Frederick Law Olmsted; Grandfather of America's parks

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

At first glance the clump of trees that climb a little hill to the left of the house look like any New England woods. But a closer look reveals that this small patch of rustic scenery with its rambling path has been enriched by plantings of different colors and textures: white birches, dark evergreens, glossy-leafed flowering shrubs. The ground cover, scilla, bursts into a carpet of brilliant blue blossoms in spring. Olmsted's great city parks feature this sort of enhanced natural setting.

He also liked to create an illusion of spaciousness. By opening a vista beyond a stone wall at the edge of his lawn at Fairsted he borrowed a sweeping uphill view of the estate next door to make his own more modest property seem larger than it really is.

The past decade particularly has seen a surge of fresh interest in Olmsted's genius. In 1972, on the 150th anniversary of his birth, he was celebrated as never before. In 1979 Congress authorized the National Park Service to buy and operate Fairsted as a national treasure. Its acquisition illustrates a new NPS emphasis on honoring, not only the memory of presidents, military heroes, and battlefields, but also sites that reflect the cultural history of the country.

Shary Paige Berg, park manager of the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, points out that this landscape architect, like his curving roadways and woodland walks, rambled for many years before finding his special niche.

''His life was as diverse as his contributions to the nation,'' Ms. Berg says. ''He tried out a little bit of everything.'' Olmstead, born in Hartford, Conn., in 1822, the son of a well-to-do merchant, was a gifted writer despite his scanty formal education. An eye problem prevented him from attending Yale University for more than a few weeks at a time. But he got to know his brother's friends there, and became part of New York's literary circle. One reason for Olmsted's early fame was that he not only designed beautiful settings but also wrote movingly about them.

As a young man he shipped to China as a sailor, worked in a dry-goods store in New York (he found that stifling), spent some time as an editor of Putnam's Magazine, worked a farm his father gave him. Bored again, he went off to England. Out of that came one of his first major literary projects, a book called ''Walks and Talks with an American Farmer in England.''

A keen observer of nature and social conditions, he was much impressed by the new Birkenhead Park in Liverpool. Until then, public lands had been owned by the nobility and were used by only a small fraction of the population. Birkenhead Park broke new ground in the movement to provide open space ''to promote the health and comfort'' of all the city's inhabitants.

Olmsted wrote about that new concept, too. In 1857 he returned to New York. It was then that he and Vaux, his partner for many years, began their first effort. They wrought Central Park from 840 rocky, hilly, swampy acres of Manhattan at a time when the city had barely progressed north of 14th Street.

During the Civil War Olmsted became executive secretary of the US Sanitary Commission, forerunner of the American Red Cross.

''He did that with great intensity, as he did most other things,'' Ms. Berg explains, ''became exhausted, and went off to California to manage a mining estate near Yosemite Valley. Even in the 1860s, when it was so remote, he was desperately worried that it would be spoiled.''

As chairman of the commission set up to make recommendations to preserve the valley, he wrote his famous Yosemite report, a landmark essay eloquently pleading that this land be preserved and that preservation of such extraordinary wilderness areas become the responsibility of the federal government.

''We in the National Park Service credit Olmsted with setting forth the basic principles of the Park Service,'' Ms. Berg says. ''The idea of balancing preservation and use - the key to the whole Park Service - comes out of that original Yosemite essay. He was just an incredible man with very diverse interests.''

Olmsted married his brother's widow. When the family moved to Fairsted, her son, John Charles, became his primary assistant. Olmsted also worked closely with the talented young landscape architect Charles Eliot, son of a Harvard University president, who was a partner of the firm for a time. Had Eliot not passed on at an early age, many believe he would have become as famous as Olmsted himself.

In 1895 Olmsted retired.But under the direction of his stepson and, later, his son, Frederick Jr., the firm carried on here until 1979, when the property was taken over by the Park Service.

Olmsted's park settings are so naturalistic they appear to have just happened. But their casualness was carefully constructed. He was equally meticulous as a record keeper of his voluminous works.

''What we consider the most important thing here,'' explains Ms. Berg, ''is not the buildings, which is the typical thing, but the archives. The correspondence and other written records of the firm have gone to the Library of Congress. But all the visual records of the firm's 5,000 jobs - 115,000 plans and 25,000 photographs - are here.'' Each plan is not only filed and card-indexed alphabetically, but also cross-referenced geographically and by subject.

The office wing of the house looks as if the partners had just stepped out for lunch. Their instruments and the working drawings of Boston's famous linear park lie on drafting tables. Unlike Central Park, which is a single park, in Boston Olmsted designed a park system. It starts at the pre-Olmsted Boston Common and Garden, strikes straight as an arrow down Commonwealth Mall, winds through the Fenway, Jamaica Pond, the Arnold Arboretum, and climaxes in the 527 -acre Franklin Park. Ms. Berg regards the latter as ''the best example of his mature work,'' surpassing in quality even Prospect Park in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The windows of this long drafting room overlook a miniature hollow where Olmsted tried out ideas that later showed up in some of his parks.

One room of the two-story office is lined floor to ceiling with neatly labeled drawers. Pull out any one of them and out spill photos, plans, and documents of some particular job.

But the most astonishing sight is the three-story, fireproof, brick vault added to the to house to hold the thousands of drawings, all rolled up on tiny dowels that stick out from chock-full shelves.

''These plans are the key to all these parks,'' Ms. Berg explains. ''They are a tool to help people understand the parks and to restore them to their original condition.'' And now at last they are being sought out by cities, historians, and students. Last year more than 1,000 inquiries were received about the archives and 250 people studied them on site.

The trouble is that about 10 years ago the vault's furnace broke down and the vault has been unheated ever since. It is icy in winter and sizzling in summer. Documents are deteriorating from mold and mildew. Some plans are too fragile even to unroll. Many of the nitrate negatives of photographs are beyond repair. ''One of our biggest projects is to get the files in the vault straightened out, '' says Ms. Berg. And as soon as funds are available, she plans to install temperature and humidity controls in the vault.

''We are now in the midst of a major program to copy the negatives that haven't been completely spoiled,'' she explains. So far the Park Service has had enough money to copy onto permanent modern film only 6,000 of the 25,000 negatives. As a stopgap measure, Ms. Berg has had large industrial refrigerators moved in to hold the negatives.

The National Park Service is not alone in the battle to preserve the files. Interest in the Olmstead archives has become nationwide. The National Association for Olmsted Parks (NAOP), headquartered in New York, is a nonprofit, private group of local affiliates that sprang into being two years ago. It is now seeking grant money to enable the Park Service to finish the preservation project.

Officials of NAOP say that the ''large and growing body of Olmstediana . . . provides a major part of the history of landscape architecture in America. It constitutes the most extensive and important statement on the role of open space in urban society, past, present, and future, we are likely ever to have.''

The archives are not all that need to be saved. Many Olsted parks today cry out for restoration. More than 400 people from across the country attended last year's national conference of NAOP in Boston. Out of that conference emerged a new affiliate of NAOP, the Massachusestts Association for Olmsted Parks. It is dedicated to restoring the 280 Olmsted parks in this state.

Physical improvement of the Bay State's parks is a major concern of MAOP. But Betsy Shure Gross, cochairman of the NAOP, explains that even if maintenance funds were not at a low ebb due to economic conditions, ''it would take an army to maintain the parks as they are now mistreated by the public. The public has got to respect these spaces and not treat them as vacant lots.''

Olmsted himself, recognizing that the public needed to be educated to appreciate public living space, advised that there should be a force of ''park keepers'' to patrol the large public parks of his design.

In 1979 New York City Parks Commissioner Gordon J. Davis reintroduced these keepers, calling them ''Urban Park Rangers.'' Their purpose, as in Olmsted's day , is to be a uniformed presence to encourage obedience to park regulations, to teach people how to use park property fairly, and to fulfill their maintenance responsibility toward it. New York now has some 200 of these park rangers on horses, in vehicles, and on foot in the largest parks of all five boroughs. They are paid by city tax dollars. They cooperate with the police but do not replace them.

The program has worked so successfully in returning the parks, particularly Central Park, to full use by the public that MAOP is now trying to put urban park rangers in Boston's parks. It has designed a 13-week pilot program to patrol the Boston Common, the Public Garden, and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall this summer. Mrs. Gross is now trying to raise enough money to fund this experiment.

In the meantime, she is using Fairsted as a gallery for displaying photographs and drawings from the Olmsted archives, conducting lecture series on his work, repairing the house, and restoring the grounds here at 99 Warren Street. By opening the property every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from noon to 4:30 p.m., she is inviting the public to view the restoration process. National Park Service Rangers are on hand to interpret this national historic site to the public. It is probably safe to say that this groundswell of appreciation of America's public parks would certainly have pleased Olmsted, the ever-enthusisastic master parkmaker.

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