Olmsted's drawing of a Staten Island farm house
Frederick Law Olmsted's drawing of a Staten Island, New York, farm house where Olmsted was pursuing scientific farming. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Frederick Law Olmsted Papers.

The materials, including drafts of his writings, family letters and journals, correspondences with colleagues, and project proposals, piece together a unique glimpse into the landscape architect’s creative process.

Frederick Law Olmsted might be best known for New York’s Central Park and Washington’s U.S. Capitol grounds, but his role in shaping modern America spans far more than a few famous sites, as the Library of Congress’ newly digitized collection of Olmsted’s writings and personal records makes abundantly clear.

The materials, including drafts of his writings, family letters and journals, correspondences with colleagues, and project proposals, piece together a unique glimpse into the famed landscape architect’s creative process and fervor to create parks open to everyone. Barbara Bair, historian in the Library of Congress’ manuscript division, told CityLab that they’ve been working on digitizing the Olmsted papers for a long time. It just turns out the archive is ready before the bicentennial of Olmsted’s birth, so he can be celebrated in 2022 with partner organizations. Bair noted that the records not only shed light on his most famous works, but also on the omnipresence of his landscape architecture and conservation contributions throughout the United States.

Olmsted's revised plan for the Niagara Project
Frederick Law Olmsted’s drawing of a revised plan for the Niagara Project from December 17, 1886. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Frederick Law Olmsted Papers.)

“Many people only think he designed on the eastern seaboard,” Bair said, “but there are Olmsted-related designs, either by him or by his successor firm run by his sons, all over the country.”

The collection also reveals some of the inspiration for Olmsted’s ideas about the value of public parks for America. Olmsted had saved a copy of Andrew Jackson Downing’s essay, “The New-York Park,” published in Horticulturalist in 1851, which laid out key ideas for a space like Central Park. Downing had been a “crucial” mentor to Olmsted, according to Bair, until Downing’s tragic death in July 1852 from a steamboat explosion on the Hudson River.

Downing’s typed words, which Olmsted saved, included: “We have said nothing of the social influence of such a great park in New-York. But this is really the most interesting phase of the whole matter.” On the same typed page from the Library of Congress digital collection, Downing wrote, “Shame upon our republican compatriots who so little understand the elevating influences of the beautiful in nature and art, when enjoyed in the common by thousands and hundreds of thousands of all classes, without distinction!”

a typed page from Olmsted collection
A typescript copy of an essay by Andrew Jackson Downing, which had a big impact on Olmsted. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Frederick Law Olmsted Papers.)
Diary entry
Frederick Law Olmsted, diary entry, March 29, 1843, noting his decision to travel to New York and try becoming a sailor. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Frederick Law Olmsted Papers.)

Although Olmsted’s career in landscape architecture did not begin until he was in middle age (his farming and journalism pursuits came first), the sites his firm planned or designed in his lifetime included Boston’s Emerald Necklace park system, Chicago’s South Park, the Niagara Falls reservation, and New York’s Riverside Park, among others.

“Many people have Olmsted parks in their neighborhoods [and] they don’t know that he designed them,” said Bair. “He was one of the pioneers in bringing the whole field of landscape architecture to the United States.”

a sketch of U.S. capitol grounds
Olmsted’s pencil sketch diagram, U.S. Capitol grounds planting, ca. 1877. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Frederick Law Olmsted Papers.)

What Downing wrote on another page in the Horticulture essay from the collection seemed to encapsulate the vision for the public spaces of America Olmsted would create: “Plant spacious parks in your cities, and unloose their gates as wide as the gates of morning to the whole people.”

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