With the passage of a groundbreaking land-grant act, Olmsted and Vaux advise college presidents and trustees

Architect Calvert Vaux

Back in his New York office, architect Calvert Vaux waited for his now-seasoned Central Park partner, Frederick Law Olmsted, to return from California, to begin not only the promised Prospect Park design in Brooklyn, but also new U.S. agriculture college campus design mandates emerging from the Morrill Land Grant legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Lincoln in 1862. Introduced by Vermont’s Justin Smith Morrill, his U.S. legislation gave each state a land-grant agricultural college campus.


Morrill tended his own thriving farm, now well preserved and open to the public, in Strafford, Vermont. He hoped to educate future farmers and scientists in best farming practices in each state of the union. Olmsted, who had owned farms on the Connecticut shoreline’s rocky soil and on Staten Island, immediately understood Morrill’s goal to educate future farmers of America, and was one of Morrill’s most enthusiastic supporters. The two New Englanders were of like minds, working together with shared goals for future landscapes. A decade later, Morrill again called on Olmsted to come to Washington, DC, and help design the grounds of the new U.S. Capitol building.

Vermont Senator Justin Smith Morrill
Senator Morrill’s farm in Strafford, Vermont, is open for visitors and scholars, with an active board of directors to keep farm history alive more than a century later.



New England Ag schools seek advice

College presidents soon came to call on Olmsted and Vaux for design and practical advice, with nearby northeast schools the first to seek help interpreting the new national legislation. Olmsted and Vaux found themselves on the front line of advising and designing new college campuses. With help from literary and newspaper publicity, word soon spread of Morrill’s ideas.

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, along with the University of Maine in Orono, were the first to seek advice, followed by Ezra Cornell and his partners at the new Cornell University campus in Ithaca, New York.

The great debate on whether to include the new ag college campuses within the boundaries of existing colleges, or create new campuses nearby, began and had far-ranging solutions.

Olmsted produced a primer on “A Few Things to be Thought of before Proceeding to Plan Buildings for the National Agricultural Colleges” (December 1866) and then printed a version in the Springfield Republican (Massachusetts newspaper) which attracted national attention at the time of the debate.

Morrill and Olmsted—both practical farmers past and present—presented original ideas quite apart from traditional school trustee ideas, which created great debates at college trustee meetings in the years after passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act.

The trustees of the Massachusetts Agriculture School (now renamed UMass Amherst and the flagship of the Massachusetts schools) shared his ideas for the new campus site in the summer of 1866.

Three brick buildings on the Amherst campus look out over nearby meadows and hills, keeping nearby landscapes center stage, as Olmsted advised.

The Ag College building committee chairman Henry Flagg French (attorney, farmer, writer on agriculture subjects, and father of sculptor Daniel Chester French), invited Olmsted to appear before the building committee. Olmsted argued that ag colleges needed smaller, more intimate building settings for success, resembling American farm town ties, connecting farmers to their communities. He cited his earlier written observations of isolated but grand southern cotton plantations, cut off from civilization and separate from nearby communities, as a guide.

French agreed with Olmsted about smaller college buildings for the new campuses. Six existing farms were chosen for purchase by the university ag school site.

The full Mass Ag board, however, disagreed with French and refused to submit Olmsted’s report for publication or debate. French then (with another trustee) resigned his position on the board, and suggested Olmsted print a copy of his report in the nearby Springfield Republican newspaper for other schools to debate the merits. Clips from Olmsted’s report appeared in December 1866.

Reactions poured in. Yale Sheffield Scientific School professor of agriculture, William Henry Brewer, another lifelong friend made during California years, responded: “I was decidedly interested in that portion of your report which corresponded with my own opinions…in regard to the size of buildings for such institutions. The rage for very large buildings is to me extraordinary in view of the experience of other corporations—it is a mania almost…”

Olmsted’s ability to find and keep friends with similar views was remarkable, given his changing priorities and client demands.

Meanwhile, in the older established village of Amherst, Massachusetts, a few miles away, Amherst College president William Augustus Stearns invited Olmsted to report on building and landscape plans for the private campus established in 1821 on the hillside above town. The village was slowly encroaching on the hillside leading up to the campus, and Olmsted gave the president advice on fitting the school expansion onto the Amherst landscape.

Amherst villagers nearby approved of Olmsted’s approach to saving campus landscapes while gently expanding the campus, making FLO’s visits to the village of Amherst more pleasant than his rancorous trustee visits to the newer UMass Ag school campus down the road.

Amherst College treasurer Austin Dickinson (who inherited the post from his father, and brother of poet Emily Dickinson, who lived next door on one of the main streets) invited Olmsted to visit with old and new friends, author Polly Longsworth writes in her 1965 book, Austin and Mabel.

Dinner guests included Springfield Republican newspaper editor Samuel Bowles, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Ward Beecher, and “the governor of the state and the most convivial of the college trustees,” Longsworth reports in her book, based on diaries of Olmsted’s visiting days to Amherst during the 1870s.

Austin and Olmsted together explored the countryside by carriage rides looking for native tree species to add to the Amherst College campus, then searched together for a school gymnasium site.

Austin Dickinson’s house, The Evergreens, now preserved as part of the two-building Emily Dickinson Museum with The Homestead, next door, where Emily Dickinson grew up.


Austin Dickinson
Ezra Cornell
Andrew Dickson White

Farther north nearer the New England coast, the Maine Ag College trustees at Orono also sought Olmsted’s advice on campus layout, with existing small farms merging onto one campus site along the Stillwater River. Trustees delayed and debated Olmsted’s detailed report and sketches but never fully carried out his suggestions. The word “agriculture” was never adopted into the college logo.

Maine would eventually become the Olmsted family’s summer retreat, with many client commissions to come on landscapes around the state.

On the emerging Cornell campus in Ithaca, New York, founder and philanthropist Ezra Cornell, with his business partner, college president Andrew Dickinson White, debated in the New York legislature the merits of bringing Senator Morrill’s ideals onto the newly-endowed Ithaca campus.

Olmsted’s correspondence with President White during the next seven years shows how the Morrill Land-Grant legislation was challenging to implement. Whether grand quads or smaller designs ought to prevail, Olmsted was ready with his advice for the newest college campuses debating the future.

An early campus view, with a grander quad favored by Ezra Cornell.

The amount of work waiting for Olmsted and Vaux off-campus was astonishing during this period as well. Brooklyn’s Prospect Park—a single design—turned into a city-wide park project to enlarge the scope of one city’s outdoor footprint.

Soon, Buffalo asked Olmsted to come visit and suggest a city-wide approach to outdoor spaces, connecting one neighborhood to another. Both Brooklyn and Buffalo now had the blueprint for future parklands, thanks to Olmsted’s keen eye for landscapes before developments prevented connections. Philadelphia and Chicago followed, asking for park reports from Olmsted and Vaux.

Chicago suburban developers near Riverside offered land lots as compensation for advice and supervision of early neighborhood designs. But only a portion of the Riverside development ever emerged off the drawing board when funds dried up during the financial crunch of 1873.

Tarrytown Heights met with a similar fate after Olmsted and Vaux gave enthusiasm and energy to this development up the Hudson River from New York City. The partners devoted much time and tracing paper for their Tarrytown Heights clients, only to see the entire project financially fail. Suburban designs, however, were now part of the future for landscape work, to plan before intrusions ruined natural landscapes.

The partners finally finished their previously commissioned California reports, as promised, while new work poured in back East. Old and newer California clients, however, missed the presence of Olmsted in their midst.

Daniel Coit Gilman, president of UC Berkeley from 1872 to 1875, learned that Olmsted had once submitted a report for trustees of the earlier California college campus and asked Olmsted in December 1872 for newer advice: “I wish every day that you were here that the university might avail itself of your counsels in the development of the estate. The opportunity is a very fine one and I hope it will not be lost, but we need you or your double in order to get things done just right.” The following day, he wrote again and added: “The only thing to be done is to get you here again.”

Gilman and Olmsted would work together after Gilman became the first president of Johns Hopkins University in 1875.

Olmsted submitted his Golden Gate Park report to the San Francisco Park Board months after his meeting with the mayor, but the city wrote back that the expense of implementing the report was beyond the city’s ability to pay for improvements to the sand dune landscape on the western edge of the city.

For the next twenty years, San Francisco park superintendent William Hammond Hall, chosen to head the San Francisco park development, and an engineer by trade, corresponded with Olmsted pleading for advice on park design, park plants, garden books to read, and the need for any professional park gardeners available to help out west.

Finally, Hall asked for a professional tree report in 1886, to evaluate, along with John McLaren (soon to be park superintendent for the next 40 years), whether new tree plantings in the park were crowding one another or were well-placed. Olmsted was out west again in 1886 visiting the Palo Alto campus site that Leland Stanford intended to create as a memorial to Stanford’s deceased son.

For Olmsted and Vaux, their greatest achievement during the decade was reinstatement of their status as advisors to the Central Park board, after a period of city hall interference with park progress. Horrified by the lack of oversight of their “Greensward” original plan, Olmsted went to work advising his gardeners and park keepers on preserving the original intent of their winning park plan from 1857.

Two family events during this decade caused Frederick Law Olmsted to consider breaking away from his New York ties and find a “country” location to practice his craft, as his Springfield, Massachusetts, newspaper friend Samuel Bowles advised.

In 1870, a son named Henry Perkins Olmsted (renamed seven years later to Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.) was born to Frederick and his wife Mary. In 1873, his brother’s son John Charles Olmsted graduated from Yale Sheffield Scientific School, and it seemed time to start enjoying the children’s company (and talents) and spend more time with his growing family.

Three years later, Olmsted’s beloved father died after slipping on ice in Hartford, Connecticut. Olmsted lost his greatest champion when his father died so suddenly. His father had kept an album of all Frederick’s achievements since leaving home and never failed to financially support his son when needed, and letters between the two were proof of their close ties in good times and trying times.

With Henry’s birth, a new era would begin and eventually complete the family circle of accomplished fellows following in their father’s footsteps.


By Joan Hockaday, author of Greenscapes: Olmsted’s Pacific Northwest

Next month:  Olmsted considers a move to his own landscape architecture office near Boston, as work increased for Boston private clients and on Boston parks.