Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Olmsted, Frederick Law

Appletons' Olmsted Frederick Law.jpg
Appletons' Olmsted Frederick Law signature.jpg

OLMSTED, Frederick Law, landscape-architect, b. in Hartford, Conn., 26 April, 1822. He followed courses of special study in engineering and agriculture at Yale during 1845-'6, and then became a laborer on a farm in central New York, in order to acquire a practical knowledge of the details of agriculture. Subsequently he conducted a farm of his own on Staten island, and contributed articles to periodicals on rural subjects. His attention being directed to the art of landscape-gardening and architecture, he made a pedestrian tour through Great Britain and parts of continental Europe in 1850 for the purpose of observing closely the agriculture and ornamental grounds of the various countries. Some account of this journey is given in “Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England” (New York, 1852). In 1853-'3 he travelled, mostly on horseback, through the southern and southwestern states, for the purpose of examining their agricultural resources, and also in order to study the effects of slavery upon agriculture. His observation and conclusions were given to the public in a series of letters, and these were issued as “A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, with Remarks on their Economy” (1856). Later he published “A Journey through Texas, or a Saddle Trip on the Southwestern Frontier, with a Statistical Appendix” (1857) and “A Journey in the Back Country” (1860). When the civil war broke out in 1861 a condensed edition of these works was issued in London under the title of “The Cotton Kingdom” (2 vols., 1861), which was much quoted in the controversies that followed. A commission was formed in 1856 under an act of the New York legislature for the construction of a large central park in New York city, and Mr. Olmsted was appointed superintendent. In 1857 premiums were offered by the commission for the best plans for the ground, and, of thirty-four that were sent in, the highest prize was awarded to the one that was prepared by Mr. Olmsted in conjunction with Calvert Vaux. He was then engaged until 1861 in managing the construction of the park upon this plan, with the title of landscape-architect. In 1861 he was appointed a member of the commission of inquiry and advice in regard to the sanitary condition of the U. S. forces. He was elected its general secretary, with the duty of organizing and controlling its executive service and taking charge of confidential communications between the commission and the government. During 1861-'4 he resided in Washington, and in behalf of the commission was active in securing needed legislation in regard to the army and navy. He made many visits to armies in the field, had large correspondence, and prepared confidential reports as to their condition and wants, many of which were published. See Charles J. Stillé's “History of the U. S. Sanitary Commission” (Philadelphia, 1866). After the war he took part in the organization and direction of the Southern famine relief commission, and later was engaged in the organization of the New York state charities aid association, of which he was vice-president for several years. In 1871 he urged upon the territorial government of the District of Columbia the so-called “parking system” for the broad streets of Washington, which has since been carried out. He was active in the founding of the Metropolitan museum of art, and of the American museum of natural history, in New York city. In 1872 he was appointed president of the department of public parks in New York. In 1876-'7 he prepared plans, in accordance with which the street system of most of the part of the city of New York that lies north of Harlem river has since been laid out. Mr. Olmsted has been identified with the designing of numerous other public and private works, in certain of which he has been associated with Calvert Vaux, and in others with his son, John C. Olmsted. These have included the Riverside and Morningside parks in New York city; Prospect and Washington parks in Brooklyn, N. Y., with the several parkways of that city; Washington and Jackson parks, and several of the parkways, of Chicago; the parks and parkways of Buffalo, N. Y., of Montreal, Canada, and of Bridgeport, Conn.; also the great terrace and staircases, and the outworks and grounds, of the capitol at Washington. He was the first commissioner of the National park of the Yosemite and the Mariposa grove, directing the survey and taking charge of the property for the state of California. Mr. Olmsted has also held directing appointments under the cities of Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Wilmington, and San Francisco, the joint committee on buildings and grounds of congress, the Niagara Falls reservation commission, the trustees of Harvard, Yale, Amherst, and other colleges and public institutions. Since 1886 he has been largely occupied in laying out an extensive system of parks and parkways for the city of Boston, and the town of Brookline, Mass., and upon a scheme for the landscape improvement of Boston harbor. He received the degree of A. M. from Harvard in 1864, and from Amherst in 1867.