Monday, August 4, 2014

What is the Olmsted Legacy?

This year the State Botanical Garden is working with the Southern Garden History Society to present two complementary events at the Garden: The Johnstone Lecture and the Southern Garden Heritage Conference. The shared theme is “The Olmsted Legacy”.  But what is the Olmsted legacy?

The Olmsted Legacy is the influence of one family that was instrumental in crafting the profession of landscape architecture and championing conservation from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries. Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., born in 1822, had many professions, including farmer, sailor, and writer of anti-slavery dispatches from the South to the New York Times. In 1857 he became the superintendent of New York's Central Park. At that time urban green spaces were segments of land reserved to handle runoff in developed areas, hold reservoirs of drinking water for growing populations, or undesirable for development. It was also a time of growing concern for the mental and physical health of a nation quickly becoming industrialized. After visiting public grounds in Europe, it seemed obvious to Olmsted that there were great psychological and societal benefits to nature and parks.

Young architect Calvert Vaux asked Olmsted to join forces with him to enter the Central Park Design competition. Among 33 entries, their entry won. Olmsted and Vaux took on the job of overseeing the construction of the first landscaped public park in the United States and stayed business partners for over a decade. Olmsted and Vaux designed much more than plantings; they created streams, bridges, and winding paths within a natural, picturesque landscape. Although the detail was exquisite, the designs suited the site, feeling comfortable and natural. It took work and creativity to create a feeling of rustic simplicity.

Olmsted was a combination of idealist and problem solver and held strong convictions, leaving and returning to New York City positions many times. During the Civil War he ran the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross. Later, he moved to California, which inspired him to be involved in the conservation movement and the creation of the National Park System before returning to the City of New York as their landscape architect.

Olmsted married Mary, his brother's widow, shortly after winning the Central Park competition and adopted her children, including his seven-year-old nephew John Charles Olmsted. The new family moved into a house in the middle of Central Park. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. was born to the couple in 1870. The two half-brothers had an 18 year difference in age, but both joined Olmsted, bringing the Olmsted Legacy well into the next century.

John Charles Olmsted became a full partner in the Olmsted firm in 1884. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. graduated Harvard ten years later, then spent 13 months on site at Biltmore, an estate Frederick Law Olmsted was designing for George Vanderbilt in North Carolina. In 1895 he joined his father’s firm. Although Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. is considered 'the Father of Landscape Architecture', his sons were instrumental in creating the profession as founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. helped establish Harvard’s landscape architecture program. When the father retired in 1898, the two half-brothers created Olmsted Brothers. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. took over the firm after John Charles' death in 1920, and then retired in 1949, leaving his partners to carry on as Olmsted Associates.

From the Central Park Competition in 1858 well into the next century, the Olmsted legacy materialized in projects throughout the country. In 1980 the National Park Service took over Fairsted, Olmsted’s home and the first landscape architecture office in America. With the buildings were 150,000 drawings, photos, and documents for 5,000 design projects in 45 states. Olmsted projects included public parks such as Boston’s Emerald Necklace and Central Park, created to make nature and beauty available to everyone. Estates, public buildings and college campuses such as Biltmore, The U.S. Capitol, and Duke University, were functional landscapes that respected the site and magnificent architecture. Olmsted projects also included community planning, such as Palos Verdes, CA and Druid Hills in Atlanta, which increased in value and beauty over many decades, as well as the utopian World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Kirk Brown as Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.
The Johnstone Lecture, a free annual event at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens, honors the Garden's first director, Francis E. Johnstone, Jr. This year, on Thursday November 13, Kirk Brown will portray Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.  A reception following the 7 pm lecture gives attendees the opportunity to chat with Olmsted himself, a flawed genius who influenced this country to create national parks and city park systems, defined the profession of landscape architecture, and championed a design style that works with a site to enhance its natural features. He left us exquisite landscapes enjoyed by many and written windows into the 19th century. Although the event is free, please make reservations online at. at, 706-542-9353 or

The following day, Friday, November 14, is the all-day Southern Garden Heritage Conference:  Olmsted’s Legacy in the South at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia.  Presentations by Lucy Lawliss of the National Park Service, Bill Alexander of The Biltmore Estate, Spencer Tunnell of Tunnell and Tunnell in Atlanta, Kirk Brown, Andrew Kohr and others will speak of the Olmsted Legacy in the Southeast. Register for this $115 event at or 706-542-6156. This conference is sponsored by The State Botanical Garden of Georgia and University of Georgia College of Environment and Design in cooperation with The Garden Club of Georgia, Inc., Friends of The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, Cherokee Garden Library at the Atlanta History Center, and the Southern Garden History Society.

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