Frederick Law Olmsted at 200

Today marks a true cause for celebration — the 200th birthday of the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903).

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that landscape architecture isn’t our typical beat. But some public figures transcend all! And parks as a broader topic are of great concern to me, as they should be to everybody. My dad worked as a groundskeeper as a young man. (He didn’t know it at the time, but his mother Flora Parker was descended from the keepers of the Lancastrian deer parks in the Forest of Bowland, hence the surname). My ex volunteered at our local Brooklyn parks, which of course meant that I wound up doing so too, and that is where and when I first became more invested in them. I have performed in many parks as an actor; and written lots about them on my other blog The Trav-a-Log (most recently just a few days ago). As the p.r. man for the New-York Historical Society I had the honor of meeting and knowing several NYC parks commissioners (Betsy Gotbaum, Henry Stern, and Adrian Benepe). I have been to dozens of NYC’s parks (though hardly all 1,700), walked every inch of Central Park, and made a daily circuit of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park over a period of several years.

Those last items bring us back to Olmsted, for he was the principal designer of both of these heavenly, Eden-like urban refuges, so aesthetically exquisite, balancing nature and artifice, so fine, and yet specifically intended to be enjoyed by The People. Public Parks embody democracy. This was Olmsted’s philosophy. People who live outside of cities think of our parks as being dens of crime. But it’s the opposite. By providing free spaces to relax, exercise and recreate they keep everybody from killing each other!

I am proud to be distantly related to him. One of my (7th) great grandmothers was an Olmstead (different spelling, same family) from Fairfield County, Connecticut. Frederick Law Olmsted was born and raised in Hartford. He went to sea for a time and was a journalist and for a while he lived on a Staten Island farm. I’m delighted to report that his house still stands and was landmarked just a couple of years ago.

The Central Park commission (1850s) set him on his way. Olmstead’s other esteemed projects, located all over the country, are too numerous to name. A couple I’ll mention: the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair grounds (still a park), and the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, NC, which has been used as a location in many films, perhaps most extensively in Hal Ashby’s 1979 adaptation of Jerzy Kosinksi’s Being There. But honestly, this is out of scores or hundreds.

Some related posts I’ve written include this one on Seneca Village (which was razed in order to make way for Central Park, a lesser known negative part of the story); this one about Revolutionary War battle sites in Prospect Park; and this one which features carousels in both parks.

Fittingly, there is a nationwide Frederick Law Olmsted bicentennial celebration underway. To learn more about it and about Olmsted, go here.