The Father of Landscape Architecture

The following is a guest post by our guide Leanna Renee Hieber. Her custom tour, The Magic and Mysticism of Central Park, will run on Sunday, June 18th in a special Fathers’ Day edition. Tickets are available here.

Frederick Law Olmsted and Sons

We think of Frederick Law Olmsted as the father of modern landscape architecture, and along with his Central Park partner Calvert Vaux, he very much was. This fascinating man led a fascinating life that I’m still researching and uncovering. When I moved to New York in 2005, after having traveled the country as a classically trained actress, I soon deemed Central Park to be my favorite place in the whole city. Having grown up in rural Ohio, I knew the peace that rolling hills and a mixture of wild and curated lawns and land could offer. That peace is what Olmsted wanted to grant every New Yorker, and every pedestrian and observer in any of his parks around the nation.

I first became interested in Olmsted and the park when I first began studying to become a tour guide, watching the New York: A Documentary History by Ric Burns. The discussions of Olmsted drew me in and he quickly became one of my favorite historical figures. As a historical novelist, the breadth of Olmsted’s work and journey, his uphill battles and his deep love for his work informed a great deal of my understanding of urban planning and politics. FLO, a Biography, by Laura Wooed Roper, is a wonderful book that gave me comprehensive insights into his mind, heart and character. I believe him to be one of the country’s great minds, talents and souls; a sensitive and committed hero to nature, people and their relation to public spaces. Once established as a prominent figure, he then began thinking of his legacy.

Andrew Jackson Downing, the original Central Park planner who died early in the planning process in 1852, was the first to truly begin to envision Landscape Architecture in the size and scope that Central Park proved not only as possible but as critical for a metropolis. When Downing’s assistant, Calvert Vaux, and Frederic Law Olmsted, made superintendent of the park after having come to the notice of New York elite after the publication of his Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, submitted their Greensward Plan to the competition held to design the park after Downing’s death, they could hardly have known it would be them that would be the ones truly carving out the profession on a national scale and spending the rest of their lives fighting for and establishing the new field all around the country and world.

Olmsted’s passion and dedication had two heirs, but it was clear that the one that just so happened to have been named for him also inherited the greatest portions of his father’s drive, heart and vision. Olmsted’s children included, John Charles, Marion and Frederick Jr. It was Frederick, “Rick”, who was destined to inherit his legacy, and Olmsted began thinking of the future of his son, his Landscape Architecture firm and the legacy of Landscape Architecture itself all as entwined. Landscape Architecture was an emergent art form struggling for recognition, stature and the sorts of monetary investments society had been eagerly placing in homes and railroads during the 19th century.

Laura Wood Roper quotes Olmsted as thinking of the distant results of the massive, decades long journey of Central Park’s full flourishing as having direct reflection on his son:

“How will it as a mature work of the Olmsted school affect Rick? … How is Rick to be best prepared to take advantage of what in reputation I have been earning? Reputation coming as the result of what I shall have done, but not coming in my time. How best prepared to carry on the war against ignorance and prejudice and meanness. How best to make L.A. respected as an Art and a liberal profession.”

These questions moved me very much, having been so invested in reading about Olmsted’s fights and struggles to secure a Park that remained true to his visions, to achieve what we now think of as an Art. He wanted his son to have a road with fewer blockades than he. However he didn’t allow the heir to his legacy to be lax or without comprehensive study and training. As Rick grew into his adulthood, Olmsted demanded his son begin cultivating a finer appreciation of the social graces in society that would help him with the classes he’d be circling in for patronage, funding and promotion. Frederick took on the mantle, training and the many expectations of his father and ran with them all.

He and his brother John Charles created Olmsted Brothers as a successor firm to their father’s, and Frederick maintained a lifelong commitment to national parks in particular. Some of his notable projects included landscape architectural works in Acadia, the Everglades and Yosemite National Parks, the National Mall, the Jefferson Memorial, and the White House grounds.

On this Father’s day, I hope you’ll think about a vital and vibrant relationship between father and sons that changed the world for the better, helping to make some of our nation’s most treasured monuments and outdoor urban spaces such beautiful and iconic places for all to visit. We enjoy their legacies by the millions, every day.