utilitarian grounds, as a public health measure.

H

ere is where Olmsted’s most enduring achievement is to be found. He took a picturesque landscape tradition that had lost its social and moral underpinning when it crossed the Atlantic and gave it an entirely new basis. Based on neither sentiment nor nostalgia, it looked instead to a democratic future and envisioned the park as the meeting place for all social classes. In his unrealized proposal for Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, he drew a connection between spatial mental freedom for those who live restricted lives in restricted places. The park could even serve as an instrument of psychological liberation:

It may be considered one of the great advantages of a public domain of this kind that it gives occasion for the coming together of the poor and the rich on the ground which is common possession and that it produces a feeling which to the poor is a relief from the sense of the restriction, which they generally experience elsewhere in comparing their limits of activity with the apparent freedom of those whose cares and duties have a wider scope.

This was a radically new moral vocabulary, applied by Olmsted to the serpentine paths and rustic pavilions devised to amuse English aristocrats a century earlier.

It is curious that Olmsted, by all accounts a remote and chilly personality, should bring to his parks such a high degree of imaginative empathy. His meticulously winding paths are never mere decorative squiggles on the page. Again and again his designs show an uncommon ability to project himself vicariously into the minds of those who would use his parks. At Central Park, he brought the footpaths to within four feet of the carriage drives, knowing that strollers would want to admire “the equipages and their inmates.” He also made certain that there were no lengthy straightaways on his drives, knowing that few would be able to resist the temptations of an impromptu “trotting match.”

All of this fell on receptive ears. If the basic American understanding of land was the unsentimental utilitarianism of a colonial mercantile society, there was also a latent residue of idealism. This was the legacy of the religious refugees of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries whose town planning was saturated with biblical ideas of a perfect ordered society. Olmsted himself was a product of New England Puritanism in its final manifestation, having been born just as its Calvinist core was dissolving into Transcendentalism and releasing its moral energies into American political and social life. Had Olmsted never existed, someone else surely would have applied the moral force of this ethic to landscape design, making parks the vehicle of social reform. But it is inconceivable that anyone else would have had the same deep cistern of human sympathy to drawn on. It was a cistern patiently filled during walks in England, ramblings through the South, urgent work for the Sanitary Commission, and all the other restless divagations that make up the career of Frederick Law Olmsted.

Michael J. Lewis is Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art History at Williams College.


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