Frederick Law Olmsted
- LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0034
- LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0034
Frederick Law Olmsted (b. 1822–d. 1903) is regarded as the father of American landscape architecture for good reason, but to leave that as his sole definition would be to rob him of many of his great humanist achievements. He peppered his lifetime with a kaleidoscope of careers that enriched his legacy for the American people. Olmsted was a clerk, farmer, sailor on the China seas, journalist, husband, and father but is perhaps best known as a leading designer of park spaces. His design legacy includes Central Park (with Calvert Vaux), the US Capitol, Yosemite National Park, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Harvard University, Stanford University, Back Bay Park in Boston, the World’s Fair in Chicago, and several private projects, including the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. His design interests also served planned communities such as Riverside, Illinois, and Druid Hills, Georgia. Although he was involved in 550 projects as a designer and project manager, Olmsted was always served by his love of humankind. He regarded all his works not only as beautiful designs of nature, but also of service to people for generations to come. He wanted people to enjoy outside space as something distinct from work space or home space. His humanist nature may be found in many of his own writings, including observations on the slave states in Slavery and the South (Beveridge and McLaughlin 1977, cited under Sociological Studies), life during the Civil War (when he helped establish the US Sanitary Commission), and life in the unsettled West. Perhaps it was his journalistic background that prompted him to keep a record of most of his dealings with friends, family, and colleagues, including clients. There is also a body of secondary literature such as Viewing Olmsted (see Burley, et al. 1996, cited under Projects) that gives a contemporaneous photographic account of many of Olmsted’s projects, many of which exist to this day. There are also several biographies of Olmsted’s checkered and accomplished life that give an accurate account of his life and work, such as FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted (Roper 1973, cited under Biographies) and Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape (Beveridge and Rocheleau 1995, cited under Biographies). This article aims to guide those researching Olmsted’s life through his myriad works, achievements, and writings and helps celebrate a great designer of parks, farms, and forests for many generations.
The biographical work on Frederick Law Olmsted covers a plethora of subjects relating to his life and work and helps to give a feel of his motivations and design skills. While some studies concentrate on his landscape architecture, such as Beveridge and Rocheleau 1995, all pay homage to the man who created such lasting landscapes as the grounds of the US Capitol and Central Park. Most of the biographies also reveal his deep love for humanity and his need to help people enjoy outside spaces. Examples include Martin 2011 and Roper 1973.
Beveridge, Charles E., and Paul Rocheleau. 1995. Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American landscape. Edited by David Larkin. New York: Rizzoli.
This biography of Frederick Law Olmsted not only is inclusive of his private life and his career but also contains a wealth of contemporaneous color photographs. Each included project also has the accompanying design that was submitted by Olmsted to the client.
Hall, Lee. 1995. Olmsted’s America: An “unpractical” man and his vision of civilization. Boston: Little, Brown.
In this biography, Lee Hall covers not only Olmsted’s life, but an examination of his works, both on his own and with partner Calvert Vaux. Hall evaluates Olmsted’s work in New York as well as other famous works, and how his ideas influenced environmentalist values of historical and late-20th-century times.
Kalfus, Melvin. 1990. Frederick Law Olmsted: The passion of a public artist. American Social Experience 18. New York: New York Univ. Press.
Kalfus’s biography of Olmsted reveals the troubled nature of the man. He maintains that though afflicted with illness throughout his life, Olmsted struggled to focus his energies and genius finally to create a remarkable career in landscape design before succumbing to mental illness late in life.
Martin, Justin. 2011. Genius of place: The life of Frederick Law Olmsted. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo.
This biography celebrates the foresight and thoughtfulness of the landscape designer. Martin emphasizes the pluralist and humanist view that Olmsted shared with people through the legacy of his parks and extensive essays. Martin works to ensure that readers appreciate Olmsted’s patience, wit, and even embarrassment.
McLaughlin, Charles Capen. 1982. The environment: Olmsted’s odyssey. Wilson Quarterly 6.3 (1982): 78–87.
Olmsted’s previous work before parks and landscape architecture is examined. McLaughlin examines the key move for Olmsted toward the design of parks, focusing on his extensive travels. Olmsted’s views on Manhattan and its landscape represent a key case study.
Roper, Laura Wood. 1973. FLO: A biography of Frederick Law Olmsted. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.
Roper clearly illustrates how Olmsted’s social conscience was always prevalent no matter what the stage of his career, and that he was motivated by his empathy toward humankind.
Rybczynski, Witold. 1999. A clearing in the distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the nineteenth century. New York: Scribner.
This biography concentrates on the focus that Olmsted placed on his projects. According to Rybczynski, every stage of Olmsted’s life was met with energy, and he always sought to improve himself no matter what the cause. It shows Olmsted as a man who always looked to solve problems and to innovate solutions.
Stevenson, Elizabeth. 1977. Park maker: A life of Frederick Law Olmsted. New York: Macmillan.
Stevenson clearly portrays and documents early key events and influences on Olmsted’s life, connecting them to later accomplishments in his professional career. The Biltmore, the US Capitol grounds, and other projects are linked to these early influences.
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