Frederick Law Olmsted Schools - The Landscaped Campus

Did Frederick Law Olmsted Design Your Campus?

Wilderness and civilization combine at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York
Wilderness and civilization combine at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Photo by Gemma/Moment/Getty Images

Some of the most picturesque college campuses in the United States were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, sometimes with his sons or partners. From 1857 to 1950, Olmsted's firm designed the master plans or served as landscape consultants for 355 school and college campuses. A school doesn't have to have a lawn—you can find excellent schools in busy urban centers or even online. But when we dream of academic life, we often think of ivy-covered towers, historic flowering trees, and vast expanses of green.

This pastoral image can be traced back to the works of one man.

Frederick Law Olmsted, who is often called the father of American landscape architecture, was possibly the first campus designer to identify the importance of natural topography. Olmsted didn't base his designs on established theories or rules. Instead, he took a practical approach, looking at the existing landscape, vegetation, and climate. Functional organization, urban design, landscaping, gardening, and art combined in the campuses Olmsted designed.

One of Olmsted's earliest campus projects was to create a master plan for the College of California located on a dry, dreary hill in Oakland. He wanted the college to blend with the character of the neighborhood, and also to allow for later expansion and modifications. For these reasons, Olmsted argued for a picturesque rather than a formal plan. Olmsted placed the college buildings four miles away from Oakland's orderly, square village lots, and he divided the land into large wooded areas with tranquil winding roads.

The 1865 plan proved flexible years later, when the College of California merged with another school to create the University of California at Berkeley. Little remains of the original college, but Olmsted's plan is still visible along the quiet, residential Piedmont Avenue in Berkley.

When Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned for the campus design at Stanford University, about 40 miles south of San Francisco, California, he again argued for a naturalistic plan.

He wanted buildings nestled into the foothills, with a road meandering though the forest. However, it was necessary to compromise with the architects. Sandstone buildings with red tile roofs were placed in an orderly rectangles on flat land. The resulting design, completed in 1914, does not entirely reflect Olmsted's original vision, yet it is certainly one of America's most memorable schools.

Olmsted set the standard for campus design, and after his death in 1903, the landscape architecture firm he founded was continued by his sons and their successors. Like many of the city parks designed across the US, Olmsted campus designs often were executed over the course of many years. More than 35 years were spent creating the expansive landscape at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Vassar has seen many changes over the years, but the campus remains a serene place to think and dream. Immense trees spread their arms outside stately brick and stone Victorians. A winding lane leads into cool pine groves with thick beds of pine needles. Nearby, a narrow brook bubbles into a calm lake. Olmsted would be pleased to know that even people in the 21st century value the human reflection nurtured by a beautiful landscape.

A Selection of Olmsted Schools:

Between 1857 and 1950, the landscape architecture firm founded by Frederick Law Olmsted designed 355 school and college campuses. Some of the most famous are listed here.

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux:
1865Piedmont Way at the College of California, Berkeley, California
1866Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb (Now Gallaudet University), Washington, D.C.
1867-73Cornell University, Ithaca, New York


Frederick Law Olmsted:
1872-94Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut
1874-81Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
1883-1901Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville, New Jersey


Frederick Law Olmsted with his stepson John Charles Olmsted and,
until 1893, Henry Sargent Codman:
1886-1914Stanford University, Palo Alto, California
1891-1909Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts


Charles Eliot (1859-1897) and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.
Also with John Charles Olmsted until 1920:
1865-99Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri
1895-1927Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
1896-1922Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts
1896-1932Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York
1900-06Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island
1901-1910University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
1902-12Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts
1902-20University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
1903-19Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland
1925-31Harvard Business School, Cambridge, Massachusetts
1925-65Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
1929-32University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana

Learn More:

  • University Planning and Architecture: The Search for Perfection by Jonathan Coulson, 2010
  • Campus: An American Planning Tradition by Paul Venable Turner, 1987