Happy Birthday Frederick Law Olmsted!

Today marks the 199th birthday for visionary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, famous for co-designing many well-known urban parks with his senior partner Calvert Vaux, including Central Park and Prospect Park. Olmsted spent his first two adult decades searching for a calling while remaining financially dependent on his father, a prosperous dry goods merchant and descendant of a prominent Puritan family in Hartford, Connecticut. (Raised a Congregationalist, Olmsted avoided organized religion in later years.) He was driven by a sense of duty but found pursuing a career for money distasteful. Because a case of sumac poisoning weakened his eyes, Olmsted’s formal education — a combination of common and boarding schools — ended when he was eighteen. While his brother andEdward Law Olmsted closest friends were attending Yale, he tried a year as a clerk in a New York dry goods house and another year at sea. Neither pursuit proved agreeable. In the mid-1840s he prepared for what he thought would be a suitable profession as a gentleman farmer by living and studying with several prominent agriculturalists, among them George Geddes, whose upstate New York farm had won the state agricultural society prize for exemplary management. When his father bought him farms first in Connecticut and then on Staten Island, Olmsted envisioned himself as a “country squire” with a responsibility to disseminate scientific knowledge and rural taste.

As a youth, Frederick Law Olmsted traveled through the New England countryside with his father, who admired rural scenery; and as a young gentleman farmer, he read the latest literature on art criticism (including Ruskin’s Modern Painters), on horticulture, and on English landscape gardening. He wrote articles for Downing’s Horticulturalist on pear and apple farming and another on the attractions of Liverpool’s Birkenhead Park. With the rural improvement movement at its peak, he also helped organize an agricultural society on Staten Island for the promotion of rural tastes and scientific agriculture. But while Olmsted learned the art of landscape appreciation and the latest theories in rural improvement, he gained little experience in the work of design.

In the 1850s, Olmsted abandoned model farming for journalism, another field in which he hoped “to take up and keep a position as a recognized literateur, a man of influence in literary matters.” Following a trip to England, he published Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, which combined observations on the English social landscape with sentimental invocations of “Old England for ever! — Amen.” He took several journeys through the American South and sent a series of letters to the New York Times that formed the basis for his three influential books on southern mores and the economic conditions of slavery. In 1855 Olmsted became both a managing editor of Putnam’s Magazine and a partner (again through his father’s investment) in the publishing house of Dix and Edwards, which was publishing his second book.  The Dix and Edwards firm became an early casualty of the 1857 depression. A family friend, Park Commissioner Charles Elliott, encouraged Olmsted to apply for the post of the park superintendent, and he did so.

All text from:

The Park and the People

Courtesy of Barbara Blackmar & Roy Rosenzweig

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