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Uncovering the hidden gems of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American parks

Olmsted is best known for designing Central Park, but he also designed hundreds of other spaces around the country. A new guide highlights some of his lesser-known works.

Uncovering the hidden gems of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American parks
[Images: T. Johnson (engraving)/James Notman (photo)/United States Library of Congress, Murat Taner/Getty Images, Murat Taner/Getty Images, Barrett Doherty/courtesy Cultural Landscape Foundation]

He’s probably best known as the codesigner of New York’s Central Park, but pioneering landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted left a legacy that touches nearly every corner of the United States.

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On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth, the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) has released a new digital guide to more than 300 landscapes across North America that bear his signature. The What’s Out There Olmsted guide maps and profiles each of these projects and their lasting legacy.

The guide features profiles of hundreds of different parks, gardens, and estates designed by Olmsted and the multiple firms he worked with during his career, along with successor firms run by his sons that built on his transformative work. Well-known public spaces like Central Park and the U.S. Capitol grounds are included, as are vaunted landscapes like the 125,000-acre Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, and Mount Royal forest park in Montreal.

But according to Charles A. Birnbaum, TCLF president and CEO, the guide is much more than just a rehash of greatest hits. It also features some lesser-known gems that have become more relevant over time.

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Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, 2015 [Photo: New York City Department of Parks and Recreation/courtesy the Cultural Landscape Foundation]

Parkways

One of Olmsted’s early innovations was the creation of parkways—linear parks originally used in the mid-1800s by pedestrians and carriages for tree-lined excursions. These parks ran along roads, connecting different neighborhoods in places like Arlington, Virginia, and Brooklyn and Buffalo. They became key corridors for growth, serving as recreational green spaces as well as focal points for future development.

Like American versions of the broad boulevards seen in Paris, the parkways Olmsted conceived evolved into city-defining arteries. Developed with partner and Central Park codesigner Calvert Vaux, these parkways served as precursors to another of the great innovations of Olmsted and his successor firms: the park system.

Buffalo, circa 1872 [Image: The Print Collector/Heritage Images/Getty Images]

Park systems

“[The Olmsteds] invented the park system,” Birnbaum says. Rather than discrete chunks of greenery scattered across cities, Olmsted thought of parks as individual elements of a grand system of recreational and natural spaces. Parkways, particularly those in Buffalo, came to be the connective tissue that linked the parks in these systems. “It becomes a hierarchy of parks, parkways, and boulevards,” Birnbaum says.

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In contrast to the stand-alone gardens and sitting greens common in cities in the mid-1800s, Olmsted’s vision, and that of his successor firms, extended parks to a citywide scale. Parks didn’t need to exist only in city centers or wealthy neighborhoods, Olmsted believed, but should span across entire urban areas for as many residents as possible. “They were constantly pushing the envelope on traditional practice and by extension they are really defining how well to plan a city,” Birnbaum says.

State Capitol, Hartford, Connecticut, 2018. [Photo: Ilirjan Rrumbullaku/courtesy the Cultural Landscape Foundation]

Capitols

In addition to the U.S. Capitol grounds, Olmsted and his sons shaped capitol spaces across the country, from Kentucky to Utah. One highlight, according to Birnbaum, is the capitol grounds in Hartford, Connecticut. The project, originally designed by Olmsted Sr., became a multigenerational endeavor, with his sons’ firm extending their father’s park-like grounds and connecting them with another large public park in the area. Development of the parks there continued into the 1940s, surviving both Olmsted Sr., who died in 1903, and adopted son John Charles Olmsted, who died in 1920.

U.S Capitol Grounds, Washington, D.C., 2015 [Photo: Barrett Doherty/courtesy the Cultural Landscape Foundation]

Advocacy

Olmsted also had an outsize impact beyond the design of parks and landscapes. Birnbaum notes that he was an outspoken advocate not only for the creation of parks but for their long-term maintenance and management. His most famous work, Central Park, is a prime example. In the 1880s, more than two decades after the park’s first sections opened, Olmsted wrote a blistering treatise on the park’s mismanagement. He criticized its leaders as a “disorganized body [that] has been masquerading before the public, a headless trunk without policy, without order, without well-defined purpose.”

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“He was fierce,” Birnbaum says. “A landscape architect today would be like, ‘Gosh, these guys may not hire me again in the future if I speak out like this.'”

Olmsted was also a vocal advocate for preservation, calling for political action to make places like Niagara Falls and Yosemite protected landscapes. Beyond the world of parks, Olmsted’s lasting impact can be seen across a variety of American institutions. His 1860s role as executive secretary of a private relief agency known as the U.S. Sanitary Commission led to the creation of the Red Cross. And as someone who started his career as a journalist, he later became a strong voice calling for an independent press in the U.S., helping to establish The Nation magazine.

“I think beyond the making of parks, his activism and advocacy are extraordinary,” Birnbaum says. “He shaped the U.S. through not just the built work but the ideas.”

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