On April 26, 2022, we celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted. Widely regarded as the father of American landscape architecture, Olmsted designed the Arnold Arboretum grounds, his only arboretum still in existence.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Olmsted worked as a clerk, an apprentice seaman, an apprentice topographic engineer, a farmer, a journalist, and a writer before turning his hand to the profession of landscape architecture.
He first gained notoriety through his writings, including the book Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, written following a trip to that country in 1850. In 1852, Olmsted was asked by the New York Times to travel to the American south. His journey resulted in a series of newspaper articles and three books on the economic conditions in the slave states. He published the three books as a single volume, The Cotton Kingdom, in 1861. During the American Civil War he was the secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission.
In 1859, Olmsted and Calvert Vaux submitted the winning design, ‘Greensward,’ for Central Park in New York City. They oversaw its design and construction over the following decade. Olmsted drew the first studies for his Boston Park Department commission in the summer of 1878, and completed his final plans in 1895.
He planned and designed the Arnold Arboretum in collaboration with its founding director Charles Sprague Sargent. Today the Arboretum is among the best preserved of Olmsted’s landscapes. In addition to the Arboretum, Olmsted designed the series of Boston’s parks from the Public Garden to Franklin Park with connecting parkways, known today as the Emerald Necklace. The Olmsted firm undertook additional design work between 1890 and 1895 in order to accommodate the acquisition of Peters Hill, the highest point in the Arnold Arboretum.
Olmsted retired from public life in 1895, suffering from the onset of dementia. He died in 1903.
Olmsted on the Arnold Arboretum
“On the 155 acres much the best arboretum in the world can be formed. The scheme is that the city shall lease the condemned land to the college on a nominal rent for a thousand years and that the college shall establish and maintain the arboretum . . . I am sure that it is a capital bargain for both parties . . . difficulties are all difficulties of ignorance or of the imagination. The arrangement would cost the college nothing and the result would be immeasurably more creditable to it. The city would get a very valuable novel and interesting pleasure ground at about one quarter what it would otherwise have to pay for it.”
Olmsted on the Healthiness of Beautiful Landscapes
“If we analyze the operations of scenes of beauty upon the mind, and consider the intimate relation of the mind upon the nervous system and the whole physical economy, the action and reaction which constantly occur between bodily and mental conditions, the reinvigoration which results from such scenes is readily comprehended . . . The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.”Letter to Charles Eliot Norton, May 7, 1880
Olmsted on the Value of Public Parks
“It is one of the great purposes of the Park to supply to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God’s handiwork that shall be to them, inexpensively, what a month or two in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks is, at great cost, to those in easier circumstances.”The Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Trees, 1865
Olmsted on His Design Work
“The most interesting general facts of my life seems to me to be that it was not as a gardener, a florist, a botanist, or one in any way specially interested in plants and flowers, or especially susceptible to their beauty, that I was drawn to my work. The root of all my work has been an early respect for an enjoyment of a more domestic order-scenery which is to be looked upon contemplatively, and is productive of musing moods.”Report on design for Prospect Park, 1866
Olmsted Now, a consortium of groups that have come together to celebrate Olmsted’s bicentennial, are offering a variety of public programs in the Boston area throughout 2022. The member organizations include the Arnold Arboretum, the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site (Fairsted), the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, the Franklin Park Coalition, and over 100 other institutions.
The National Association of Olmsted Parks is celebrating Olmsted’s birthday nationally. Explore their Olmsted 200 website for information about special events and to learn more about his life, work, and legacy.
We also have an archival collection Records of the Original Design of the Arnold Arboretum Living Collections, related to Olmsted’s work. Please contact the Library for assistance.
The website for the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site at Fairsted in Brookline, Massachusetts contains a wealth of Olmsted related materials, including thousands of digitized images from hundreds of Olmsted firm jobs.
Dr. Ethan Carr has written extensively about Olmsted. Listen to his presentation on Olmsted and Yosemite, as well as the first Arboretum Director’s Lecture of 2022 in which he joined Arboretum archivist Lisa Pearson and landscape architect Rosetta Elkin for a discussion of Birth: the Early History and Meaning of the Arnold Arboretum.