Olmsted online - the Gilded Age’s most famous landscape architect goes digital at the Library of Con
“An early believer in the soothing effects of natural oases hidden amongst urban sprawl,” Olmsted also designed the landscapes of many country estates
Born in 1822, Frederick Law Olmsted (Sr.), led a prolific career in a field he essentially created – that of landscape architecture in the United States. Olmsted had many predecessors, mostly in England and continental Europe, from which he drew much of his early learning, but during his early years Olmsted also traveled extensively, ran a farm in upstate New York, and toured the South writing about slavery. So even prior to executing his first contract as a landscape architect – the design and construction of New York City’s Central Park in 1852 – Olmsted had already built a large archive of his personal views through his writings.
In the United States, Boston Common (in Boston, Massachusetts) is regularly considered to be the first public park. Dating to 1634, this plot of land in what is now central Boston was held "in common" for use by the public, primarily for cattle grazing and occasionally for militia exercises. By the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century (in New England), rural garden cemeteries—such as Mount Auburn Cemetery outside of Boston (1831)—were designed to provide crucial space for the increasing number of burials in growing urban areas and to provide passive recreation grounds for those who resided in these cities. By the mid-19th century, however, the very forward-looking Olmsted realized that cities needed open "natural" spaces specifically designed to provide city residents with the benefits of a stroll through nature.
The island of Manhattan, with its forest of increasingly tall skyscrapers, has an exclamation point in the form of Central Park. Never mind that the park in its inception was far north of the main areas of the city’s development. The park is now such an iconic feature of the urban landscape of New York.
As urban centers in the United States fell into decline during the 1960s and ‘70s, public spaces such as Central Park, Bryant Park, and others in New York, for example, fell into disrepair and added crime to the parks’ offerings. Numerous local grassroots organizations in cities around the country led efforts to revitalize urban parks, with eventual support by local and state governments. But citizen-led non-profit organizations have long been the primary supporters of and advocates for urban parks.
In New York, the Central Park Conservancy has been a leader in the protection, restoration, and revitalization of Central Park since 1980. The National Association for Olmsted Parks has been focused on the legacy of Olmsted, Sr., including his archives, his landscape plans for public parks, and other writings and endeavors. And the Library of Congress recently announced its online collection of documents related to all aspects of the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., including his plans for Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, the US Capitol Grounds in Washington, DC and numerous other projects. The LOC timed the digitization of some 24,000 Olmsted-related documents in preparation of the upcoming 2022 celebration of the 100th anniversary of Olmsted’s birth.
By Meilan Solly
July 31, 2018
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