Frederick Law Olmsted & His Beautiful Parks

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Frederick Law Olmsted (1822 - 1903) is far from a household name these days, having died over a century ago. Despite this, his reach remains wide in the United States. Olmsted was a landscape designer and pioneer of landscape architecture, and was the genius behind many urban green spaces that still exist today, and continue to anchor their cities with a measure of respect for nature. Olmsted prided himself on his ability to place natural-looking spaces smack in the middle of cities, and took great care in making his designs feel organic. He was as prolific as a landscape architect can get, and designed spaces as far west as Berkeley, California, and as far east as Boston. Below are some of his grander and more interesting designs.

1. Central Park

800px-Lower_Central_Park_Shot_5First and most obvious on any list of Olmsted designs is Central Park. In 1857, a landscape design contest was held to determine who would design the huge swath of land in the center of Manhattan. Olmsted, who at the time was a writer, worked with architect Calvert Vaux to win the competition with their Greensward Plan, an innovative design that gave high priority to natural-looking landscapes and separate pathways for pedestrians and other modes of transport, like bicycles and horses. A particularly beautiful and interesting feature was the use of multidimensional pathways-- Vaux designed 36 separate bridges, which were used all over the park to create interesting intersections. The design, which required the removal of ten million cartloads of dirt and rocks and the installation of more than four million trees, shrubs, and plants, was not officially completed until 1873.

2. The Emerald Necklace

arnoldarboretumThe Emerald Necklace actually describes a chain of several parks that reach from Boston to Brookline, Massachusetts, including the Boston Commons, Boston Public Garden, the eponymous Olmsted park, and the Arnold Arboretum. Olmsted originally designed the project in 1878 to link the Boston Common with Franklin Park, and by doing so clean up the marshy in-between areas of Back Bay and Fens near Boston. The chain of parks, which constitute a long series of walking paths along the water is now seven miles long, with a significant portion of the water that occupied Back Bay redirected into the Charles River. The Arnold Arboretum in particular exemplifies the great care Olmsted took in designing his parks: rather than flattening the landscape and ensuring orderly pathways, he carved them around the existing plant life, making a beautiful exhibit out what was already there. Also a gifted botanist, Olmsted also helped classify and arrange some of the newer plants in the park with the new classification system created by Bentham and Hooker.

3. The Columbian Exposition

800px-Chicago_expo_Midway_PlaisanceChicago was able to snatch the honor of hosting the 1893 World's Fair away from the hands of many other hopeful cities, including New York. However, at the time, Chicago had a long way to go to become a city fit to do so: in just a few years, Chicago had to turn its blackened, industrial urban spaces into a celebration of enlightenment and civilization. Olmsted had a heavy hand in this transformation, and during the preparation period drastically renovated no fewer than three parks in Chicago: Washington Park, Jackson Park, and the Midway Plaisance. Olmsted took special care in developing the three, despite many setbacks like swampy areas and vegetation crushed by workers setting up other parts of the exposition. Olmsted originally conceived of a Venetian canal system that would connect "lagoons" he constructed in each of the parks, but this proved to be too much of a hassle and the plan was abandoned. Once completed, the parks saw over 26 million visitors as part of the Columbian Exposition, and remain in existence today.

4. Congress Park

Congress ParkCongress Park in Saratoga Springs, New York, is a relatively small operation when compared to the like of Central Park, but has very unique features. Saratoga Springs, as the name suggests, is home to several natural springs that were revered in Olmsted's day for their ability to impart health and youth (later, everyone realized they were just water). Nonetheless, the park was designed in the 1870s around the springs, and even today has several small pavilions housing spigots that produce water from various springs that have different aromas and flavors. The park is also home to an old gambling casino, as well as an original carousel.

5. Cherokee Park

300px-Cherokee_parkCherokee Park is a municipal park in Louisville Kentucky, and one of 18 parks in the area designed by Olmsted. It was opened in 1892, and its design probably coincided with that of the Columbian Exposition, adding to Olmsted's load at the time. Like his other parks, Olmsted designed the park to integrate with the natural landscape shapes found in Kentucky, with gently rollling hills and long pathways that surround Beargrass Creek, which runs through most of the park. Its features today include Baringer Spring, a stream crisscrossed by several walkways; an archery range; hiking trails; and Big Rock, an outcropping eight feet over the surface of Beargrass Creek that is popular as a picnicking and swimming area.

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August 7, 2009 - 10:48am
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