Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted

First American Landscape Architect (1822-1903)

Black and White historic photo of Frederick Law Olmsted in his 40s, circa 1860s
Frederick Law Olmsted in his 40s, circa 1860s. Photo by Fotosearch/Archive Photos/Getty Images (cropped)

Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. (born April 26, 1822 in Hartford, Connecticut) is widely recognized as the first American landscape architect and the unofficial founder of American landscape architecture. He was a landscape architect before the profession was even founded and established. Olmsted was a visionary who foresaw the need for national parks, devised one of America's first regional plans, and designed America's first large suburban community, Roland Park in Maryland.

Although Olmsted is famous today for his landscape architecture, he did not discover this career until he was in his 30s. During his youth, Frederick Law Olmsted pursued several professions, including becoming a respected journalist and social commentator. While in his 20s, Olmsted traveled extensively in the US and abroad, taking month-long sea voyages and walking tours of the British Isles. He was influenced by the manicured English gardens, the wandering wilderness of the English countryside, and the social commentary of writers such as the British critic John Ruskin.

Olmsted took in what he learned overseas and applied it to his own country. He studied what was known as "scientific farming" and chemistry and even ran a small farm on Staten Island in New York. Traveling through the southern United States as a journalist, Olmsted wrote treatises against slavery and its expansion into western states. Olmsted's 1856 book A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States was not a great commercial success, but was highly regarded by readers in the northern United States and England.

By 1857, Olmsted had become established in the publishing community and used those connections to become the superintendent of New York City's Central Park. Olmsted joined with English-born architect Calvert Vaux (1824-1895) to enter the Central Park design competition. Their plan won, and the pair worked as partners until 1872. They invented the term landscape architecture to explain their approach to what they were doing.

The process of landscape architecture is largely the same as any other architecture project. The first step is to scope out the project by surveying the property. Olmsted would hike about the land, surveying the assets and the areas that might be challenging. Then, like other architects, a design was created in detail and presented to the stakeholders. Reviews and modifications may have been extensive, but everything about the design was planned and documented.  Execution of the plan—creating pathways, installing plantings, building hardscapes—would often take a number of years to complete.

Much of what Olmsted is known for today is the hardscape of landscaping—the non-living architecture of walls, terraces, and steps that become part of the landscape architect's design. "Some of Olmsted's significant hardscape elements can be found on the East Front plaza of the U.S. Capitol," confirms the Architect of the Capitol.

Olmsted and Vaux designed many parks and planned communities, including Riverside, Illinois, which is known as America's first modern suburb. Their 1869 design for Riverside broke the formulaic mold of grid-like streets. Instead, the pathways of this planned community follow the contours of the earth—along the Des Plaines River that winds through the town.

Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. settled his landscape architecture business in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. Olmsted's son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (1870–1957), and nephew/stepson, John Charles Olmsted (1852–1920), apprenticed here, at Fairsted, and eventually found the Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects (OBLA) after their father retired in 1895. Olmsted landscapes became a family business.

After Olmsted's death on August 28, 1903, his stepson, John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920), his son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (1870-1957), and their successors continued the landscape architecture firm Olmsted founded. Records show that the firm participated in 5,500 projects between 1857 and 1950.

The senior Olmsted not only excited an urban public to the peaceful joys of green spaces during the Industrial Revolution, but he also developed a family business par to none. Gardens, parks, and walkways designed by the Olmsted family in the 19th and 20th centuries have become America's great landscapes of the 21st century. These national treasures are testament to the country's enduring landscape architecture.

Famous Works by Frederick Law Olmsted:

What is Fairsted?

Olmsted's old office is located just outside of Boston, and you can visit his historic home and design center, Fairsted—well worth a visit to Brookline, Massachusetts. National Park Service Park Rangers normally give tours of the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. To introduce yourself to Olmsted's landscape architecture, begin with Walks and Talks. Tours explore Olmsted landscapes all around the Boston area, including a special trek to a historic baseball field. In the morning, National Park Service Rangers lead you around the Olmsted-designed Back Bay Fens, concluding with a tour of the century-old home of the Boston Red Sox, Fenway Park. With the right reservations, at least once a year you can step up to the plate. And if you can't make it to Boston, try visiting other Olmsted venues found all over the United States:

Learn More:

  • Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin
  • Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape by Charles Beveridge and Paul Rocheleau
  • A Clearing In The Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century by Witold Rybczynski
  • Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015
  • Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America, PBS video
  • Frederick Law Olmsted: Essential Texts, Norton, 2010
  • A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States by Frederick Law Olmstead, Kindle Edition

Sources: Hardscapes, Explore Capitol Hill, Architect of the Capitol [accessed August 31, 2014]; Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. Landscape Architect, Author, Conservationist (1822–1903) by Charles E. Beveridge, National Association of Olmsted Parks [accessed January 12, 2017]