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Frederick Law Olmsted
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Frederick Law Olmstead @ National Geographic Magazine
By John G. MitchellPhotographs by Melissa Farlow

Frederick Law Olmsted was America's best known landscape architect. Writer, engineer, and visionary, he became a driving force behind many of America's urban parks.

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Years earlier he had chosen the site for its natural features, for its lofty oaks and shagbark hickories, for the dappled green and gentle slope of Wellington Hill. These were his signature touches: a palette of light and shadow, the subtle layering of textures, a pastoral centerpiece edged with the leafy mysteries of the picturesque. He believed his plan might offer a measure of tranquility to the McLean Hospital's mental patients. But now he was one of them, and the effect on him was anything but tranquil.
Near the end of a long life otherwise steeped in serendipitous good luck and brilliant achievement, Frederick Law Olmsted—maker of our nation's first great urban parks and founding father of landscape architecture in America—succumbed to a senile dementia so severe it demanded his confinement in this institution he had intended for others a generation before. The year was 1898; the place, Belmont, Massachusetts, not far from Boston. There, asylum staff watched over Olmsted among a cluster of cottages, one called Hope. The name had no relevance to his prognosis. Accompanied by a nurse or a family member, he strolled the grounds, his gift for observation not yet so dulled that he failed to note certain deviations from his original concept. "They didn't carry out my plans," he complained to his family. "Confound them!"
How bitterly in his bouts of paranoia Olmsted must have scorned the memory of a handful of other clients who failed to carry out his plans, confound them! Or were there moments at Belmont when a fading mind might have recalled the prouder legacies of a gifted career? Surely he could not forget the parks that had brought light and air and community soul to the crowded poor of Boston and Buffalo and Louisville and New York, among a score of cities. No forgetting some of the other designs his genius had wrought: of campuses and great estates, cemeteries and arboretums, the serene grounds of the United States Capitol, the grand esplanades of the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893, the nation's first parkway (in New York), one of the first planned suburbs with curvilinear streets (Riverside, Illinois), the reports demanding that Yosemite Valley and Niagara Falls be saved from the spoilers at a period in our history when commercial vandalism was even more in vogue than it is today. 

Among the many tributes to this body of work, Olmsted might have remembered snatches of an editorial in Garden and Forest magazine hailing him, in the year of the Chicago exposition, as "the foremost artist which the New World has yet produced." Still, though "millions of people now unborn will find rest and refreshment in the contemplation of smiling landscapes which he has made," the "memory of his name and personality may be dimmed in the passage of years, for it is the fate of architects to be lost in their work." 

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Flashback to 1860 when the U.S. Capitol building awaited its cast-iron dome of restoration and the surrounding grounds awaited Frederick Law Olmsted's designing touch.

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More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
When you go to the local state or county fair you probably at one point or another make your way to the midway with its carnival rides, sideshows, and games of chance. Did you know that the origin of the term "midway" can be traced to the work of Frederick Law Olmsted? In 1870 the South Park Commission of Chicago hired Olmsted to plan a large park stretching inland from Lake Michigan. Olmsted envisioned two main divisions. The Lower Division (today's Jackson Park) would focus on a lagoon and the Upper Division (today's Washington Park) would center on a large open meadow. Connecting the two would be a 600-foot-wide (200-meter-wide) strip of land with trees and footpaths on either side of a waterway that would run down the middle. Olmsted called this strip of land the Midway Plaisance.
The great Chicago fire of 1871 prevented Olmsted's plan from being carried out. But two decades later when he was asked to provide the design for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Olmsted incorporated his Midway Plaisance into that design. This time, though, the narrow connector would not serve as a quiet peaceful transition from one section of a park to another but instead would serve as the entertainment district for the exposition. Olmsted wanted to concentrate the noisy and disturbing attractions there so as not to take away from the grand park-like atmosphere of the rest of the grounds. Visitors went to the Midway Plaisance to ride the world's first Ferris wheel, see exotic dancers perform, cheer on Harry Houdini, and sample Juicy Fruit and Cracker Jacks for the first time. Thus the use of the term "midway" for (as Webster's dictionary states) "an avenue at a fair, carnival, or amusement park for concessions and amusements."
—Abigail A. Tipton
Did You Know?

Related Links
National Association for Olmsted Parks
The National Association for Olmsted Parks is dedicated to preserving Olmsted's legacy through education and technical assistance. Its website contains biographical information, a partial list of the Olmsted firm's projects, and links to other sites of interest to Olmsted scholars.
Olmsted Research Guide Online
This site offers an Internet searchable database of existing records related to Olmsted's design work.
Library of Congress Photographs
Want to see some early photographs of Olmsted's design projects? Visit this online collection of more than 500 slides of his work.

Biltmore Estate
Discover one of America's largest homes online and take a virtual tour through one of the gardens Olmsted designed.


Barlow, Elizabeth. Frederick Law Olmsted's New York. Praeger Publishers, 1972.
Beveridge, Charles E. Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape. Universe, 1998.
Hall, Lee. Olmsted's America: An "Unpractical" Man and His Vision of Civilization. Bulfinch Press, 1995.
McLaughlin, Charles Capen, and Charles E. Beveridge. The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted. 6 vols. John Hopkins University Press, 1977-1992.
Miller, Sara Cedar. Central Park: An American Masterpiece. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003.
Stevenson, Elizabeth. Park Maker: A Life of Frederick Law Olmsted. Macmillan Publishing Co., 1977.
Roper, Faura Wood. FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
Rybczynski, Witold. A Clearing in the Distance. Scribner, 1999.


NGS Resources
Ricks, Byron. "Touch and Go in Iceberg Alley." National Geographic Adventure (June/July 2002), 28-30, 32.
Cecil, William Vanderbilt. "Biltmore Estate." National Geographic Traveler (October 2001), 162-3.
Broyard, Bliss. "Perfect Park." National Geographic Traveler (May/June 2001), 34-7.
Swerdlow, Joel L. "Central Park: Oasis in the City." National Geographic (May 1993), 2-37.
Wilson, Ernest H. "The Kingdom of Flowers: An Account of the Wealth of Trees and Shrubs of China and of What the Arnold Arboretum, with China's Help, Is Doing to Enrich America." National Geographic (November 1911), 1003-35.


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