Frederick Law Olmsted; Grandfather of America's parks
In the late 1800s Frederick Law Olmsted was a household word. Everybody knew that he and the British architect Calvert Vaux had laid out the plan of New York's Central Park, the first major city park in America.Skip to next paragraph
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But with time, Olmsted's fame faded. Many of his most beautiful works fell into disrepair. Subsequent generations nearly forgot him as the father of American parks, a designer who literally invented the term ''landscape architecture.''
Yet, so great was Olmsted's concern that crowded city dwellers have open living space, and so intense and far-reaching were his efforts to provide it that hardly a corner of the United States has not been enhanced by him or his firm.
Only recently has a new generation of Americans rediscovered the enormous scope and diversity of Olmsted's lifework.
It takes a visit to his home and office in Brookline, Mass., now open to the public, to learn how much this titan of conservation and design did to beautify America's cities and preserve its wilderness.
In fact, works by Olmsted, his partners, and his successors are so widespread that no one yet knows exactly how many sites they designed in whole or in part.
A list is being compiled. It already shows that his firm participated in public-park designs in 33 states. In Massachusetts alone, where the firm did more work than in any other state, 280 sites bear the Olmsted imprint. These totals don't include Olmsted plans for college campuses, institutions, private estates, work in Canada and Bermuda, or even whole planned communities in the United States.
From the US Capitol grounds in Washington to the Stanford University campus in Stanford, Calif., from Montreal's Mount Royal Park in Quebec to Biltmore, the George Vanderbilt estate in Asheville, N.C., Olmsted planted beauty for others to reap.
Motorists swinging through graceful serpentine curves under arching elms, suburbanites commuting past rushing streams or lakeside vistas, strollers enjoying restful pastoral scenes a step away from the bustle of city life - not to mention the millions who visit Yosemite National Park and Niagara Falls--all owe him a debt of thanks.
In 1883 this widely traveled Connecticut Yankee pulled up stakes at age 61, moved to the Boston suburb of Brookline, and set up shop in a comfortable old farmhouse he loved at first sight. Here he designed Boston's ''Emerald Necklace, '' a sequence of public parks and ponds linked by winding parkways which brought him as much fame as Central Park.
Fairsted, as he dubbed his house and grounds, is so simple and unostentatious that one has to look twice to recognize the very design principles that gave Olmsted prominence.
The front entrance, for example: There's an air of mystery about it--a feature he liked. The Federal-style frame house sits barely 25 feet from a busy street. Yet the high, rustic fence he installed with its unusual arched opening (the arch blew away in a hurricane), combined with the circular drive he carved up to the front door, provides such privacy that passers-by are left to wonder what lies beyond the hemlock-covered hummock in the center of the circular driveway which hides both house and grounds.
Separation of passageways to ensure safety and eliminate conflicting uses was another Olmsted principle. (The transverse roads that convey crosstown traffic inconspicuously across Central Park is an outstanding example.) The only way to drive up to the office, a utilitarian wing added onto the house, is through a separate rear entrance.
Fairsted's grounds reflect Olmsted's reaction against formal landscaping. He disdained trimming evergreens into tight shapes like gumdrops or chicken croquettes.