Walk in the footsteps of landscape artist Olmsted

by Beth J. Harpaz


If you’ve visited parks in New York, Boston or many other places around the U.S., you’ve probably experienced the landscapes of Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted designed hundreds of parks, gardens and other public spaces, including Manhattan’s Central Park, Boston’s “Emerald Necklace,” the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington and California’s Stanford University campus. He’s considered the father of landscape architecture in America, and The North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville honored Olmsted’s work by dedicating a statue of him on April 22.

Landscape architecture didn’t exist in the U.S. before Olmsted began applying principles of horticulture, architecture, engineering, land management, forestry, fine arts and even psychology to create coherent, elegant designs for outdoor spaces. His genius was in creating the illusion of nature in manmade environments. Stroll or drive a meandering road in one of Olmsted’s parks and you may feel like you’re traversing a rustic path that was carved through nature’s own woods and meadows. But virtually every tree, stone, brook and field you encounter was put there by Omsted, by design. Take a photo of a flowering tree by an Olmsted pond with a stone bridge and it’s his eye you can thank for making the shot so picture-perfect.

Olmsted was born in 1822 and grew up in New England. He worked as a farmer, seaman and a journalist, and spent months touring gardens, parks and estates in Europe before undertaking his first project: creating Central Park out of rocks, swamps and hog farms. His 1858 design for Central Park, in collaboration with architect Calvert Vaux, led to commissions for parks all over the country, from Buffalo, New York, to Louisville, Kentucky.

Olmsted was also an early conservation advocate, pressing for preservation of the stunning natural landscapes that would become Yosemite National Park in California. At the same time, he called for roads to make Yosemite accessible to the public. He said it was government’s “political duty” to create parks for “free enjoyment of the people” as respites from everyday life.

In the Boston area, you can soak up Olmsted’s vibe at Jamaica Pond, the Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park. But for a close-up look at the history and tools of Olmsted’s work, head to the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, just outside Boston. The property, also called Fairsted, includes his home in an 1810 farmhouse and the offices of what became the country’s first full-scale landscape architecture firm. The business was continued by his sons and others for decades after his death in 1903.

Touring Fairsted, you’ll see the tools of Olmsted’s trade in the era before computers and Xerox machines: rulers and straight-edges, pencil boxes and ink bottles, and complicated processes for copying blueprints using chemicals and sunlight. Office windows frame verdant views of the grounds, and you can almost imagine draftsmen getting up from their tables to look, then sitting down to work again refreshed, reinforcing Olmsted’s philosophy that “scenes of beauty” spur “reinvigoration.”

For a unique souvenir, check out the stationery in the gift shop inspired by the home’s wallpaper and other design elements. And while you’re strolling the grounds, walk down a flight of stone steps to a shaded hollow with colorful plantings.

The last project of Olmsted’s career, before he succumbed to what was likely Alzheimer’s, was designing the grounds for the Biltmore estate in Asheville. The palatial Biltmore mansion and 50,000-hectare estate, built for George Vanderbilt, is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Today, “Legacy of the Land” tours offered there daily provide an in-depth look at Olmsted’s landscaping, from reforestation of what was clear-cut farmland to invisible components like drainage systems.

But you don’t have to take the Legacy tour to experience one of the Biltmore’s most dramatic features: the 15-kilometer Approach Road that everyone uses to drive in. Olmsted designed the road to create a “sensation (while) passing through the remote depths of a deep forest” leading up to the moment when the mansion would come into view.

“He was an artist,” said Biltmore’s Olmsted expert Bill Alexander. “He created not just scenes, but emotions in his manipulation of the landscape.”

Olmsted envisioned a research arboretum at Biltmore, but it was never built. The North Carolina Arboretum was established nearby by the state in 1986. While the arboretum wasn’t designed by Olmsted, its gardens, vistas, winding roads and woodland trails celebrate his vision. Olmsted’s statue sits on the arboretum’s Blue Ridge Court with a view of the Pisgah National Forest behind it.