Olmsted moves his office north to Boston, and in 1884 sets up a new home and office in Brookline, Massachusetts with his new partner, young John Charles Olmsted.
Once his New York Central Park work and formal partnership with architect Calvert Vaux came to an end, Frederick Law Olmsted (FLO) made substantial changes to his life—and career.
After observing his great success with Central Park across the past two decades, Boston, Buffalo, and other city planners called on Olmsted to design new city parks and outdoor spaces. In addition to the overall transformation of Boston’s Franklin Park, the entire Boston park system—a series of waterside spaces adjacent to nearby neighborhoods and new suburbs—needed Olmsted’s expertise.
Boston, particularly, appealed to Olmsted’s New England roots. In addition, his close friend, architect Henry Hobson Richardson (HHR), had recently moved from New York to Boston for his own commission designing the Trinity Church there. The two had worked on Staten Island community plans as well as the New York State Capitol building in Albany, and enjoyed planning architecture and landscapes together. Perhaps HHR convinced FLO to think about a move up north in the late 1870s, when a bleak summer New York City railroad strike stranded Richardson in New York City and led to visits with Olmsted at his West Side townhouse. Surely the men discussed the possibility.
During the railroad strike, new graduate John Charles Olmsted was touring in England and Europe. His father joined him for a whirlwind 4-month visit to FLO’s favorite established landscapes and architectural masterpieces abroad. It was the architecture which appealed to John Charles, FLO learned, before he wrote his landmark Christmas Day 1877 letter urging John Charles to enter a joint office operation.
With Richardson established in a combined home and office on a hilltop in Brookline, Massachusetts, a leafy suburb outside Boston, Olmsted began to make exploratory visits, renting Brookline properties until an old farmhouse came on the market in the early 1880s, just down the hill from HHR’s office and home. Both men helped one another find clients and work, in a busy first few years for both.
John Charles, as promised, helped his father establish the basics of a new office—and with his father’s expertise, the handsome garden outside, too. He assisted in setting up needed office procedures prior to hiring any staff or interns. They named their new home and office, “Fairsted.”
Soon interns with well-respected local relatives were providing valuable energy—and travel time near and far with the senior Olmsted—while John Charles kept the new office running. Renamed F.L. and J.C. Olmsted in 1884, the revised moniker honored John Charles’ many contributions to the office during those formative years.
Intern Charles Eliot (1859 to 1897) was the son of Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909. The first office apprentice, young Eliot joined the firm in 1883, after his uncle, architect Roger S. Peabody, introduced him to Olmsted. He worked in Brookline for two years, then left to travel abroad and take Olmsted’s many suggestions on sights to see and absorb. Eliot’s eloquent letters back to his office mates from abroad rival the Olmsteds’ 1877 travel letters, when FLO helped his son discover the best landscapes and park contacts.
Eliot said he hoped to open his own landscape office when he returned to Boston—a temporary blow to the Olmsteds—but it was actually his father’s choice. He relented after the early death of another Fairsted apprentice in 1893, Harry Codman, who died unexpectedly at age 29 during critical Chicago World’s Fair planning. The firm’s name changed again, this time to Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot.
A draftsman, Eliot traveled with Olmsted on important early commissions to the New Jersey campus of the Lawrenceville School, to the Cushing’s Island design project in Maine, and to the U.S. Capitol West Front building and grounds design in progress during the 1880s.
Henry (Harry) Sargent Codman (1864-1893), nephew of Charles Sprague Sargent, director of the nearby Arnold Arboretum for fifty years, joined the firm in 1884 after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He was a key associate on the Stanford University campus job from 1886, as he traveled across country to the Palo Alto, California school site with both FLO and son Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to meet with Mr. Stanford.
Meanwhile, John Charles, then in his early 30s while his brother was still a teenager, kept the office records and correspondence flowing on each historic visit, as on-going work at the U.S. Capitol (now in its second decade of Senate committee design decisions), continued at a slow but steady pace. The western entry to the U.S. Capitol, Olmsted insisted, should support a more dignified facade and footing, including a handsome set of terraces designed to strengthen the stone building against the weak grass hill now balancing the building on the hilltop overlooking the Mall. The cost naturally caused great debate in Congress, but eventually Olmsted’s greatest supporters —among the keenest, Vermont Senator Justin Smith Morrill— managed to convince colleagues of needed changes.
During this same decade, new residential work for five Vanderbilt family members’ homes and memorials included the vast Shelburne Farms on the shore of Vermont’s Lake Champlain for Eliza Vanderbilt and her husband, Dr. William Seward Webb. For George Washington Vanderbilt (1862-1914), work began on the North Carolina Biltmore estate. That work continued into the next and final decade of Frederick Law Olmsted’s career, before the sons continued the landscape office and field work.
Today, both of these Olmsted-designed Vanderbilt estates—Shelburne Farms and the forested hilltop Biltmore Estate—open the public to the lasting legacies of Olmsted ideals—enhancing and preserving the natural beauty of landscapes apart from designed “parks” across America. More than a century later, each original family estate property designed by Olmsted allows visitors to share an interest in nature and to study and savor the designed landscape beauty.
As easy as the Vanderbilt and Boston parks commissioners proved to be as clients—especially after decades of New York City political intrigues—Leland Stanford was one of the most cautious before he finally accepted Olmsted’s ideas and vision. Simply convincing Mr. Stanford that vast green lawns were less appropriate in California than in the East, where Mr. Stanford lived his early years, was difficult, but finally achieved after a tug of ideas. The architects for the Stanford campus were the successors to H.H. Richardson, who died shortly before Olmsted’s first cross-country trip to meet Mr. Stanford in 1886.
By Joan Hockaday, author of Greenscapes: Olmsted’s Pacific Northwest
Next month: The last decade of Olmsted’s office years in Brookline
The final Frederick Law Olmsted works, highlighting his Stanford University campus, the Biltmore Estate and U.S. Capitol designs, along with the Olmsted’s much-admired Chicago World’s Fair site design of 1893, which crowned his landscape design career with a flourish.