Through his writing, his farming experience, and his social and publishing contacts, Olmsted had established the credentials that won him the Central Park directorship in September 1857. Half the battle was won. He still had to fight for the new park’s design.
To his benefit, the architect Calvert Vaux solicited Olmsted to partner with him in the design competition. The London-born Vaux had won substantial recognition when he came to work as Andrew Jackson Downing’s assistant seven years earlier. After his initial hesitation, Olmsted joined forces with Vaux. The two men were awarded the design along with a $2,000 prize ($60,000 in today’s money) in April, 1858. Their plan had to accommodate the traffic of a large city while affording a 700-acre country-like setting to the park’s visitors. The designers did this largely by building four transverse roads that ran beneath pedestrian traffic.
Olmsted biographer Laura Roper highlighted the fact that the label “landscape architect” was new to the American lexicon:
With Central Park, Vaux and Olmsted stood at the beginning of the life work that was to raise them and their calling to recognized professional standing. Olmsted understood well that this first essay in the creation of beautiful and extensive landscape for public enjoyment was an important departure for the art in the United States, making its benefits available not to a privileged few but to citizens generally. – Roper, FLO, A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, p. 144 (emphasis added).
While Vaux’s name is seldom mentioned when commentators speak of Central Park, Vaux’s contribution was every bit equal to that of Olmsted.
Over the next nine years, Olmsted worked off and on with Vaux on the Central Park project. The “off” came with the Civil War, when Olmsted directed his energies to the private Sanitary Commission, a medical philanthropy that provided severely needed support to the Union army during the Civil War. Olmsted served as Executive Secretary of the commission. Both in New York and on the battlefield, Olmsted found his greatest obstacles were political – Central Park’s controller in New York and a host of politicians, especially the army’s surgeon general, in Washington. In both instances, Olmsted learned to work around the obstacles. During the Civil War, he won praise from both Lincoln and Grant for his work on behalf of the troops.
Despite his contribution to the care of the Union soldiers, Olmsted grew tired of the politics, and was persuaded by Charles Dana in August, 1863, to take leadership of the Mariposa Company, the struggling gold mining company that occupied 70 square miles in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The land had originally been claimed in 1847 by John Fremont, the adventurer who ran as the Republican Party’s first candidate for President in 1856. Whether due to too little gold or poor business acumen, Fremont managed only to run up debts. Despite Olmsted’s best efforts, the mining company remained unprofitable, and Olmsted left his post in the fall of 1865.
Olmsted did not leave California empty-handed. While there, he fell in love with Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias. He wrote in support of protecting the land from private development. His work earned him appointment to the first Yosemite Commission. For the rest of his life, he continued to support the landmark’s preservation for public enjoyment. (Yosemite was designated as a National Park in 1890.)
In the summer of 1865, Olmsted and Vaux were reappointed as landscape architects to Central Park. With an annual salary of $5,000 (at a time when the average annual wage was around $350), Olmsted could return to the profession for which he was most suited. With the rebellion and Mariposa behind him, he was ready to build his legacy as America’s premier landscape architect. That legacy included parks in Boston, Buffalo, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Milwaukee, among others.
He did miss the mark once when he said San Francisco’s climate and topography precluded construction of any park similar to New York’s. Mining engineer William Hammon Hall proved him wrong with Golden Gate Park. But unlike many inflated egos, Olmsted later confessed error and had only praise for the accomplishment. Olmsted’s work included a proposal ultimately put into effect at the United States Capitol – broad marble terraces on each side of the Capitol Building, providing a formal transition from the building to the mall extending to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
Whether one visits New York City or San Francisco, the nation’s capital or Yosemite – to mention only a few – the visitor likely sees some significant contribution by America’s preeminent landscape architect. His legacy continues to reward those of us fortunate enough to witness his achievements.
- Roper, Laura Wood, FLO, A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore: 1973).
- Martin, Justin, Genius of Place, Da Capo Press (Philadelphia: 2011).
- Rybczynski, Witold, Clearing in the Distance, Scribner (New York: 1999).