Gifts to America

Frederick Law Olmstead inherited a love of nature, people, and places from his father. Little did he know until later in life that this love would become his career passion. And as a result, America has benefitted from that passion.

Olmstead had intended to attend Yale but Sumac poisoning harmed his vision so his college plans were forgotten. Olmstead decided to pursue a career in journalism. One assignment involved a trip to England where Olmstead wrote of the gardens he visited. This work led to Olmstead becoming a friend to the publisher of the horticulturist who proposed the creation of a park in the center of NYC. Olmstead was introduced to Calver Vaux, a noted landscape architect and together they entered the design competition for Central Park in NYC. Olmstead had never done any design work at the time.

They won the competition. Olmstead had a strong social consciousness, and this led to new principles of park design. The concept of a public park accessible to everyone, no matter their status, was not an accepted practice in park design.

Olmstead and Vaux continued their collaboration once Central Park was completed. They designed parks in Chicago, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Niagara Falls and many many other locations. Olmstead also imagined systems of parks and parkways connecting cities and green spaces. He also was involved in the design of campuses for universities such as Wellesley College, Smith College, Stanford University and the University of Chicago.

Olmstead was a conservationist and was an advocate for setting aside land for public enjoyment. Yosemite Valley was one of his earliest successes of land preservation.

Frederick Olmstead was an icon for the possibility of maintaining/preserving natural space which is protected from commercial encroachment. His design principles focused on creating space for relaxation. He never wanted his designs to call attention to themselves. In effect, he created places we could visit and imagine possibilities for ourselves and others.

Olmstead was democratic in his work. He wanted designs that all could enjoy. Often the parks he designed were places where people of all walks of life could come together. In effect, his parks were often one of the few places where society came together.

Just imagine where we would be if there were no remaining places of calm where we could go for a change of pace in our lives? Just imagine if only the elite in our society could enjoy special places we now know as parks? Just imagine the special memories that have come from visits to these special places which are reserved for all of us?

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The landscape becomes human, becomes a thinking, living being within me.
– Paul Cezanne (Impressionist painter)

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