More than anyone else, Frederick Law Olmsted dominated the profession of landscape design in nineteenth-century America. He had a hand in the preservation of scenic wonders like Yosemite and Niagara Falls, in major landscape parks and park systems in more than a dozen major cities, in the first scientifically managed forest in this country, in the landscaping of the Columbian Exposition, model suburban subdivisions, campus planning, estate planning, even the first municipally sponsored playground. Moreover, he was over forty-four when he did most of this work, after he had pursued, and with notable success, several other careers. A remarkable man!

Lewis Mumford first brought Olmsted’s career to wide public notice in 1929, in a brief chapter of The Brown Decades. Before that, except for a few published addresses, Olmsted’s career was buried in official reports with such unappealing titles as Observations on the Progress of Improvements in Street Plans, with Special Reference to the Parkway Proposed to Be Laid out in Brooklyn. Mumford opened the tomb. Those who wished to make a more thorough inspection of its contents could turn to the two-volume Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.,…Forty Years of Landscape Architecture published in 1922-1928. This is a selection of Olmsted’s papers, with commentary on his career written by his son (who continued his father’s practice into the twentieth century) with Theodora Kimball. (A reprint of the second volume, wholly devoted to Central Park in New York, has now been reissued.) Since the late Twenties these books pretty much satisfied the interest in Olmsted, and they were often consulted for a number of general accounts of nineteenth-century American culture, in which Olmsted plays a respectable role. Now, four decades later, we have a deluge of books on him.1 Why?

There is, of course, the customary commemorative reason: 1972 marked the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Olmsted’s birth. And a practical reason: an extensive file of documents, long restricted to Laura Roper’s use, was recently opened to the public. But a more substantial reason for the interest in Olmsted’s work is obviously the current concern with ecological matters. As a result interest in the profession of landscape architecture has increased, and one suspects that at least some of the interest in Olmsted depends on the need of these new professionals, the landscapists, to compete with the more impressive list of heroes flaunted by the architects. At a time when landscape architecture is turning from its concerns with herbaceous borders for country estates to a preoccupation with large-scale ecological planning, what better candidate than Olmsted for canonization?

For Olmsted always kept the “big picture” in mind, not only in a formal sense but in a social sense as well. It is precisely his sense of the social responsibility of design decisions that makes Olmsted’s career so stirring today. Not only the most enlightened landscape architects but architects and industrial designers as well are increasingly questioning the degree to which design has catered to the elite and the market. Olmsted did not wholly escape these limitations on his practice; but, taken as a whole, his work sets standards of social responsibility in design—more conspicuously, one feels, than the work of any other designer practicing in nineteenth-century America.

This is not specifically the central inquiry of any of the books under review, although, in their different emphases, they furnish abundant evidence for the theme. Laura Roper’s biography, almost thirty years in the making, can in no sense be said to result from current interests, but happily arrives at the crest of the Olmsted boom. Let it be said immediately that, although flawed in some respects, this is a splendid biography of a noble career which is written with grace and feeling. Deliberately keeping tightly to the events of Olmsted’s life, Laura Roper allows the accumulated accomplishment to speak for itself. She has added perceptive critical comment but has made very little effort to set Olmsted’s career within any larger scheme than she needed for her account of his activities.

More explicitly pointed toward current concerns, Elizabeth Barlow’s text briskly considers Olmsted as a prophet of the present ecological movement. Her essay, together with the album of visual materials gathered by William Alex (which are regrettably sparse in Roper’s study), originated with the 1972 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art of Olmsted’s work in New York. This includes not only Central Park but Prospect Park in Brooklyn and lesser parks (Riverside and Morningside among them) as well as an important, but disregarded, street plan for a portion of the Bronx.

The essay by the earth artist Robert Smithson, who was recently killed in a plane crash in Texas while supervising one of his works, is a tribute to his predecessor which would doubtless have especially pleased him. Himself the creator of vast bulldozed projects, Smithson appreciated the magnitude of Olmsted’s operation at Central Park where pick and shovel, horse and cart, transformed a particularly dreary rectangle of land into what at the time of its design in 1859 was the first municipally sponsored landscaped park in the United States. Its historical importance is of less consequence to its fame than its situation, spectacularly evident to the observer from the heights of midtown skyscrapers, who sees a green carpet (in season) overlaid in a curlicued pattern appropriately Victorian, a conspicuously man-made entity at the very heart of so much that is so much more obviously man-made.


Smithson experienced the Park with a concreteness that Roper does not have. Sensitive as she is to Olmsted and to his ideals, she does not convey much sense of having actually tramped the parks about which she writes. All of them—Central and Prospect in New York, and Franklin in Boston, merely to name the parks to which Olmsted gave his greatest attention—blur into one another as the sum of his “principles” without the particular qualities that give each its distinctive identity.2


Still, it is true, as Laura Roper makes clear, that Olmsted always considered himself rather lacking in the “art side” of his profession. For this he initially depended heavily on his architect-trained partner, Calvert Vaux, whose considerable role in the designs of Central and Prospect parks at last receives its due. In fact, Olmsted was not trained as a designer at all. He came to design relatively late, after years of doing many different jobs in which social commitment was either inherently part of the job, or in which he managed to make it so.

Roper devotes more than half of nearly 500 pages to recounting the earlier episodes of Olmsted’s life. He once expressed his own surprise that “such a loitering, self-indulgent, dilettante sort of man as I was…could, at middle age, have turned into such a hard worker and doer as I then suddenly became and have been ever since.” Without having deliberately prepared for his career, he yet acquired just those abilities and qualities of mind that made him the best-known American practitioner of his profession, among which his social idealism was no less important than his practical expertise.

With generous backing from a reasonably wealthy, forbearing father, the young Olmsted went on a miserable voyage to China, tried scientific farming on Staten Island, and traveled to England, where he was less taken by the private parks of the grandest country houses than by public parks. Although former royal or private grounds of various sorts had been opening to the public in Europe since the end of the eighteenth century, the design of public parks de novo was then an infant profession. Olmsted wrote a book on his travels, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, and became a journalist, later touring the South in 1852-1854 for The New York Times. Eventually published as The Cotton Kingdom, his reports remain a classic account of the plantation system. He condemned it not so much for moral reasons (although he felt them) as for what he considered to be economic inefficiencies, which he, as a “scientific farmer,” was especially trained to see.

Then, by chance, in 1857 he took a job as superintendent for the new, as yet undesigned and undeveloped, Central Park, where he was second in command to an engineer who had already produced a tentative plan for the park. The land for the project had already been bought by the city, after much public agitation led by William Cullen Bryant. Grudgingly permitted by his superior to enter the competition for the final plan, Olmsted joined with Calvert Vaux to produce the winning design, displacing the engineer at the head of the operation. While Vaux worried over details of architecture and design once the park plan was set, it was Olmsted who kept the grand scheme in mind and supervised the immense labor of land movement: hollows for lakes, mounds for hillocks; grading for the network of roadways, bridle paths, and walkways so arranged as to avoid the collision of one kind of traffic with others. He planned cuts that brilliantly and unexpectedly sent workaday street traffic across the breadth of the park at a lower level so that neither domain would invade or inconvenience the other.

It seemed that Olmsted was at last safely placed in his eventual career, but the Civil War deflected him to yet another post, this time as head of the Sanitary Commission for the Union Army, where he further trained himself in planning and administration. But when he left the Sanitary Commission in 1863 he was still too disaffected by the political and bureaucratic squabbles that had beset his work on the park to return to it, however much he loved it. So he went West to manage a mining property for the Mariposa Estate in the Sierra Nevadas. Despite Olmsted’s capable management, the venture ended disastrously when the promised lode of gold turned out to be on the other side of the mountain.


He was about to return to journalism, with Edwin Godkin on the Nation (a magazine that Olmsted had helped to found), when, happily, at Vaux’s urging, he returned to New York to supervise Central Park, and to a new commission which Vaux had landed for them, the design of Prospect Park. In the middle of his life Olmsted finally settled into the profession which was to bring him renown, but which really had no suitable name at the time he entered it.

Olmsted and Vaux repudiated the old term “landscape gardening,” with its implications of horticulture and handcraft. To show their concern with the larger aspects of land planning, in 1865 they began to call themselves (at Vaux’s apparent suggestion) “landscape architects.” Although Olmsted had had too many quarrels with architects who wished to pollute the landscape aspects of his parks with showy gates and buildings to be entirely happy with the name, he never found a better one. Thereafter, for over three decades until 1895, when he became insane, he, more than any other American, dominated the profession he and Vaux had helped to baptize.

He had come to his profession without specific training in design. What he brought to it was invaluable, however: a thorough practical knowledge of landscape work in the largest sense; management abilities of the most varied sort; a ready pen; not least a dedication to public service. On what Roper calls the “art side” he had his own intuitive feeling for the scenic aspects of landscape. Such theoretical background as he had derived not only from such books of the eighteenth-century tradition as William Gilpin’s Forest Scenery and Uvedale Price’s An Essay on the Picturesque (his favorites), but extended to Ruskin’s work on landscape scenery.

No one to my knowledge has remarked on the conservatism of his ideas of design, or on the degree to which this conservatism—relying on older theories of scenery as opposed to the more modern ones of horticulture—may have protected him from the fussiness that afflicted most Victorian design. (In fact, he had so little background in the niceties of horticulture that he was perpetually embarrassed at his forgetfulness of the Latin names of the plantings his specifications called for.) Using such theory as came to him, he mostly used his eyes, favoring the larger features of landscape over detail, a predilection which his experience of the grandeur of western scenery around Mariposa and his work in founding Yosemite National Park nearby doubtless fostered.

But in what sense did these capacities make Olmsted the great designer that he was? Repeated throughout his reports are four interrelated principles of design. To Olmsted responsible design begins with a controlling theme which is in accord with the situation and circumstances of the project. This means not only the suppression of all incongruities that do not further the theme but the inclusion of the widest range of uses compatible to the main purpose, or at least only marginally disturbing to it. It includes concern for maintenance and use, which govern the life of the design. It looks beyond the design to ways in which the benefits of any one project can be extended to others, a concern for what the architect Eliel Saarinen called “the next largest thing.” Finally (or rather, for Olmsted, primarily) it includes a social vision for design. In his case this was a theory of “civilization” into which his work fitted, utopian in its implications, but realistic about beginnings. This fourfold nature of responsible design centered in the “natural.”


Point by point, there is nothing extraordinary in the goals that Olmsted set for himself as a designer, or in the philosophy that informed them, consisting as it did of eighteenth-century landscape theory with a mixture of transcendentalism and functional attitudes toward the “natural” in art of the sort associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Horatio Greenough. It is rather the inclusiveness and the balanced manner in which Olmsted adhered to these principles that make his work so instructive and inspiring. Moreover, these principles do not appear merely as glowing pronouncements for special occasions, but run throughout the day-to-day, job-by-job decisions of Olmsted’s career.

The first principle guiding Olmsted’s work, that the designer set the controlling theme for his design in the situation and circumstances that condition it, is at the heart of the tradition of English naturalistic landscape design. As Alexander Pope put it: “Consult the genius of the place in all.” To follow Pope’s admonition in the broad sense in which Olmsted followed it is not merely to scrutinize the site for those happy accidents of outcrop, hollow, and tree clump that the designer could adapt most expeditiously and tellingly for the effect he wanted. For Olmsted it was initially a question of the designer’s determining the controlling theme for the “place,” which often meant that the job his client called for was, in Olmsted’s opinion, not at all the job that should be done.

Thus when Olmsted went to Mariposa to manage a mining operation in a desert mountain valley, he realized that the mining required more water to continue the work beyond the time of seasonal freshets. But irrigation from a nearby river would also provide an alternative base for the economy of Mariposa. Agriculture and ranching would, in turn, ensure a permanent work force; Olmsted (in a vivid document on American mobility which Laura Roper reproduces) conscientiously records the astonishing turnover of workers within two years’ time, occupation by occupation, in a western mining town in the 1860s. A permanent society would, in turn, stem the lawless and drifting character of the population, and provide the basis for a “civilized” society for Mariposa. Thus, as he always did, Olmsted argued from the facts and needs at hand, to achieve the largest and most beneficent conditions, social as well as economic, that could occur from the proper vision in meeting them. The first job at Mariposa, then, was not mining but irrigation. The owners paid no heed to Olmsted’s program and, when the gold turned out to be elsewhere, Mariposa was doomed.

Or—to take another instance—consider Olmsted’s reaction when he was commissioned by George Washington Vanderbilt to provide a country park in the English manner for his vast château, Biltmore, which the fashionable architect Richard Morris Hunt had built near Asheville, North Carolina. In Olmsted’s opinion the soil was too thin for the contemplated park. Settle for a smaller park, he convinced Vanderbilt, and make this the vestibule to a demonstration forest preserve, the first in America to be run according to scientific forestry practice, which Olmsted had observed in Europe. Cattle on the estate would provide manure for the trees as well as a second economic base for the operation. And as a complement to the educational and scientific aspects of the forest, Olmsted pushed strongly (but in vain) for an arboretum. The commission for a country retreat became an economic proposition; the economic proposition a civilizing agency.

Once the guiding principle had been determined, then Olmsted sought to make every element of the design contribute toward the determined end, although with as inclusive a grasp of what features might be appropriate as he had shown in his schemes for Mariposa and Biltmore. Best known of his efforts in this respect are his remarks, in report after report, about what was and was not consistent with the development of a landscape park. Thus he wanted landscape features within the park to be diverse, conducive, on the one hand, to what he termed the “gregarious” recreation of people coming together in masses for such activities as promenading and concerts; on the other, to the “neighborly” recreation of families and small groups dotted about the ample meadows which they originally shared with lawn-mowing sheep, rowing on the winding lakes, or romantically lost in the maze of paths and tangle of bush with lovers and birdwatchers in his “rambles.” It was to the meadows, above all, that Olmsted’s landscape parks were keyed. He argued that the intricacies of “picturesque” beauty, with its multitudinous features permitting the aesthetic experiences occasioned by change and surprise, could be found in the architectural variety of city streets.

In his reports he repeatedly warned against those (and they threaten landscape parks today as much as they did then, if not more) who saw the park as so much cheap, “empty” land in which to load functions incongruous with what, in his quaint phraseology, he termed the “justifying value” of such a park. They included (and include), first, buildings and monuments other than those warranted for park purposes. In keeping with the saneness of his approach to design, however, neither did Olmsted go to the other extreme of false rusticity for summer houses or using boulders-as-found for bridges.3 For Olmsted the landscape park was, after all, a part of the city, and those buildings necessary to accommodate the functions proper to it should be urbanely treated in an appropriately modest and festive style.

A second threat to landscape parks was (and again very much is) highways of all sorts, especially in linear water-front parks where nineteenth-century pleasure drives were ready-made for enlargement by the modern highway engineer, with plenty of “undeveloped” open space available for lavish ramping—and all benefiting the suburban commuter more than anyone else.

Finally, Olmsted had his problems with those who wanted to impose the most diverse kinds of recreation facilities onto his landscape parks. For park commissioners, demands for ball diamonds and tennis courts, for skating rinks and stadiums, for the conversion of meadows into municipal golf courses, present the toughest decisions of all. A few years ago, for example, Commissioner Robert Moses wished to convert Olmsted’s bushy ramble in Central Park into a paved space for senior citizen games, partly because bushes screened muggers, but mostly because old people vastly outnumbered the bird watchers (lovers too?) who frequented the spot. The obvious response, and the one that Olmsted had repeatedly to emphasize, is that checkers and shuffleboard can, and ideally should, go on small sites scattered throughout the built-up sections of the city, whereas bird-watching can only occur in a landscape park. Land that seemed “empty” was not so at all. Land that seemed “cheap” because open was, in fact, exorbitantly expensive if, for example, the city kept acres of land that inconvenienced traffic and might be developed in other ways merely in order to mass shuffleboards and ball diamonds in it.

So this is the first of Olmsted’s concerns, which continues to be important to his approach to design: his large sense of the “genius of the place” stemming from his grasp of what the controlling idea for each situation should be; then the consideration of all elements for the way in which they reciprocally and cumulatively enhance this controlling idea; finally (a theme which must go undiscussed here) the specific use of whatever is at hand to further the design.

Another concern for Olmsted is one that inevitably occurs more to the landscape architect than to other kinds of designers, although the current interest in the ecology has finally brought architects and industrial designers to an increasing awareness that responsible design should look beyond the first cost and the first day. Page after patient page in Olmsted’s reports is devoted to careful follow-up on the basic design. “Follow-up” to him was no mere matter of replacing turf, pruning limbs, repairing buildings, but budgets and politics, and, a point which Olmsted particularly emphasized, also the continuing education of the people in the use of the facility provided. Thus Olmsted readily granted the importance of Vaux’s share in the formal design of Central Park, but he went on to say of his own special contribution that, in addition to his share of the physical design, he had been the one who was more especially and more exclusively concerned with the social functions of the park, and in the education of the people in its use.

Although the direst predictions were made at the time of the opening of Central Park that gentlemen and ladies would be offended, where they were not openly assaulted, by the “lower classes” attracted to the park, no such disaster occurred while Olmsted supervised the operation; nor did any afterward for as long as his inspiration and his continual instruction of commissioners, work force, park police, and public continued to influence the spirit of the place. But Olmsted realized that once laxity appeared in maintenance, penury in budgets, politics in personnel, reduced zeal in public education, then, in a chain reaction of deleterious effects, the park could become, as he himself put it, a “nuisance and curse to the city.” The point is not that all of Olmsted’s methods would work today (especially his somewhat paternalistic notions of public instruction), but that his kind of concern for the destiny of design once it comes into being (including some thought to means that will encourage proper public use) is very much an aspect of responsible design.

So is his sense of the possible concatenation of the effect of one decision, good or bad, on other possible areas of decision, as the examples of Mariposa and Biltmore make evident. He was not alone in developing the idea of the American park “system” as a means by which the single landscape park might be linked by tree-lined boulevards and linear river preserves to other landscape parks so that the whole city might be threaded and clumped with green space. Robert Copeland and H. M. S. Cleveland were other pioneer landscape architects in America who also developed this idea, possibly before Olmsted; but his work did most to push the notion.

Yet there is never the sense in Olmsted’s work that the planner’s aim of expanding the public good involves an oppressive hierarchy of superplanning. Vanderbilt’s Biltmore is an example: its use as a pleasure ground need not have led to its economic use; the economic use need not have resulted in an educational use. Yet all three kinds of use came into play in Biltmore. They were not dictated in the plan, however, but existed as available choices that unfolded one from the other as a result of the comprehensiveness with which Olmsted assessed possibilities, and not from an inflexible plan. The virtue of the “empty” meadow was that it need not be filled, as opposed to later nineteenth-century planning which tended toward formalistic architectural schemes, where an empty slot on the plaza loomed like a missing tooth.


So Olmsted’s organic approach to planning lent itself to his concern for social welfare. Although devoted to country landscape, and a founder of the movement for national parks, he mainly cared about the symbiotic relationship that should exist between city and country. Characteristically, when in Mariposa, he not only turned his thoughts to ways in which the flimsy desert mining camp might be nudged toward civilization, but, in his spare time, he began writing a book (completing only a few notes) on the possibilities of the United States as a democratic civilization. With conditions at Mariposa vividly at hand for contrast, and no doubt with a longing for the pleasures of an urbane society in an urbane situation, Olmsted wrote with special feeling of cities as the great civilizing agencies.

The notes that have survived from the project show him to have been mulling over the themes of the city as a place of communication, of specialization, and of the good life for women. Repeatedly he returns to the theme of civilization as the greatest “justifying value” of his parks. He does not fail to emphasize the economic advantages of parks—how the tax base has soared in their vicinity, how wealth has been drawn to cities that have amenities, how the number of carriages for pleasure driving rose fantastically with the opening of Central Park. Moreover he emphasizes the advantages to health. And the necessity for the sheer animal joys of roving recreation. But he also dwelt on four ways in which he believed parks furthered civilization.

Like most nineteenth-century men brought up on representational art, Olmsted was sure of the beneficent effect of landscape on the development of men’s (and, he emphasized, women’s) aesthetic sensibilities. He found its restful openness conducive to family gatherings, hence binding familial relationships. He also found landscape a psychological solace, softening the tendency for those engaged in the “pursuits of commerce” in the city “to regard others in a hard if not always hardening way.”

He found, finally, that the parks provided the best setting for the mingling of all classes. Only at Central and Prospect parks in New York, he believed, could one find among a mass of people “all classes largely represented, with a common purpose, not at all intellectual, competitive with none, disposing to jealousy and spiritual or intellectual pride toward none, each individual adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of all others, all helping to the greater happiness of each.” In short, Olmsted believed that parks were a principal agent in bringing society to what, writing in Mariposa, he termed the “highest point on my scale,” as exemplified by the man “who possesses a combination of qualities which fit him to serve others and to be served by others in the most intimate, complete and extended degree imaginable. Shall we call it communicativeness?”

The underlying purpose of the landscape park as he saw it, then, was not merely escape from the city, although this was an important part of its purpose. To Olmsted, its deeper function consisted in its fostering of that “communicativeness” which cemented civilization.

Dilapidated and ill-used as much of Olmsted’s work is today, it still functions as vitally (if not perhaps in quite so central a manner) as it did in the nineteenth century; more of it simply awaits the kind of attention, interest, and dedication that Olmsted knew that it needed in order to be revived from various degrees and kinds of neglect. Of course Olmsted’s system of green space was lopsided planning, and possesses the deficiencies of its lopsidedness. Of course issues that he raised need re-examination. What is (or should be) the role of the park in the city today, for example? To what degree can (or should) the public be “educated” to the “proper use” of public amenities? Or should we rather applaud with zest with which the graffittist does his own thing? To what extent has the incidence of crime in the parks vitiated Olmsted’s hopes for them?

It is true, too, that Olmsted’s view of the park as a civilizing agent was limited by nineteenth-century assumptions of benign paternalism within which his thought developed, as Smithson vaguely suggests without pursuing the matter. Olmsted would wall his system of parks and boulevards with the houses of the well-to-do. His euphoria about the mingling of the masses on his promenades and meadows in furtherance of a democratic society echoed much well-intentioned opinion of the period in which the osmosis of superficial contact provided a rhetorical substitute for serious social reform. Verdicts to such questions will affect judgments of the ultimate success and validity of parts of Olmsted’s work as they have met or failed to meet change through time. But they cannot affect the lessons to be drawn from his work.

Writing to a former girlfriend toward the end of his life, Olmsted remarked how he had “raised my calling from the rank of a trade, even of a handicraft, to that of a liberal profession—an Art, an Art of Design.” An Art of Design: he might also have emphasized the way in which social concerns permeated his design decisions, except that for him there was doubtless no distinction. More needs to be done on Olmsted as a designer, for his own day and for ours; more, too, on Olmsted as part of nineteenth-century culture generally. (Here Albert Fein in Landscape Into Cityscape has perceptive observations.) Much of the material for any such studies, however, has been provided by Laura Roper. She has done the definitive life of a man whose career, as we read it in her luminous biography, is of a piece with the largeness of effect that he sought in his work.

This Issue

June 13, 1974