About Frederick Law Olmsted
Frederick Law Olmsted has long been recognized as one of America's greatest Landscape Architects, with a legacy of beloved parks and outdoor spaces across the nation. Most people recognize his name and that he is the "co designer" of Central Park in New York City, but what many do not know is that he is a Connecticut native, that he was raised in Hartford’s north end, and is interred in Old North Cemetery in Hartford.
Recognized as the father of Landscape Architecture in the United States, Frederick Law Olmsted designed not only Central Park but also the U.S. Capital Grounds, Boston Fens, Stanford University Campus, Prospect Park, Brooklyn NY, the suburb of Riverside Illinois, the grounds of the 1893 Columbia Exposition and many other important parks and places.
He left his mark in Connecticut as well. Parks and properties designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (with various partners) include:
Walnut Hill Park - New Britain
Seaside Park – Bridgeport
Beardsley Park – Bridgeport
The Institute of Living – Hartford
Olmsted had lofty goals and aspired to bring the rural countryside to urban dwellers. He believed that the parks he created were a place where people from all walks of life could come together to enjoy fresh air, panoramic views and the inspirational beauty of nature. He further believed in the transformational power of nature and the ability of public parks to enrich people’s lives.
Frederick Law Olmsted was born in Hartford on April 26, 1822. He was the first child of John Olmsted, a successful dry goods merchant, and Charlotte Law Hull Olmsted, both from established families in the area. Soon after the birth of his brother John Hull Olmsted in 1825, his mother died. His father soon remarried and the family grew. Years later Olmsted remembered his youth fondly and how it affected his life:
"I can see that my pleasure began to be affected by conditions of scenery at an early age, long before it could have been suspected by others from anything that I said and before I began to mentally connect the cause and effect of enjoyment in it."
He attended schools in several Connecticut towns, and he received a good basic education. In 1840 he studied surveying in Collinsville but later said that most of his time was spent fishing and hunting in the countryside.
Although his formal education was erratic, as a child Olmsted developed the ability to “read” and assess the possibilities of a landscape while travelling with his parents in the Connecticut River Valley, visiting family in the state, and living in various towns in Connecticut. These traits are extremely valuable skills for a landscape architect, enabling an assessment of a site, understanding of the desires and needs of a client, and communicating ideas with others. All these skills were nurtured during his youth in Connecticut.
One of his joys as a child was travelling with his family “in search of scenery.” The family traveled often with their own horse and carriage through the Connecticut River Valley, and to New York State and the Maine coast. Olmsted later wrote:
“The happiest recollections of my early life are the walks and rides I had with my father and the drives with my father and mother in the woods and fields. Sometimes these were quite extended, and really tours in search of the picturesque”.
In the fall of 1845, he attended lectures at Yale and for experience in farming, he worked and studied with Joseph Welton at his farm in Waterbury. This was an opportunity to learn first-hand the skills of grading and drainage. In 1846, his father bought him a seventy-acre farm on Sachem’s Head in Guilford, which went down to the rocky edge of Long Island Sound.
As Olmsted matured, his interests and his work took him away from Connecticut. He eventually married and had a son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. He also raised his stepson, John Charles Olmsted. They both eventually joined him in his practice. The Olmsted Brothers continued the legacy of the Olmsted firm into the mid 20th century.
If Frederick Olmsted had confined his energy and talents to the field of Landscape Architecture he would still be one of America’s greatest citizens, but in fact, his legacy goes beyond. In his lifetime he was also an accomplished journalist: his essays on the culture of the south and slavery are still considered indispensable. His incredible talents at organizing large complex operations led him from managing the development of Central Park to running a mine in California. During the Civil War, he was the Executive Secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission, which was to become the American Red Cross.
In 1903, after a long illness, Olmsted died in the McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. He had prepared a plan for the grounds of this facility earlier, which was never built. His ashes were deposited in the family vault in Old North Cemetery in Hartford and remain there to this day.
In 2005, the State of Connecticut (through the efforts of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects) honored Olmsted by establishing April 26 (his birthday) as Connecticut Olmsted day.