Frederick Law Olmsted

The Father of Landscape Architecture

Central Park
People skate on the Wollman Ice Rink in Central Park in New York City. Central Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Getty Images

As the father of landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted and his firms designed the American landscape at the turn of the 19th century. Although he never enrolled in college, it was through rigorous study and a nurtured love for nature that his life evolved into a complex and very successful career. A few of Frederick Law Olmsted's most notable projects are the U.S. Capitol grounds, Central Park, the Buffalo and Boston park systems and the Columbian Exposition fair grounds.

Growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, Frederick Law Olmsted's father boarded him with various clergymen hoping to groom the young gentleman for study at Yale. Diary entries of this period recount a disdain for such orderly life. When sumac poisoning severely stressed his vision at age 16, Yale was surpassed for private tutoring in topographical and civil engineering; he was taught by Frederick A. Barton in Andover, Massachusetts.

Frederick Law Olmsted merrily described his early adulthood as "really for the most part given over to a decently vagabond life, generally pursued under the guise of an angler, a fowler, or a dabbler on the shallowest shores of the deep sea" (Dutton). Desiring an end to the boredom of his work in a French importing house, he became an apprentice seaman aboard the ship Ronaldson, bound for China.

Upon returning to the United States he visited his brother at Yale, attending classes mostly in self-amusement.

There he socialized quite a bit and developed an interest in the sciences of horticulture and agriculture. His studies grew into practice and his father then purchased for him a Connecticut farm. When this venture failed, he moved to Staten Island in hopes of achieving success on a better piece of land.

Yet Olmsted's interests were not confined to the soil.

Writing of Frederick Law Olmsted

In 1850 Frederick Law Olmsted left during the farming season for a walking tour of England, writing Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England during the trip. Upon returning from this six-month trek, he was sent to the American south aboard steamboat, stagecoach and horseback. Then writing for the New York Daily Times, he observed the socio-economics of southern plantation agriculture. His descriptions of slavery offered sympathy to blacks and poor whites as victims of the same system for sustaining life in early America. Several books were published from his twelve months of observation in the southern states.

Frederick Law Olmsted's inclination to write continued throughout his career. Authoring several books and many articles for The Nation magazine, which he co-founded, Olmsted developed a reputation as social critic. He advocated for international copyright law, equal rights for all citizens, women’s suffrage, better training for Army officers and rights and safety of merchant seamen.

Another strongly influential work was a report to the California legislature calling for the preservation of Yosemite and Big Tree Falls.

The report established precedent as the first methodical interpretation of a democratic government’s duty to preserve public lands. Delivered in 1865, the report laid the groundwork for creation of state and national parks.

Frederick Law Olmsted wrote throughout his life. All together, his papers number above 60,000, contributing literary translation of the ideas embodied in the expansive acreage of parks he designed directly and influentially as the father of landscape architecture.

Design of Frederick Law Olmsted

The largest and most accomplished park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted was Central Park in New York City. After applying and being hired for the position of park superintendent in September of 1857, the Board of Commissioners appointed him as architect in chief the following month of April 1858. The park took twenty-five years to complete and cost Olmsted a great deal in personal health due to complexities in the implementation process. He left and came back to the project several times before the park was completed.

By the 1860s he was sought after as a consultant and designer for major projects all over the eastern U.S. Desiring not to separate the park from activities of the city, his landscapes were meant to blend in with the built environment. Frederick Law Olmsted's designs frequently spilled over across the borders provided for his projects. These concepts helped to encourage the development of city planning and the City Beautiful movement, which made its full debut with the layout and grounds of the Columbian Exposition of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

In his diaries, Olmsted happily declared himself to be a "wholly unpractical man" (Dutton). The practicality he detested was that of selfish politicians whose interests often made it difficult for him to achieve all that he desired with his designs. Politicians defeated some projects, such as Riverside Park in the upper west side of Manhattan. As with Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted butted heads with such officials in many of his projects.

Olmsted maintained a successful career. Working under his own terms, he influenced the improvement of American social and environmental landscapes. After retiring in 1895 he soon was admitted to McLean Hospital in Waverly, Massachusetts, the grounds for which he designed. His firm was handed down to his son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.

Frederick Law Olmsted senior passed away in senility on August 28,1903.

Partial list of completed works of Frederick Law Olmsted:

  • Stanford University in Palo Alto, California
  • U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
  • Druid Hills planned community in Atlanta, Georgia
  • Riverside planned community in Chicago, Illinois
  • Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois
  • Boston, Massachusetts parks: Morain Farm, Boston, Fenway, Jamaica, Arnold Arboretum, Muddy River, Franklin Park
  • Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York
  • Buffalo, New York park system
  • Niagara Falls State Reservation
  • The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina
  • Mount Royal Park in Montreal, Quebec

Dutton, S.B. ed. Civilizing American Cities: A Selection of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Writings. 1971. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press.

Parker, Christopher Glynn. Frederick Law Olmsted. Website.