Landscape Architect of the Week: Frederick Law Olmstead

Frederick Law Olmsted was an American journalist, landscape designer and is popularly considered to be the father of American landscape architecture. Olmsted was famous for co-designing many well-known urban parks with his senior partner, Calvert Vaux, including Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City.

Andrew Jackson Downing, the charismatic landscape architect from Newburgh, New York, was one of the first who proposed the development of New York’s Central Park in his role as publisher of The Horticulturist magazine. A friend and mentor to Olmsted, Downing introduced him to the English-born architect Calvert Vaux. Downing had brought Vaux from England as his architect collaborator. After Downing died in July 1852, in a widely publicized steamboat explosion on the Hudson River, Olmsted and Vaux entered the Central Park design competition together, against Egbert Ludovicus Viele among others. Vaux had invited the less experienced Olmsted to participate in the design competition with him, having been impressed with Olmsted’s theories and political contacts. Prior to this, in contrast with the more experienced Vaux, Olmsted had never actually designed and executed a landscape design.

They were announced as winners in 1858. On his return from the South, Olmsted began executing their plan almost immediately. Olmsted and Vaux continued their informal partnership to design Prospect Park in Brooklyn from 1865 to 1873. ┬áThat was followed by other projects. Vaux remained in the shadow of Olmsted’s grand public personality and social connections.

The design of Central Park embodies Olmsted’s social consciousness and commitment to egalitarian ideals. Influenced by Downing and his own observations regarding social class in England, China and the American South, Olmsted believed that the common green space must always be equally accessible to all citizens. This principle is now fundamental to the idea of a “public park”, but was not assumed as necessary then. Olmsted’s tenure as park commissioner in New York was a long struggle to preserve that idea.