Two Olmsted sons—John Charles and Rick—step in to continue their father’s legacy, and help create the landscape architecture profession in America


Frederick Law Olmsted (FLO), now in his 70s, tried unsuccessfully to slow down. Clients kept calling, asking for design help with new university sites and grand private estates from Maine to California. With park work also continuing in Boston and many other cities, his sons back home in the Brookline, Massachusetts, office worried their father was overextended. Then, in the mid-1890s, the focus shifted to the four greatest and most important works of Olmsted’s long career.

The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 design commission came in quietly, but brought lasting fame and success when Olmsted was summoned to Chicago to work with architect Daniel Burnham on the master site design along Lake Michigan.

Chicago Fair architect Daniel Hudson Burnham valued Olmsted’s wooded island and water design and planning additions for the Fair. Olmsted “has been our best advisor….In the highest sense he has been the planner of the Exposition,” Burham told colleagues at a March 1893 New York architects’ dinner in his honor. Soon after, Harvard and Yale each awarded Olmsted an honorary degree.


George W. Vanderbilt’s Biltmore estate, created out of the magnificent Asheville, North Carolina, forest property, occupied FLO’s travel and working days before and after the Chicago World’s Fair opened on May 1, 1893.

The inspiration for Vanderbilt and Hunt’s architectural style came from their recent journey together to the French countryside. Olmsted had helped Vanderbilt build his Bar Harbor Maine summer retreat, but this southern warmer location suited Mr. Vanderbilt for a year-round retreat. Olmsted added educational suggestions—forestry study and an arboretum site before hiring young forester Gifford Pinchot years before he became first head of the U.S. Forest Service. By coincidence, Pinchot, like Olmsted, was also a Connecticut native with ties to Yale University. Later, Pinchot would thank Olmsted for starting him in the United States’ new forestry management career path.


The Stanford University campus work came to a close in the early 1890s. An October 2, 1891 New York Times headline read, “Stanford University Opened.” Olmsted wrote Stanford on October 28th, “I congratulate you and Mrs. Stanford with all my heart…I hope that you understand….our connection with your noble undertaking should continue.” Leland Stanford replied on November 9, 1891, thanking Olmsted and adding, “We are gradually improving the grounds in accordance with your plans.” Standford’s response contained no mention of FLO’s offer, and after Stanford’s death in 1893, Mrs. Stanford’s brother Ariel Lathrop came to be firmly in charge of the ground’s western campus improvements. As the campus grew beyond its original bounds, little hope for an Olmsted office reconnection surfaced.

Young Leland Stanford Jr., on the right, is pictured while traveling abroad with his father and mother just before his death. Five years later, in 1886, Olmsted was asked to design the California college campus in the boy’s honor.


The U.S. Capitol building and grounds re-design were also finally finished, but with Olmsted’s greatest supporters (especially Vermont Senator Justin Smith Morrill) still installed on the Senate committee that started Olmsted’s task two decades earlier, the Olmsted firm moved on to their next Washington, DC design suggestions at American University and the National Zoo, and more DC assignments soon followed.

Older son John Charles Olmsted continued managing the growing Brookline office while his father traveled extensively to meet clients and demands. Sadly, new partner Harry Sargent Codman, the lead partner on the Chicago Fair work, fell ill and died during crucial Chicago Fair design planning in 1893, leaving Olmsted to quickly fill in. John Charles Olmsted became an increasingly valuable office manager for his father, keeping office correspondence, apprentices, and the new client demands in order.

At the time of this image, John Charles had worked for his father for almost twenty years, mostly in the Brookline, Massachusetts office.


Meanwhile, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., (Rick) continued his Harvard studies, working toward his 1894 magna cum laude degree. FLO hoped to educate his younger son in professional landscape architecture studies before Rick finished at Harvard program—or even took his first Harvard class. In 1890, he asked his Chicago Fair architecture counterpart, Daniel Burnham, if Rick might fit into Burnham’s Chicago office summer internship. Burnham approved and gave Olmsted’s son some summer space in Chicago before the Exposition opened. Following the family tradition of showing his sons European sites, in the summer of 1892 FLO took Rick to old Parisian world’s fair locations and to Thames River waterside sites, studying boating and vegetation for Chicago World’s Fair design ideas.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (born Henry in 1870 but changed years later to Frederick Law, Jr., then Rick) enjoyed the front row landscape architecture education he received from his father.


The Chicago Fair eventually settled on a wooded island of Olmsted’s design directly in the middle of the formal architectural buildings lined up along Lake Michigan, where Olmsted’s scenery enhancements would offset their severity. At an architect’s dinner in March 1893, Burnham praised Olmsted and offered credit, “in a broad sense…of the design of the whole work” for the Jackson Park fair site.

From 1977 to 2015, Johns Hopkins University Press produced nine volumes examining the life and accomplishments of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903). Thanks to original editors Charles Capen McLaughlin and Charles E. Beverage, and their successors, the full story has unfolded across these volumes and three later supplements. This volume’s cover features the Olmsted-designed “wooded island”—acclaimed by architects and fair-goers alike—located in the center of the 1893 Chicago Fair site. Olmsted’s addition of floating boats cruising by the “White City” seemed a civilizing and popular gesture in the middle of the bright Lake Michigan building site.


Soon park districts across America called on Olmsted for advice and design ideas, and he admitted the public work was of more value to him, personally, than all the private estate work which also increased substantially during his later years. Above all, the Boston park system occupied his last years in Brookline. The one exception was George W. Vanderbilt’s private Biltmore estate, since the final landscape design was also for public education and enjoyment, with the Biltmore Village design addition down the road. Vanderbilt, like Burnham, was an Olmsted admirer. Forty years his senior, Olmsted had a “truly big and lovable nature,” Vanderbilt wrote to Olmsted’s sons years later. Handsome portraits of Olmsted and architect Richard Morris Hunt by artist John Singer Sargent still hang on the wall at Biltmore, Vanderbilt’s last support gesture for the estate’s two designers.

Architect Richard Morris Hunt, one of the most sought-after architects of his generation, had worked with Vanderbilt on the family’s Staten Island memorial, on the Chicago World’s Fair building site, and his grandest showplace, the North Carolina Biltmore estate.


But the frequent train travel was exhausting for the senior Olmsted, and by the mid-1890s, his many letters to John Charles and Rick began to show his apprehension and present realistic plans for the firm to continue should he become incapacitated. In a May 10, 1895 letter from Biltmore, FLO hinted to John Charles about the Olmsted firm’s future changing of the guard:

“It has today for the first time, become evident to me that my memory as to recent occurrences is no longer to be trusted…I suppose that I am a little affected physically, as I always have been in previous visits, by the elevation of this place [Biltmore estate] but I do not think that I can rightly conceal from you the fact that I am more distrustful of myself than I have ever before been…”

He then asked John Charles for partner help on jobs of “considerable importance.” The end was near and if possible, his sons were ready to help their father retire with dignity. At first, keeping FLO away from the office was awkward. A brief stay on Deer Isle, Maine, followed by a European winter with members of his family, failed to permanently solve the problem of their father’s failing memory. From Deer Isle, FLO wrote his partners:

“My will was drawn up some ten years ago…You, John are dealt with as my elder son, partner, and designated successor. Rick’s professional education is provided for and it is presumed that he will be partner with you…”

Indeed, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. did eventually join his brother in the firm, renamed Olmsted Brothers after the turn of the century, and both helped create the professional standing of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). Later, each brother found new landscape work on the West Coast—John Charles in the Pacific Northwest, and Rick on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Southern California. After a half-century of carrying on his father’s legacy, Rick retired permanently to Palo Alto, where in 1886, he and his father had traveled by cross-country train to visit the Stanford University campus site. During his West Coast travels, John Charles sent vivid letters home chronicling his landscape architecture successes. He married a Brookline neighbor in 1899 and finally retired to the same Massachusetts suburb where in 1874, he and his father had created a new office briefly called F.L. and J.C. Olmsted—just one of many monikers. Prior to his death in 1903, Frederick Law Olmsted lived his quiet last years at the McLean Hospital in nearby Belmont, Massachusetts.

Now a National Park Service property, the original Brookline, Massachusetts, Olmsted office is accessible to visitors, preserving FLO’s—and his sons’—life’s work.


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