When 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was 14 years old, his natural affinity for the rural New England outdoors took a dangerous turn when a brush with poison sumac left him half-blinded. With long-held plans to attend Yale University put on hold, Olmsted set out to explore the world—a task he doggedly pursued over the next 20 years, long after his eyesight improved.
During that time, Olmsted worked as an apprentice on a tea ship bound for China, traveled the American South to report on slaveholding states for the New York Times, ran a farm on Staten Island and joined his younger brother on a European expedition. Then, in 1857, Olmsted returned his gaze to the natural world, nabbing a position as superintendent of the soon-to-be developed Central Park. He spent the next five decades ensconced in the art and science of natural spaces, garnering widespread acclaim as the landscape architect behind sites ranging from the Vanderbilt family’s North Carolina Biltmore estate to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
Now, as preparation for the bicentennial of Olmsted’s 1822 birth ramps up, Artdaily.org reports that the Library of Congress has digitized its collection of roughly 24,000 Olmsted papers, including journals, personal correspondence, project proposals and miscellaneous materials related to his private and professional life. Together, the documents reveal a highly intimate portrait of the famed urban and suburban planner, conservationist and writer, who is best-known today as the founder of landscape architecture and an early believer in the soothing effects of natural oases hidden amongst urban sprawl.
The collection contains roughly 47,300 scanned images dating between 1777 and 1952, although the bulk of materials date between 1838 and 1903, the year of Olmsted’s death at age 81. Given the sheer breadth of available documents, the LOC has provided a guide that links visitors directly to desired content, whether it’s a horde of papers regarding the Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World's Fair) or early drafts of an unpublished history of the United States.
Artdaily.org notes that additional collection highlights include a pencil sketch diagram of plantings for the Capitol grounds, a letter to Olmsted’s wife, Mary Cleveland Perkins Olmstead, detailing the trials endured by soldiers fighting in the Civil War and a preliminary report on the preservation of Yosemite and California’s giant sequoias.
The newly digitized papers offer an array of insights on the architect’s aesthetic theories, which he enumerated in private and public writings alike. Olmsted strongly believed there were distinct differences between a garden and a park, distinguishing the latter by the “spaciousness and the broad, simple, and natural character of its scenery.” All elements of an Olmsted landscape served a purpose; excessive ornamentation—often found in gardening—he saw as nothing less than “barbarous.” Ultimately, Olmsted aimed to wield unconscious influence over viewers with his creations. As he once explained, “Gradually and silently the charm comes over us; we know not exactly where or how.”
An Olmsted public space always followed several guiding principles, The Atlantic’s Nathaniel Rich explains: First, the park should complement the city in which it is housed. Second, the park should be faithful to the character of its natural landscape—for example, palm trees had no place in a New England park. Unsurprisingly, Olmsted also believed that man-made structures should only be included if absolutely necessary.
There’s a certain irony within this ideation. As Rich observes, “It takes a lot of artifice to create convincing ‘natural’ scenery. … [His designs] are not imitations of nature so much as idealizations, like the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School. Each Olmsted creation was the product of painstaking sleight of hand, requiring enormous amounts of labor and expense.”
In 1895, encroaching senility led Olmsted to retire. He was admitted to a Massachusetts hospital, ironically one whose grounds he had once planned to design, and died there in 1903.
Only a decade before, Olmsted had designed the grounds of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the so-called “White City” that attracted some 25 million enraptured viewers. In a speech on the success of the Chicago exposition, Daniel Burnham, an architect and urban planner who served as director of the fair, lauded Olmsted's vision as a landscape designer. “[He is] an artist,” said Burnham, “he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views."