Frederick Law Olmsted: A Man of Vision + Values
Updated: May 3, 2019
When we speak of people who had a vision of greatness for this country, we often think of political leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, or social and labor activists like Martin Luther King and Eugene V. Debs. People who could, through their actions and words, inspire others to get involved and to sacrifice for the greater good. But for every such figure, there have been a multitude of less-sung heroes who also had a vision for this country as a place of equality and fraternity. One such soul was Frederick Law Olmsted, co-creator of Central Park.
Olmsted was an eighth-generation New Englander, whose first job was as a surveyor of the Connecticut woods. After a year of that he went to sea and travelled to China. On his return, he took up farming and was quite successful, writing about his experiments in agriculture for scientific publications, but he saw a greater role for himself in the young countryʼs future. He wanted to help shape it.
Frederick accepted a position with the New York Daily Times and traveled to the south to write about what he saw. He initially went with the intention of viewing slavery with an open mind, but was quickly convinced of the crippling effect slavery had not only on the enslaved, but also on the morals of the slave-owner. He was especially effective in conveying this by simply reporting what he saw.
“A negress was hung this year  in Alabama for the murder of her child. At her trial she confessed her guilt. She said her owner was the father of the child, and that her mistress knew it, and treated her so cruelly in consequence that she had killed it to save it from further suffering, and also to remove a provocation to her own ill-treatment.”
His became active in fighting against the ‘peculiar institution’, purchasing a howitzer and other arms and sending them to the factions fighting to keep Kansas a free-soil state before the big war started. When the Civil War broke out, he formed the Sanitary Commission (forerunner of the Red Cross), where he took on nearly all the responsibilities of establishing it, fund-raising, lobbying and administering the commission. When the battle of Antietam took place, the single-bloodiest day of the war, the Sanitary Commission arrived immediately afterwards with food, supplies and medical teams. It took the army two days longer to arrive with assistance for the wounded. But the work he had taken on was monumental and it had grave effects on his health. His friend George Templeton Strong wrote, “Olmsted is in an unhappy, sick, sore mental state (. . . .) He works like a dog all day and sits up nearly all night. . . works with steady, feverish intensity till four in the morning, sleeps on a sofa in his clothes, and breakfasts on strong coffee and pickles!!!”
Eventually, because his demands to Congress for support of the Commission and his insistence to the Commission’s board of directors on the importance of leadership made him few friends, he was forced out and returned to landscaping. Which was the Commission’s loss and New York’s gain, as his success in establishing Central Park, together with Calvert Vaux, made them both world famous.
Olmstedʼs belief that God was found in nature and that all men were equal there shone through in the planning and establishment of the park. The park was a living work of art and was intended by Olmsted to give all citizens a taste of what the wealthy might travel many miles to enjoy, right in the heart of an overcrowded island. It was also created to be a place where they might find more commonality than differences.
“Is it doubtful that it does men good to come together in this way, in pure air and under the light of heaven? ... The enjoyment of scenery gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration of the whole system.
“...you will find all classes largely represented, with a common purpose... each individual adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of all others, all helping to the greater happiness of each. You may thus often see vast numbers of persons brought closely together, poor and rich, young and old, Jew and Gentile.”
The innovations proposed by Olmstead and Vaux in the plans they submitted to the city for the design of the park’s four transversals were fifty years ahead of their time. Instead of bringing commercial traffic through the park and interrupting the natural beauty so carefully cultivated, they instead routed it under the park, pre-dating any other subterranean traffic by nearly five decades. As a gardener might create ‘roomsʼ by using hedges and bushes, Olmsted did the same by using dynamite and trees. More explosives were used to shape the park than were used at the three-day battle of Gettysburg, and after the dust had settled, he planted nearly 200 varieties of trees, placing them with meticulous care. As the trees grew, the park developed in a way that was natural and idyllic, just as he had intended.
Olmsted dedicated the rest of his life to bringing beauty to the people via his curation of public spaces across the country and continent. The Mall in Washington, D.C., Riverside Park in Chicago, Belle Isle in Detroit, the connected park systems of Buffalo and Louisville, Mount Royal in Montreal, the master plan for UC-Berkeley campus and the main quad at Stanford, are just some of the green spaces he brought to North America. But it was Central Park that was first, and it showed that any self-respecting city council could provide its citizens with a place of tranquility and beauty where all could meet as equals and enjoy the calming beauty of nature. We thank you, Frederick Law Olmsted.