Our friends at First Things have graciously permitted us to post a preview of this wonderful piece on Frederick Law Olmsted here on The New Criterion. We hope you enjoy it!
The achievement of Frederick Law Olmsted is so stupendous that one cannot stand far enough back to take it all in. First there are the parks—Manhattan’s Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Boston’s “Emerald Necklace,” Chicago’s Jackson Park, Montreal’s Mount Royal, to name only the most prominent. These have indelibly shaped our notion of what a city park is—an ensemble of meadows, trees, and water arranged for the purposes of recreation, aesthetic pleasure, and public health.
But Olmsted also gave us Riverside, Illinois, the prototype for that other familiar object of the American landscape, the planned community. As the writer of the study that created Yosemite National Park, he can be regarded as the spiritual founder for the national park system. In the end, Olmsted defies criticism. How can one evaluate a landscape architect whose greatest achievement was to create the profession of landscape architecture itself?
The material for a comprehensive evaluation is now at hand. Beginning in 1977, the Frederick Law Olmsted Papers Project has published eleven volumes of his copious writings; the final two volumes are to present the visual material. The first of these has now appeared, Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks, which reproduces the plans, sketches, and photographs of thirty-one of his most important projects. Here is as attractive a graphic record of his achievement as we are likely to get.
Olmsted was thirty-six when his plan for Central Park was accepted, and he had no formal training in landscape architecture. Nor had anyone else, for at that time, parks were laid out by architects, gardeners, or surveyors. Up to that point, he had led a highly erratic life, filled with false starts and brave experiments that make for fascinating biography. Fortunately, there are two very good ones, one by Laura Wood Roper (1973) and another by Witold Rybczynski (1999), and they demonstrate that one cannot make sense of the second half of Olmsted’s life without understanding the first.
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