Frederick Law Olmsted shaped the American landscape. In fact, it’s hard to imagine what the United States would look like without his university campuses, parks and suburban communities. For Olmsted, landscape design wasn’t all about aesthetics. He sought nothing less than to heal the sick and feed the intellect and the soul. Everything Olmsted designed was meant to help people be better—at home, work and school on the American campus.
We know Frederick Law Olmsted best for his legacy of peerless green spaces such as Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. But Olmsted was much more than a landscape artist; he was a true Renaissance man, combining intellect, artistry, practical knowledge and social conscience. All the seemingly disparate strands of his career can be woven together in the context of his firm commitment to public health and progressive reform.
Olmsted’s first great crusade was in his capacity as a journalist against the institution of slavery, which to his mind perpetuated the moral and economic poverty of the South. Later, during the Civil War, he served as executive secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission (forerunner to the American Red Cross), securing better living conditions for Union soldiers. After the war, Olmsted returned to landscape design and began work on Prospect Park. This project, perhaps more than any other, fulfilled his overarching philosophy: namely, that freeing people of the chaos, filth and disorder that marked 19th-century life would boost public health. Fitting, then, that in 1926 Prospect Park Plaza—the “gateway” to the park—was renamed Grand Army Plaza after the triumphant Union soldiers who liberated the nation of slavery.
In the mid-19th century several prominent New Yorkers, in response to the city’s exploding immigrant population, campaigned for a large public park. To the protestations of community leaders, these new arrivals had little place to go for green space and fresh air aside from the city’s cemeteries, which were looking increasingly the worse for wear. In 1858, with a plan called Greensward, Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux, won the design competition to create what Olmsted hoped would provide an “antidote” to the perils of the modernizing city. Clearly a visionary, he warned of Manhattan’s picturesque and varied landscape one day turning into “rows of monotonous straight streets and piles of erect, angular buildings.”
Inspired by a visit to England—in particular to Joseph Paxton’s Birkenhead Park—Olmsted designed Central Park to evoke the peaceful and restorative countryside. Trees cordoned off this sacred space from industry and commerce, roadways were sunken to make them less visible, and pathways were constructed to maximize the feeling of solitude. The park would be a balm to the city and all its residents, a condition Olmsted believed would help keep democracy vital.
Frederick Law Olmsted did not favor statuary in natural spaces. In fact, he fought in vain to keep Central Park statue-free. Reminders of culture and history had no place in his philosophy of landscape architecture, and he said as much while working in the Niagara Falls region: “If a costly object of art, like the Statue of Liberty, should be tendered to the State on condition that it should be set up on Goat Island [just above the Falls], it would have to be declined, as would a museum or library, worthy as they are.”
When Liberty hit the States, she arrived in 200-odd crates. First came the torch and arm, which were put on display in Madison Square Park, just relandscaped by Olmsted’s former assistant Ignaz Pilat. Apparently, Pilat didn’t share Olmsted’s qualms over statues. The “Arm of Liberty” remained in the park from 1876 to 1882; its exhibition helped raise money for the construction of the statue’s pedestal. Though not quite his cup of tea, Olmsted did have a hand in the momentous Statue of Liberty project: He supervised the cleanup and landscaping of Liberty Island, ensuring the statue had a suitable home and surrounding green space.
In 1861 Frederick Law Olmsted resigned from New York City’s Central Park project, citing “mortifying” run-ins over “picayune details.” The experience prompted him to consider giving up landscape architecture entirely. Olmsted moved to California, where he accepted a post as supervisor of a gold-mining concern—a seemingly odd job for an ecologist. Under his watch, the mine managed to go essentially bankrupt.
While mulling over his career options out in California, Olmsted was asked to draw up a plan for a new college campus. Though virtually none of his design was implemented for what became the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, Olmsted’s passion for building spaces was reignited with his plan for Piedmont Way, a now-historic residential development on the campus’s eastern border. With Berkeley, he was able to refine his thinking about the “genius of place,” a belief that every site has ecologically and spiritually unique characteristics. Olmsted’s goal was to access this “genius,” then let it infuse all design decisions—hence, the curvature of roadways, the sweep of landscape and the very shape of residential neighborhoods that would become such crucial components in his designs for American suburbs and college campuses.
We tend to think of planned suburbs, be they cheap tract housing or wealthy gated communities, as a 20th-century innovation. In actuality, they are variations on a theme Frederick Law Olmsted originally conceived for a streetscape in Berkeley, California, and carried over into his 1869 design for Riverside, Illinois—the first planned modern suburb in the U.S. Olmsted envisioned Riverside as a respite from Chicago’s gritty urbanity, which he suspected caused degenerating moral, physical and mental health. The suburb was nothing less than a plan to heal the country.
Seen on a map, the town of Riverside is an anomaly. Its maze of curving roads and parklands lies in stark contrast to the seemingly endless grid of intersecting streets that surrounds it. This fluid space, however, reflects Olmsted’s abhorrence of the right angles and sharp corners typical of cities. By contrast, Riverside’s winding roads reveal wonders usually reserved for protected parks—pastoral common spaces, a lack of commercial enterprise and massive lots surrounded by manicured lawns. To this day, suburbs are planned in accordance with Olmsted’s basic principles. This wouldn’t have surprised him in the least. As he put it, “No great town can long exist without great suburbs.”
Frederick Law Olmsted had a real problem with Andrew Green, New York City’s head parks commissioner. In 1861, when the two could not agree on matters of politics (and Olmsted’s enormous budget), the architect resigned from the Central Park project in a huff. By 1865 things began to turn around—for the country and for Olmsted. He and his ex-partner, Calvert Vaux, were again consulted on Central Park and, more important, were contracted to work on another massive park project, this one in Brooklyn, the country’s first commuter suburb. Now incorporated as Olmsted, Vaux & Company, the two were promised significantly more autonomy this time around. For his part, Olmsted was ready to show the world what he could do with a “moderate degree of freedom” from the “infernal scoundrels” who’d interfered with his art in Manhattan.
Prospect Park was Olmsted’s comeback. Having refined his aesthetic vision in California during the war, the architect threw new energy into his designs, making Central Park seem like a dry run. With a man-made watercourse, a forest modeled after upstate New York’s Adirondacks and a mile-long pastoral meadow, Prospect Park is considered one of Olmsted’s finest expressions of the picturesque and the sublime.
One of the more surprising design elements of Central Park is the Sheep Meadow, which Frederick Law Olmsted wanted to be as authentic as possible—as in containing actual sheep. His vision for a calming pastoral landscape stemmed, in part, from the sheep-filled meadows he saw on an inspirational visit to England in 1850. The sheep also performed a cost-cutting function: free lawn maintenance, since their nibbling kept the grass trim.
In the 1930s New York City parks commissioner Robert Moses, often seen as a modernist enemy to Olmsted’s pastoralism, rid the park of its sheepfold to make room for the Tavern on the Green restaurant. Like many Manhattanites, the sheep were sent packing to Brooklyn in search of a more hospitable home. There, in Prospect Park, the displaced sheep joined a flock that had been happily grazing on the Long Meadow since 1922. Incidentally, Prospect Park is where you’ll find many New Yorkers these days when they want to grab a patch of grass on a sunny summer’s day, since Central Park—especially Sheep Meadow—is notoriously crowded with other people trying to escape the grid.
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux envisioned their landscape designs as they would be experienced by visitors moving through them, and they were especially concerned about any urban drama encroaching upon their idyllic wonderlands. Thus when designing Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, they fashioned a transitional plaza—now known as Grand Army Plaza—at the northwest corner, meant to serve as a buffer between the bustle of a rapidly developing suburb and the park’s sublime natural splendor.
Unfortunately, the connection between plaza and park was severed when the concentric ovals of several converging roads ultimately morphed into a “traffic circle of hell.” Not only did Grand Army Plaza fail to provide a prelude of tranquility to the park, frequent traffic accidents and pedestrian fatalities made it an urban hazard. In 1927 the so-called Death-O-Meter sign became a plaza feature, urging drivers to “Slow Up!” and providing them with a running tally of borough traffic fatalities. In 2010 a plan to redesign the plaza for improved safety was introduced, and construction began the following year. Vaux and Olmsted’s dream of a pedestrian gateway to the park may finally come to pass.