The 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), April 26, is celebrated nationwide in hundreds of communities who owe him their beloved parks and the landscape architecture business run by his sons. Olmsted – born, raised, influenced and ultimately buried in Hartford – was considered a genius by his peers and contemporaries. He saw every mission in life through lenses – as a journalist, artist, systems analyst, manager, entrepreneur, horticulturist, collaborator, salesman, politician and more.
A few years ago, The Atlantic invited a panel of ten prominent historians to identify the 100 most influential people in American history. Olmsted placed 49th.
Central Park in Manhattan, the masterpiece he created with his partner Calvert Vaux, is arguably the greatest work of art in America’s art capital. Eventually, he established an extremely successful landscaping business. They have designed renowned city parks in Buffalo, Montreal, Boston, Rochester, New Britain, Chicago and more. Also the campuses of the psychiatric hospitals of Hartford, Boston and Buffalo; the grounds of the United States Capitol; the university campuses of Stanford, Berkeley and Smith College; and many large estates – the most famous being the Biltmore estate of George Washington Vanderbilt (whose uncle Cornelius Vanderbilt II is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Hartford).
With Olmsted, there is so much more. Indeed, if his career in landscape architecture had never happened, he would still be an important historical figure. Here’s why.
Olmsted was a late bloomer. His father, a successful dry goods merchant in the then booming town of Hartford, repeatedly provided financial support for his self-made son. Olmsted bounced around at several schools, audited a few classes at Yale but never enrolled, and was a voracious reader who took full advantage of the new library at Hartford’s Young Men’s Institute, where he discovered the writings of influencers. landscaping artists – Uvedale Price, Sir William Kent, William Gilpin, Joseph Addison, Humphrey Repton, Joseph Paxton and the American Andrew Jackson Downing. The Olmsted family has become accustomed to what we would call Sunday walks – his mother with her basket for clippings. The prominent Hartford County Agricultural Society had an active horticultural committee during Olmsted’s youth. In 1848 the Hartford Horticultural Society was founded. A revolution in what they called “scientific farming” was underway, and Connecticut remained very agrarian. Agriculture continued to be the backbone of Connecticut’s economy into the 1850s.
In 1850, Frederick, his brother John and a friend convinced Father Olmsted to sign up for a ‘walking tour’ of England – an experience that changed his life. His account of his adventure, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, was published in London and New York in 1852 and put him on the map among readers of the landscape movement.
It also established him as a writer and journalist so that in 1853, when the newly established New York Times was looking for someone to travel South and report on a world few knew or included in the North, he got the nod, which sent him on a series of trips from Kentucky and Mississippi to Texas. His serialized reports were later repackaged for publication as a series of three books, which in 1861 were condensed into The Cotton Kingdom. Nothing in our literature captures the prewar South like these books do. He described his mission as “the observation of the condition and character of the citizens” as the “primary object when traveling through the slave states”. What he witnessed radicalized him, transforming him from someone who viewed slavery with distinguished distaste into a fervent abolitionist. As such, The Cotton Kingdom has become almost as influential as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both in England and the United States.
Having already designed and built much of Central Park, when war broke out in 1861, Olmsted pivoted again, supporting an unprecedented need for a system and organization of medical care and logistics for a war many times larger. than any previous war. What do you do when wounded warriors arrive from the battlefields by the hundreds? He became the founding director of the United States Sanitary Commission – the forerunner of the Red Cross. His intimate and personal experience – from the Virginia Peninsular countryside to Gettysburg – was traumatic and intense. This resulted in another book, as captivating as anything I’ve ever read about the Civil War.
Throughout this period, Olmsted cobbled together a livelihood. Although already renowned for his work on Central Park, he had yet to make landscape architecture a standalone career.
His next opportunity came in 1863 with an assignment to manage a gold mining property in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas known as the Mariposa Estate. Long story short, it led to him being named chairman of a new Yosemite Valley commission and an assignment from President Lincoln to advocate in writing for what became known as the Yosemite Grant – a report that was the opening act of what eventually became the formation of our National Parks, an institution his son Fred lived long enough to see and influence.
Parks, promoting abolition, forming the Red Cross and the National Park Service – that’s a lot of accomplishment for a latecomer who drank deep from the rich well that was Hartford in the 1830s and 40s Olmsted’s personal mission statement – adopted when he was 24 – read: “I want to make myself useful in the world – to make others happy – to help advance the condition of society. Few have succeeded as much as he did.
Want to learn more and participate in a wreath laying ceremony at Olmsted’s grave in Old North Cemetery?
On the morning of April 23, Connecticut Landmarks and Historic Hartford team up, with a pair of back-to-back lectures by myself and Dr. Donald Poland at Hartford’s Isham-Terry House museum, almost across from where D’s family lived. ‘Olmsted. Then we take a ten minute walk to Old North for wreath laying and commentary.
Learn more and register here.
William Hosley is curator at Historic Hartford.