The Living Legacy of Frederick

05 Aug 2021

An upcoming 200th anniversary birthday salute to Frederick Law Olmsted

By Elizabeth Sugg

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) was the father of American landscape design. So much of his legacy is entrenched in our everyday 21st century life and its green spaces that inhabit our towns and cities that it requires peeling back the layers of time to appreciate how revolutionary Olmsted’s vision of community parks was, and just how relevant his life’s mission still is. The National Association of Olmsted Parks has organized a 200th birthday celebration of Olmsted called Olmsted 200. Although the 200th anniversary of his birth is 2022, there is much that is already happening across the country that can be enjoyed virtually, and it seems important as Sandhills residents with our own Olmsted village – Pinehurst – that we share in the full span of this commemoration.

Born in Hartford, CT, where his father was a successful merchant with a penchant for traveling, Olmsted tried his hand at various careers before pioneering his work as a landscape architect. He was schooled largely by ministers and briefly attended Yale. But sickness caused him to withdraw after his first semester. For the next 20 years he “gathered experiences,” which helped shape his landscape design: a year-long voyage in the China Trade, farming on Staten Island, reporting for the New York Daily Times, even at one point directing the U.S. Sanitary Commission, forerunner of the American Red Cross. In a career spanning half a century, Olmsted along with his partner Calvert Vaux designed some of the most celebrated landmarks in the U.S., ranging from Central Park in New York and the Emerald Necklace in Boston to the U.S. Capitol Grounds in Washington, D.C., and Jackson Park
in Chicago.

In North Carolina, his landscape design firm created the walkable, tree-lined paths of the historic Village of Pinehurst that wind their way to the town’s center, a place for the community to gather, an important principle to Olmsted. In Asheville one of Olmsted’s final commissions was the 125,000-acre Biltmore Estate, and many regard it as his crown jewel. His vision created promise out of the deforested, barren land that the Vanderbilt family purchased around 1890, producing forestry and agricultural plans in addition to fashioning gardens that would surround the future French Renaissance chateaux.

It was during a six-month walking tour in England that Olmsted took in 1850 that began to shape his thoughts of landscape and its effect on community. In Liverpool, he visited Birkenhead Park, a rare public park, that was open to all. There, Olmsted concluded that park access should be a right of all Americans. “I was struck,” he wrote, by this “democratic development of the highest significance.” This belief became the foundation of his landscape design and consulting work, a career he developed from scratch during the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution was raging.

The depth of Olmsted’s creative vision and his determination to see his plans through are inspiring, and maybe even more deeply moving living amidst one his communities. Here we bear witness to what green spaces such as Tufts Memorial Park mean when events there draw people to Pinehurst, helping the village continue to thrive. So let’s gear up to celebrate Olmsted, and party like it’s 2022!

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