Senators ask Olmsted for new design of U.S. Capitol grounds, the state of New York reviews a new Albany Capitol building design, and Buffalo and Boston parks seek advice and plans. FLO campaigns to save Niagara Falls scenery, and gains a lifelong landscape office assistant and partner: his stepson and new Yale graduate, John Charles Olmsted, the son of FLO’s beloved deceased brother John Hull Olmsted.
Although they worked together on single assignments years later, by the early 1870s—after almost 20 years of collaboration—Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux agreed to disband their professional partnership. While Vaux worked alone or with architect colleagues on buildings alongside Central Park—the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum—Olmsted almost immediately received a request from a U.S. Senate committee to begin collaboration on the U.S. Capitol building and surrounding grounds in Washington, D.C.
By 1870, Senator Justin Smith Morrill (1810-1898), the Vermont legislator who introduced the successful U.S. Land Grant College Act of 1862, was a leading member of the Senate Committee on Buildings and Grounds, and held that position from 1870 until 1898. For the next 20 years, he worked with Olmsted to present a grander west front facade and a park design worthy of its hillside site overlooking the Mall and river beyond.
Senator Morrill’s interest in the Capitol grounds, which he had declared as “little better than a common cattle yard,” his longevity on the influential committee, and his own farming operations back in Vermont, made him a natural follower of Olmsted’s landscape ideals. In fact, Morrill was Olmsted’s greatest supporter during the decades of Capitol grounds improvements.
Writing to Senator Morrill and the committee on January 22, 1874, after a visit to the site, Olmsted noted that the old Capitol building and its hilltop locale were inadequate. “Looking from the West…the face of the hillside is broken by two formal terraces which are relatively thin and weak, by no means sustaining in forms the proportions the grandeur of the superimposed mass.” The “weak” earthen terraces now surrounding the new Senate and House additions should be set off, he suggested, with marble staircases and terraces to anchor the hillside and the setting from the western (Mall and Potomac) view.
Olmsted’s previous European trips now came in handy as he offered advice on grand building design. Influenced by old English estates and French palaces, he cited the Tuileries Palace near the Louvre in Paris and the royal palace at Versailles as two examples of impressive building entrances. Both included one carriage entrance (eventually translated to the east front of the Capitol) as well as a second facade reserved for splendid views of architecture and greenery (eventually the new west front of the Capitol facing the Mall and Potomac).
The timing of the ongoing congressional advice coincided with stepson John Charles Olmsted’s (JCO) graduation from Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School. In 1875, JCO joined his stepfather in their townhouse on West 46th Street as an assistant. Why not ask John Charles if he would like to take a trip to Europe to study capitols and parks abroad? On a sultry summer day, JCO seemed uninterested in anything (at a time when not every New York building had cooling capability) but soon enough his mother Mary convinced both to try an overseas graduation visit.
John Charles departed in early fall 1877 for a landing in Liverpool and adventures in London’s library and parks, then to Paris to study landscapes and history, visiting his father’s friends and landmarks along the way. FLO joined him in January 1878. It was an excellent six-month education for the son, and an exhausting four months for the father, but one worth every learning experience.
An autumn 1877 letter before FLO set off to join his son reveals a true interest in each other’s success, in the future of the landscape architecture profession, and in foreign travel to enlighten past and future design.
In contrast, FLO’s letters from the same decade to his son Harry, born in 1870 and soon to be renamed Frederick (Rick) Law Olmsted Jr.—while nowhere near the level of intellect and advice on landscape architecture—reveal a fondness and hope for this younger lad, too, whose company he clearly enjoyed. On May 13, 1875, while the family was away traveling in Massachusetts, FLO wrote:
The cats keep coming into the yard, six of them every day, and Quiz [perhaps the family dog] drives them out.
If I should send Quiz to you to drive the cows away from your rhubarb he would not be here to drive the cats out of the yard. If six cats should keep coming into the yard every day and not go out, in a week there would be 42 of them and in a month 180 and before you came back before next November, 1260. Then if there should be 1260 cats in the yard before next November half of them at least would have kittens…
Your affectionate father
His older son, John Charles, packing for his European trip in the fall of 1877, received this long and more serious note:
To be read over and committed to memory while at sea, re-read in London and again in Paris.
When you have been out a while write to your mother giving a good account of your voyage and experiences, your ship mates, your sufferings, appetite and news of life. Fill out with P.S. and mail from Cork [Ireland].
If you meet with any accident, of consequence, telegraph.
First business in Liverpool is to see if Mr. Field is in town…
After suggesting additional people to contact abroad, Olmsted advises that John Charles observe the following four directives for his entire trip abroad:
First, You are to search all parks and public grounds for me, taking full notes and writing careful and specific reports…This is not discretionary.
Second, You are to examine zoological gardens and learn the conditions and good arrangements & plans of buildings, paddocks and accommodations for visitors…take notes and be prepared to answer questions when hereafter required. No written report, all discretionary.
Third, Everywhere you are to examine closely and accurately all small architectural objects adapted to park work, pavillions, lodges, entrances, chalets, refreshment stalls, bridges, conservatories, plant stands, fountains, drinking fountains, lamps, flagstaffs, seats, railings, parapets…if you find anything novel and good, especially in plan and arrangement, take sketches and notes and in particular, on return, to make full drawings, all discretionary, of course.
Fourth, Observe general architecture, public and private, with a practical student’s eye, as much as in such a way as (without interfering with other purposes) you will wish you had if you came to be an architect. Discretion.
Three and a half more pages followed the four most important instructions. They included advice on what to look for and bring back to New York (images, maps, analysis and personal reflections of best parks, public and private, keeping in mind the Olmsted’s current work on four Buffalo parks mentioned specifically, as well as French books on landscape design).
It was a tall order for a boy just out of college, but these notes would do for any graduate student just starting in either landscape design or architecture. Fortunately, John Charles saved most of the two dozen 1877 letters (and many more) from his father. JCO’s daughter donated them to the Harvard Graduate School of Design (Loeb) Library for students to still see and study more than a century later.
In his September 14 letter to John Charles, FLO regretted his firmness and inflexible tone. “I am apprehensive that I have [handed out] too much for you to do,” he apologized. His tone was warmer on September 21, asking for JCO’s help to research and find the best examples for the U.S. Capitol work. “I shall have to revise or make an entirely new plan for the terrace and approaches for Capitol over the winter. Get all pictures you can showing terraces, staircases and outbuildings,” he requested.
By October 7, JCO’s first letters from abroad arrived at the New York brownstone home and office on West 46th Street, and his father was most pleased indeed.
I have just reached home from Canada and the East and read your letters from ship board and Chester (latest 23rd). They are in all respects admirable and give us great pleasure…They show that you were well prepared to profit by the journey; better than I had supposed, and I am now sure that it will be of great profit to you in every way. Your notes are just what I want, full and nothing redundant. I look with great interest for what are to follow. I read them all aloud to the family at breakfast this morning.”
Two decades later, after their father’s retirement in the 1890s and working together in the Olmsted Brothers firm in Brookline, Massachusetts, the two sons created the landscape architecture profession within the new American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). John Charles accepted an invitation as the first ASLA president and soon after traveled to the Pacific Northwest, where he spent the next decade designing parks and park systems in Portland, Seattle, and Spokane, as well as work even farther afield in Canada.
With the passage of a groundbreaking land-grant act, Olmsted and Vaux advise college presidents and trustees
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Happy birthday to Frederick Law Olmsted on this 200th anniversary of his birth back on April 26, 1822!
Remembering the new western landscapes, the California mountain trails that father and son climbed together, and the donkey and horseback rides up to Yosemite peaks.
After New York City mayor George Opdyke, representing Eastern investors, gave his hardy farewell to the new Mariposa Estate superintendent in the fall of 1863, Frederick Law Olmsted lost little time packing and catching his steamship to California. The gold-mining estate’s New York trustees hoped Olmsted would rescue the vast former John Fremont estate in the Sierras from ruin and turn it into a thriving gold mining property.
His family would follow with better weather, the next spring. Olmsted’s many letters home gave his family comfort and detailed his progress, reporting the vegetation and landscape along the way, and the San Francisco scene upon his October 11, 1863, arrival.
With previous crossings directly from New York to Liverpool, Olmsted was already a seasoned Atlantic steamboat traveler, but this autumn crossing of the Panama peninsula, a decade before the Panama Canal to America’s West Coast, was a more difficult and disjointed journey, requiring transfers from the Atlantic boat to a Panama jungle train and finally to another Pacific boat. The tropical landscape in Panama caught Olmsted’s eye and curiosity—enough to write his loyal Central Park head gardener Ignaz Anton Pilat with new design ideas.
One month after leaving New York, FLO celebrated his arrival in San Francisco at a fine dinner gathering at the popular new Occidental Hotel in the heart of the city. Hosted by Mariposa Estate lawyer (later Mariposa Estate trustee) Frederick Billings of Vermont, FLO’s first few nights were a delightful transition from the exotic and exhausting tropical travel. Billings had traveled to England twice to help Mariposa Estate landowner John Fremont find an overseas investor, with little success. Fremont now lived in New York and was still a trustee of the ranch.
Olmsted and Billings shared landscape ideals. Billings, while a trustee of the College of California across the Bay, invited Olmsted to lay out a college campus on Berkeley’s bare hills, and later urged the city of San Francisco to ask Olmsted to create a park on acres of sand dunes. Olmsted accepted both commissions, and more, during his two-year stay in California.
The Occidental Hotel dinner party also included San Francisco’s respected and influential Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King, whose thriving city congregation included many U.S. Sanitary Commission supporters as well as California governor Frederick Low, who would eventually ask Olmsted to serve as chair of a Yosemite Park land-planning commission.
Olmsted found himself surrounded by old and new friends with shared interests in landscapes east and west, and, unexpectedly, fine food and fruit: “I have been on the streets this morning,” he wrote his wife Mary on October 13, just before heading for the mountain estate with Mr. Billings. “It is New York, East and West shook together,” with very few older residents, he noted. “The most striking thing is the great fruit. It is really wonderful—the size and fairness of it—when seen in such large quantities…The Apple-women on the streets….have fruit that would create excitement at Covent Garden [London’s famous fruit and vegetable market]….I ate the best grapes I ever tasted this morning….” he gushed and guessed at California’s future farming sensation soon to emerge after gold rush days.
The next week, Billings escorted Olmsted through the entire Mariposa Estate up in the Sierra. Traveling by riverboat, stagecoach, and horseback, Olmsted realized the extent and enormity of the mission, yet his journey produced this evaluation:
“From the moment I delivered your letter, he gave every hour of his time to his instruction and assistance until he left here this morning,” Olmsted wrote the Mariposa Company president and trustees back in New York. Mr. Billings’ information and suggestions “will be of great service to the Company and I hope that you will know it is appreciated.” Decades later, as president of the Northern Pacific Railway, Billings invited Olmsted to lay out their western terminus in Tacoma, Washington.
Settled into the Bear Valley headquarters above the company store, Olmsted studied new ways to improve the estate’s different mines and towns. Searching for a better water supply and a possible canal for Mariposa, he and engineers traveled 20 miles up the middle fork of the Merced River. Stunned by the beautiful scenery, he wrote his wife on November 20, 1863:
“I had a highly interesting journey in the mountains—exploring the South Fork [of the Merced River]. We passed through the Big Tree Grove. The big trees are in a dense forest of other trees, a few standing free. They don’t strike you as monsters at all but simply as the grandest tall trees you ever saw…You recognize them as soon as your eye falls on them, far away, not merely from the size of the trunk but its remarkable color—a cinnamon color, very elegant.” Olmsted promised family trips to show them the “Big Trees”—Sequoia gigantea—the grove found and named by nearby ranch owner Galen Clark. Olmsted admired Clark, and after his family arrived, spent time the next two summers camping at and enjoying Clark’s Ranch. Now known as Wawona, it is a popular tourist stop on the way to the Yosemite Valley.
In March 1864, U.S. Congressman John Conness and colleagues debated setting aside the California Big Tree grove of giant redwoods and the nearby Yosemite Valley as a preserved landscape for the public. President Lincoln signed the bill on June 30, 1864. Governor Low appointed eight men to advise California on managing the great land grant. One was Frederick Law Olmsted. He became its working chairman in 1865.
From the moment Olmsted took his chair on the Yosemite commission, his priorities in California shifted. He found a more lasting California legacy than gold—preserving this landscape so handsomely and naturally designed, it did not need a landscape architect.
Survey crews and local dignitaries followed. Fall was the perfect time to visit the high country, as the heat of the summer in Bear Valley gave way to cool days and even cooler nights up in the Sierra slopes. His father arranged for John Charles Olmsted, now eleven and the oldest of the children, to accompany him, a small survey crew, and Yale Sheffield Scientific School’s professor William Henry Brewer, to a high point in the park’s eastern edge. It was the chance of a lifetime to be at the top of Yosemite peaks yet to be named and absorb the astonishing view. Brewer later wrote in his pocket diary: “it was a charming trip…enjoyed the scenery of that grand region. Mr. Olmsted is a very genial companion and I enjoyed it.”
After the family’s Yosemite summer encampment, Olmsted wrote his own father back in Connecticut on September 14, 1864, from Bear Valley:
“We returned here last week from the mountains…Mary and the children had been in camp seven weeks, the last month in Yosemite…we found it much more beautiful than we had been led to anticipate…the children enjoyed the life very much and seemed to gain health daily.”
He then told his father about a 6-day pack-mule adventure in and above Yosemite, far from the family campsite near the Yosemite Falls: “John accompanied me in my journey to the Eastward and we had with us Professor Brewer of the State Geological Survey (and lately appointed professor of practical agriculture at Yale College)…the first day out of the Valley we reached an elevation of nine thousand feet and came a little below this for a week…with John and the Professor walking, and I riding, ascended a mountain…over 12,500 feet above the level of the sea.”
The altitude had little effect on the travelers, FLO reported to his father: “We nevertheless suffered scarcely from cold or rarified air…the view to the Eastward was very fine…” And as the snow finally disappeared near their mountain encampment, father FLO reported: “John went down on the East side to a bank and brought us a snow-ball for dinner.”
Professor Brewer remained with the Yale Sheffield Scientific School for the remainder of his career, and by no coincidence, John Charles Olmsted studied and graduated from that school a decade later. Brewer visited Olmsted’s family in Connecticut soon after his California survey years and brought them some handsome Watkins photographs of the Yosemite Valley as a reminder of their delightful camping days out west. FLO was allowed the privilege to name the high peak after his U.S. Sanitary Commission colleague Oliver Wolcott Gibbs, distinguished professor of chemistry at Harvard.
For John Charles, did the memory of that week near the top of newly-named Mt. Gibbs prompt him to include the Mount Rainier vista into the University of Washington campus plan more than 40 years later? Did the Yosemite peak views match, in his mind, the majestic Olympic Mountain site across the Seattle waterfront? To see the true value of extraordinary landscapes so early in his climbing career was a rare moment for any boy.
Meanwhile, the Olmsted’s governess (and an amateur botanist), 52-year-old Miss Harriet Errington, camping in the valley by the waterfall with the other Olmsted children, was equally in awe. She shared her keen interest in landscape and botanical study in long letters to her English and Staten Island family members, now preserved at the Newberry Library in Chicago, and during daily three-hour lessons for the Olmsted children.
Olmsted’s 1865 detailed report on the Yosemite holdings was lost for decades after a minority of members worried about submitting such a big bill to the state of California. Western bankers never blamed Olmsted for mining company failures or the pending legal proceedings against previous estate claims. In 1865, while awaiting word from eastern bankers and trustees on new investors to save the holdings, the estate’s San Francisco bankers at the Bank of California office asked Olmsted for personal landscape design advice. Bank of California president Darius Ogden Mills asked Olmsted for suggestions on design, plantings, and a name for his vast Peninsula estate. “Millbrae” was the final choice, a title that lasted longer than the plantings planned for the now-scattered estate holdings. Peninsula rancher and Bank of California investor George Henry Howard asked Olmsted to come visit his Rancho San Mateo estate. Later, from New York, Olmsted sent a shipment of plants and trees for the estate. New investors, the Dodge Brothers, came on board in 1865, leaving Olmsted to ponder his future, either in California or back East. Through dozens of letters, Central Park architect Calvert Vaux convinced FLO to return East to plan parks and estates together.
During his last days in San Francisco, Olmsted met with the mayor to elaborate on his proposal to create a vast city park on the drifting sand dunes between the Pacific Ocean and the thriving city inland. In the August 4, 1865, San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, Olmsted eloquently urged the city to create the park before time ran out.
“It should be considered and acted upon now—San Francisco ought to profit by the example of other cities,” Olmsted wrote. He had learned much from New York’s Central Park and other attempts nationwide to preserve landscapes and create quiet, contemplative spaces in the heart of an emerging city’s busy and noisy surroundings.
The mayor promised he would ask FLO to send a detailed city park report to expand on the newspaper editorial once he reached New York and unpacked, and the written request arrived in New York three months later. By then, Olmsted and Vaux had set up their office and were planning their Brooklyn Prospect Park design. Far away from the Pacific sand dunes, Olmsted quickly produced the San Francisco park report. (Next month we’ll explore the city response to Olmsted’s plea and detailed plan, as well as other western works he completed after his fall 1865 departure.)
FLO’s two years in California were productive indeed—even when the gold diggings and investments disappointed. He found meaningful landscape design and preservation work, and with help from former architect partner Calvert Vaux and new western parks enthusiasts in Yosemite, launched his professional landscape architecture career.
After the early 1861 attack at Fort Sumpter, war between the North and South loomed on the horizon, and the Central Park board of commissioners could hardly refuse Frederick Law Olmsted’s (FLO’s) patriotic call to duty.
Although his leg—injured in a recent carriage accident—ruled out frontline help, he sought a less strenuous, thoughtful, Civil War contribution. Henry Whitney Bellows, esteemed New York minister and president of the newly formed Sanitary Commission, soon called on Olmsted to help organize the new commission to aid volunteer soldiers injured during the war. President Lincoln signed the legislation creating the volunteer organization in June 1861, and the Sanitary Commission opened that summer in Washington, DC. Olmsted’s arrival in June to begin his (presumably brief) executive secretary duties with the organization—just before the first Battle of Bull Run near the U.S. Capitol—was an eye-opening assignment for the organized writer, park-maker, problem solver, and landscape designer. Little did Olmsted know that early battles in the Mid-Atlantic and the South, before spreading westward, would become studies in horrific medical scenes needing his immediate energy and analysis.
Olmsted responded by picking up his pen—just as he had in 1850 while traveling through England, two years later traveling with his brother through the deep South, and again in 1858 walking through each unfinished vista in New York City’s new Central Park. Unlike FLO’s earlier documents written for publication in newspapers, books, or for park design panels, his intimate Civil War family letters and observations were for private and direct family digestion (or indigestion, given his vivid battlefield scenes). Destined for Olmsted historians to absorb, the letters portray Civil War events as they unfold. Early letters to family began his war duty gently enough. This one to his wife Mary and children, who were still settled in their Central Park home at Mount St. Vincent Convent on June 28, 1861, described his train journey down to DC, noting (as one would expect) natural scenery out his train window mixed with looming wartime signs along the way:
I came here in good order, arriving here at 6 p.m. yesterday. It was very hot, but not excessively dusty until this side of Baltimore & the discomfort less than I anticipated.
The farm-houses in Jersey frequently show the flag. South of Phila* [Philadelphia] they do not, but at Wilmington & other towns there is an abundance of them…In Baltimore, nothing. Fort McHenry only seen with half a dozen tents outside; but south of Bat* [Baltimore] just beyond the outskirts, a large camp on the right and beyond another on the left, shirt sleeves and motley; a broad meadow with a regiment resting on their arms, hospital tents close to the road with sun-struck fat men being fanned. No more soldiers until we reach the Relay House….
At the Annapolis junction a crowd of these uniforms & no uniforms & mixed. Lots of men lying at full length on the grass, dirty and loaferish. Arms stacked near by and sentinels in shirt sleeves & straw hats; a deserted camp-ground which I presume to be the 20th’s which went to Balto* yesterday….
In the suburbs of Washington several regimental camps are seen at a distance. About the station, Vermont soldiers with their coats unbuttoned but belted over & with muskets, dozens of basket wagons with four mules each. In the streets, more than half have some military insignia, but none are complete….
He checked into the busy Pennsylvania Avenue Willard’s hotel, then had a cup of tea. Continuing about his day, he described his first important field inspection with his guide George Waring, who had been a Central Park engineer and tenant on Olmsted’s Staten Island farm, but was now a major enlisted into the 39th New York Garibaldi Guard. (Olmsted and Waring would team up again years later for a major design project in Riverside, near Chicago.)
I went on to Waring’s camp which is two miles East of the Capitol…Waring’s…wall tent 8 or 9 ft square with a few boards for a floor, a rough table covered with oil cloth, a narrow bed 12 inches high, a wash stand, books on the table & lots of all sorts of uniforms and equipments…hung along the ends & down the middle of clothes lines…[Waring] took me to the Col’s tent, which I find should have been a hospital tent, & which is a big affair, on a pole in the center…A set of embroidered silver tea service on a packing case…a large table with books and papers…W [Waring] orders…ice water and ‘a glass of wine’…but soon Waring was called out of the tent on duty…
All this, before Olmsted could share Central Park and Staten Island reminisces and some needed military news. After a brandy, FLO camped out on a nearby bed:
& sleep pretty well, although waked often by the camp-noises, and challenges of sentinels & a visit of a field officer & escort on grand round duty, I believe…
Before boarding the train back to Washington with his valuable store of information of field operations near DC, he finished the news of his first field visit:
In the morning I visited the hospital and talked with all the surgeons & saw all their kit & food & learned something—but this was much the best part of the camp. Breakfasted with the Col & staff…
A few weeks before the first Battle of Bull Run, his July 2, 1861, letter to his wife Mary offers a casual assessment of the recently inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln, which was the news everyone back home longed to hear:
I saw the President this morning walking with two or three other loafers to the War Department [on Pennsylvania Avenue near 17th]. He looked much younger than I had suppos’d , dressed in a cheap and nasty French black cloth suit just out of a tight carpet bag. Looked as if he would be an applicant for a Broadway squad policemanship, but a little too smart and careless. Turned and laughed familiarly at a joke upon himself which he overheard from my companion en passant.
FLO then added this last bit of news to his wife in his July 2 letter, relaying one of the most pressing problems in Washington at the time:
The present minor curse of Washington is flies. It is far worse than Staten Isld [Island] in fish time.
Olmsted would slowly improve his opinion and show admiration and acceptance of the new president as the year unfolded, while the politics of Washington showed more nuance to this New York newcomer. For example, his carefully worded letter from later that year held more news of President Lincoln. Neatly printed so the boy could read the text—unlike most of Olmsted’s hastily scribbled notes—he wrote to 9-year-old John Charles Olmsted on October 17, 1861:
…I went to the White House today and saw the President. He is a very tall man. He is not a handsome man. He is not graceful. But he is good. He speaks frankly and truly and straight out just what he is thinking. Commonly he is very sober but sometimes he laughs. And when he laughs he laughs very much and opens his mouth very deep. He said he was glad to see me and shook hands with me. It seemed as if he was. He did not look proud nor cross but a good sort of fellow…
FLO penned those notes soon after a Sanitary Commission meeting with the President on Pennsylvania Avenue, while John Charles (still “Charley” to family members) was living in New York’s Central Park.
After the Union loss at the first Battle of Bull Run in nearby Manassas, Virginia on July 21,1861, however, the news would take a darker turn in letters home and reports to the commission. From his perch on Pennsylvania Avenue at the Willard Hotel, he wrote his family about the sights and smells of the city and the horrors of nearby battle scenes witnessed so soon after his arrival. He also wrote the Sanitary Commission a more wrenching report, which initiated even more calls for reform. They were eventually successful, thanks to Olmsted and the commission’s determined inside approach for organization and change. To his devoted father back in Connecticut, FLO set this Washington, DC, scene on August 3, 1861, two weeks after the Union defeat at Bull Run, 30 miles outside Washington:
It is a sweltering, calm, noxious tropical night, and I rise for relief…in a room at Willard’s [Hotel] not able to sleep…It has been dreadful here…To the humiliation of the defeat and the terrible humiliation of the mad flight, which transformed what we had been calling a grand army of gallant men into a miserable collection of dejected wild animals…
How terrible is the trial of our country, how weak…how unprepared we are to meet it, we are, impossible to find terms to express…We have now to reorganize, we have the sickly season of the Potomac at hand. We are hurrying more thousands of green men, badly prepared, totally undisciplined, and are to undertake the formation of an army of them within sight of the smoke and the camp-fires of a victorious enemy…
The defeat at Bull Run gave Olmsted new resolve to press for immediate changes in medical and army practices, with a plea to his father to allow temporary postponement of his ongoing work on Central Park until the war effort showed signs of success. After survey results of the men came into the Sanitary Commission field inspectors, FLO wrote even more vividly of the nearby retreat of troops and demoralization of the men before and after the defeat at Bull Run. In his report to the commissioners, having witnessed jolly officers in the Willard Hotel bar downstairs, Olmsted asked:
Did the government care at all for the “brave volunteer”? If so, why did he sometimes have food he could not eat, and sometimes not at all, for days together? Why should he be left to sleep in rotten straw and shoddy blankets, and sometimes for months with nothing at all, on the bare ground? Why should he be required to stand for an hour at noon, exposed to the sun of the hottest day of the year, in Pennsylvania avenue, while his colonel takes a drink with his friends at Willard’s…
His hefty report discouraged the commissioners at their September meeting, as he wrote his wife Mary:
My general report somewhat startled them. I traced the disaster—demoralization of the troops which was the real disaster—not to Bull Run but to the….poorness of our system of government for this purpose. They all admit that I carry their convictions, but they dare not have it published—saying that it would be the severest & most effective attack on the government.
Olmsted revised his report, as requested, and after publication the commission agreed to focus on suggested legislative reforms directly linked to the Army Medical Bureau. After months of congressional debate and changes to each paragraph, success, finally, for his medical reform legislation came on April 16, 1862. He reported it, with humor and humble respect for the process, to his father in a letter three days after the legislation was signed by the President:
As to the Sanitary Commission, our success is wonderfully complete. The Medical Bill, after being kicked about like a football, from House Committee & Committee & Committee, & thro’ similar process in Senate & from Senate to House & over and over again, at each kick losing on one side and gaining on another, until it was so thoroughly flabbergasted that nobody knew where or what it was, and a new one had to be started—this process repeated several times—all of a sudden a bill which is just the thing we wanted quietly passes thro’ both houses the same day and before we know it is a law…The President yesterday promised to nominate for Surgeon General, [William Alexander] Hammond, the very man whom, eight months ago, we picked out as the best man in the corps for that office…
He added news of his next Sanitary Commission assignment:
As you will see by the papers, I am getting up floating hospitals. I shall probably take command of the first in person and expect to bring 500 wounded men in her to New York. I have got the bedding, dressings, instruments and medicines secured to be ready Monday night. Have appointed my chief officers and assigned them their duties…
On July 3, 1862, FLO wrote his wife from one of those hospital ships, by Harrison’s Landing on the James River, noting (naturally) landscape forms and then comparing scenes there to the Staten Island shore near their old farmhouse:
I write in my stateroom on the Wilson Small, which lies two hundred feet east of the long pier of what we call Harrison’s Landing. The shore is like that of Staten Island at Redbank…Immediately in front, it rises with a rapid slope for a distance of 1,000 feet, and beyond is a gentle slope northward. There are slight undulations right and left, about as on the Leveridge farm, and from half a mile distant are open country in each direction, then regular skirts of woods. At the highest point of the swell in front is a fine old brick mansion (the central hospital)…
This “fine old mansion” above Harrison’s landing was once the manor house of of the plantation, and the birthplace of former president William Henry Harrison. Scenery and Staten Island shores remembered, the war news crept into the letter:
Our grand army is very nearly destroyed. I wonder if they will let you know it. It is striving bravely and cheerfully—heroically to the last, but there is an end to human endurance, and if the enemy with his double force, keep pushing on it, it cannot hold out much longer….
More scenery settings now for his wife, before finding solutions ahead, with the help of a new director:
The beach below the broken bank is filled with soldiers, some bathing, some washing clothes, many reading newspapers which have just arrived from New York; some…are wounded—I can see arms in splints. About the head of the pier there is a dense crowd of the wounded being led and carried one by one down to the hospital-boats at the end…Further to the left, through the low trees & bushes on the bank there is a city of tents to be seen…Head Quarters are a little to the left on swampy ground and this is not far from the military centre of our position.
For Olmsted, hope always laid in solutions to every problem, and he recently welcomed on board the newly appointed medical director of the Army of the Potomac, Jonathan Letterman. “I liked him at first sight better than any Surgeon U.S.A. that I have seen. He asks & offers cooperation and will have it with all my heart, so far as it is worthwhile to give it,” he wrote on June 30, 1862. Letterman greatly improved the emergency and ambulance transport operations during his war effort. But for now, on July 3, 1862, Olmsted was off to report directly to Washington on the immediate needs of the Army of the Potomac, with Letterman’s hearty approval. The three Army officers appointed to the Sanitary Commission remained aloof—and began skipping meetings with all the changes suggested to entrenched military ways. The New York appointees remained on board and enthusiastically endorsed, at first, Bellows and Olmsted’s ideas. Olmsted by now had moved from his Willard Hotel room and vantage point on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House to the new Sanitary Commission headquarters in the historic Adams House at 244 F Street.
“A fine old house occupied by Madison, John Q. & c.,” and still owned by the Adams family, Olmsted wrote his wife. His second floor room was “freshly prepared, carpeted and bedded, ready for me, opening into a fine board room which when board not in session will be my private office or parlor….” Three other board members occupied rooms upstairs, with the main headquarters on the first floor, Olmsted reported. “It is a great good fortune to be so intimate with so many good and respectable men…I am only ashamed to be enjoying it away from or without you, but let it not be without you.”
Park commissioners back in New York began to wonder if Olmsted’s temporary leave was perhaps permanent. While Mary and the children still lived in the park, they began to debate about better use of the convent building. A restaurant was suggested, but Olmsted scotched that idea. Eventually a military hospital moved into the park’s convent buildings. FLO found DC housing for his family in the fall of 1862. Owned by a steamboat captain, FLO’s description of the rented house (and its meager six-month lease) was less enticing than his current historic Adams House nest:
The house [at 332 G Street] isn’t so good as I thought it was. All the furniture is hideous. Captn Snow was Commander of first class small potato steamboat, and the house was filled up with what was left when she was worn out. I do hope you will bring things. I want the carpet covered with brown linen or hardware paper might do as it’s a hard-word steamboat carpet of the largest pattern I ever saw. Spiders seen thro’ [astronomer] Lord Rosse’s telescope with the rest under the mopboard. Yellow and blue, with green roses and red cauliflowers sticking up thro’ the spiders’ legs. There are ottomans made of it with the interior anatomy of a spider’s eye running over three sides. Bring something nice for the baby to be educated on.
There is a little book-case, not very little in the library…The next thing I want is curtains, drapery, tablecloths, everything of that kind you can hitch on, piano covers and things that will hide pieces of chairs. We have got to live on pinewood fires, chiefly, in fireplaces—hand irons and fenders will be wanted. But books and cloths and pictures—For these I beg. Your affectionate fellow sufferer.
Meanwhile, FLO’s Central Park partner, architect Calvert Vaux, too, worried about Olmsted’s longer absences from New York. He was also concerned about finishing the park extension to 110th Street, and about competing, elaborate, and unnecessary entry gates proposed for their 59th Street park entrance. Vaux asked Olmsted in January 1863 whether the two should resign their advisory status with Central Park. Vaux and Olmsted both collected meager advisory fees, but Vaux, because he was nearby, was doing all the work at hand to finish their park design. He wrote Olmsted for advice. Olmsted replied on February 16, 1863, “I am devoted to the park…I shall be thoroughly satisfied that what you think best, is best. Yours affectionately…” Vaux took Olmsted’s advice and resigned for both men soon after. The inappropriate entry gates were soon shelved. Later, the pair returned to their park consultant status and set up a professional partnership after Olmsted’s California years.
By early 1863, after a major Sanitary Commission donation came in from California earmarked for a newer auxiliary office for the war relief effort, the new Midwest bureaus would fight for a bigger slice of the financial pie. The commission, with few eye-witness reports from the western bureau, asked Olmsted to visit the Western Sanitary Commission’s new Midwest bureaus and gain support for central organizational efforts to hopefully ensure more cordial relationships with their Washington, DC, headquarters. In the spring of 1863, FLO set out on a 6-week scouting tour to visit the Midwest and Southern bureaus, stopping in more than a dozen cities before heading home through Chicago, Cleveland, and Buffalo. Once again, Olmsted was traveling, observing, and reporting his news and views of the countryside and the inhabitants—this time mostly soldiers and army men. He would return to some of those cities decades later, during his landscape architecture career. In St. Louis, he remarked on the new Mechanics Library and Mr. Shaw’s intended botanic garden as civilizing factors so far from the older established East Coast cities, and noted other civic improvements in Chicago and other towns along the way. The people out in the country also caught FLO’s eye and pen. During his stop along the Mississippi River to visit General Ulysses S. Grant in his floating headquarters near Memphis, Olmsted wrote a long letter to his father on April 1, 1863. Written from the Sanitary Commissions store boat, the Dunleith, it includes an account of the pleasant and illuminating outing:
We are returning from a visit to the army before Vicksburg, which we reached on the 22nd. General Grant’s command consists of four army corps…Sherman’s corps alone remains in direct observation of Vicksburg. It is camped on a series of plantations, from one to two miles above the canal…Head quarters is on the steamboat Magnolia, which lies, nose up, on the only ground which I saw, above water, outside the levee below Milliken’s Bend. There were a dozen large steamboats at the same place…
The day after our arrival, Gen’l Grant sent an aide on our boat to take us [as] near to Vicksburg as it would be safe to go. It was near enough to set our watches by the town clock….
The following day he set the riverside for his family:
…we went with Medical Director Hewit to look at the camps, riding on the levee and across one plantation on a corduroy road. The ground inside the levee even, is elsewhere impassable, the ground being all soaked, where is is not flooded, with the ‘seepage-water’ straining through and under the levees. The camps are near the levee; the tents are furnished with bedsteads made of saplings, lifting the men a few inches above the ground; the men of one battery, having been flooded out elsewhere, had pitched their tent on terraces cut in the shape of the levee, forming a very picturesque camp…the swell caused by our boat rolled into one of the tents…
In contrast to the soggy scene and soil, the health of the men took center stage in FLO’s letter to his father, two years after the war started along with the U. S. Sanitary Commission:
In fact the health of the army, tho’ not as good as that of the army in general, is amazingly good. You cannot conceive how well and happy the men in general looked. They are mostly now well broken in and know how to take care of themselves…I never saw men looking healthier and happier. The food is abundant, varied and most excellent in quality…they are well clothed…
Returning to the Magnolia flagship, “we took tea with General Grant,” Olmsted reported to his father. Grant lived in a “cabin of the boat; there is a sentry, or an apology for one, at the boat’s gangway, but he stops no one from going on board…” During tea, in fact, Grant and Olmsted were much interrupted, before Grant apologized and invited Olmsted to return the next day for a talk. The next night, Olmsted returned to Grant’s cabin on the Magnolia:
had an hour’s conversation with him. He is one of the most engaging men…Small, quiet, gentle, modest—extremely, even uncomfortably modest—frank, confiding and of an exceedingly kind disposition. He gives you the impression of a man of strong will, however, and of capacity…As a general, I should think his quality was that of quick common sense judgments, unobstructed by prejudices, and deep abiding quiet resolution.
Due to waves from traffic along the river, Olmsted’s pen kept sliding from his hand, so he finished the letter in pencil. During his voyage and train ride back to Washington, DC, Olmsted reflected to his friends on trends in the Midwest cities of St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, and Cincinnati during the war years. He particularly enjoyed discovering the new Mechanics Library and botanic garden beginnings in St. Louis, and commented on architecture in cities along the way.
Back in Washington, DC, reporting his successful journey to the western Sanitary bureaus and the cooperation he achieved (even if temporary), he realized his work organizing the relief effort for the commission was nearing its end. Western bureaus needed more power to better manage their own contributions, and while many of the local relief efforts eventually became permanent charitable organizations, a decade after the war, the Washington, DC, Sanitary Commission simply faded into obscurity.
Back in New York, where many of the Sanitary Commission members were now meeting regularly, Olmsted was called into a meeting with Mayor George Opdyke. Would Olmsted be interested in managing, for New York investors, the Mariposa gold mining estate in the Sierras out in California? By coincidence the mayor was one of the investors in the Mariposa Estate, once owned by explorer and politician John Fremont. Olmsted’s bosses would now be New York investors, instead of New York civic-minded reformers. He set sail right away for the Mariposa Estate out west. His family joined him soon after. For two years, they and new friends enjoyed country pursuits—hiking, horseback riding, fresh air, and the discovery of new scenery in the Yosemite Valley nearby.
Henry Whitney Bellows, founder of the U.S. Sanitary Commission in 1861. A New York minister, he invited Olmsted to join the commission in 1861. Bellows had written a favorable review of the social benefits of Central Park for New York residents. Bellows later visited Olmsted during his California years on the Mariposa Estate.
Harrison’s Landing, on the James River, where Olmsted observed and wrote his wife about troop movements (and scenery too) from his hospital transport ship on July 3, 1862. Lithograph after a sketch by A. R. Waud in Century, 1885.
Frederick Law Olmsted c. 1862, courtesy of the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, Mass.
Next month, Olmsted’s two years in California, with his family, managing the Mariposa Estate in the Sierras, and discovering and writing about the Yosemite Valley nearby, from 1863 to 1865.
After the death of his beloved brother, 1857 to 1859 proved to be defining years in the life of Frederick Law Olmsted and his new family.
After a decade of Staten Island farming and New York City publishing, Frederick Law Olmsted (FLO) broke new ground in 1857 and again in 1858, setting his future course on 843 rocky and rugged rectangular acres in the middle of New York City.
Debated and delayed for years, the new Central Park was reaching its final stage in 1857. Olmsted, by chance visiting a Morris Cove, Connecticut, seaside inn favored by New Yorkers escaping city summer heat, learned from an old acquaintance that the park commission would soon pick a new superintendent to head up the work crew clearing the unkempt site. “We still haven’t found the right man,” his friend, newly appointed park commissioner Charles Wylls Elliott, told him.
Olmsted believed he was the right man, and quickly called upon his literary, art, publishing, and New York friends to support his cause. His petition listed almost 200 signatures, including poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant, artist Albert Bierstadt, journalist Whitelaw Reid, surgeon Willard Parker, financier and horse-breeder August Belmont, and journalist and author Bayard Taylor. Influential New York politician James Hamilton, son of Alexander Hamilton, helped write another petition, but it was old man of letters Washington Irving’s signature on the document that drew attention to Olmsted.
Separately, Harvard botanist and author Asa Gray wrote on Olmsted’s behalf: “I desire very simply to say…that I know Mr. Olmsted well, and regard him as eminently fitted for that position. I do not know another person so well fitted for it in all respects, both on practical and general scientific grounds…he will do great honor to the situation and to his high and already honorable reputation…”
By the time the day came for the commission to vote, John Hull Olmsted and his family had already departed for southern Europe, hoping to improve his health. FLO spent part of the day nearby, writing his younger brother a long letter (one of their last) about his park superintendent quest:
“I have moved to town and done nothing else since I last wrote but canvass for the Superintendent’s office: I am now awaiting the result; the Board [of the Park Commission] being in session below a few doors.” Olmsted began his letter on September 11, 1857. Unaware his brother was failing fast, seven long news-filled paragraphs followed before Olmsted’s historic postscript: “P.S. After a very long session, and much debate, I am elected on the final vote, 8 of those present voting for me, one against me.”
These intimate and frequent family letters sustained FLO during his lifetime of career moves—especially his life-altering “Affectionately…father F.L.O.” letters to young John Charles Olmsted, who in the 1870s debated his own future in landscape architecture.
Meanwhile, the park commissioners, impressed by Olmsted’s direct farmhand experience with his own (obviously smaller) Staten Island work crews as well as his influential literary and city friends’ support, had indeed approved him in an 8-1 vote.
Coincidentally, New York architect Calvert Vaux had asked park commissioners to consider holding a design competition to break a deadlock on competing ground plans submitted for the new park.
Olmsted and Vaux had previously met in 1851 at prominent American landscape gardener and Horticulturist editor Andrew Jackson Downing’s Newburgh, New York, home near the Hudson River. At the time, the English-born Vaux was Downing’s architecture assistant. While in London Downing had been impressed with Vaux’s artistic and drawing talent, and drafted the young man into his Newburgh office. Tragically, Vaux’s mentor drowned in a Hudson River boating accident, leaving him to carry on, first in Newburgh and eventually in New York City.
Vaux approached Olmsted to join him on a joint park design submission, knowing Olmsted’s on-site knowledge of each ledge, sink hole, and vista would be invaluable to any finished design plan. After some hesitation Olmsted agreed, and the two professionals rushed to finish their joint plan—Greensward—before the park commissioners’ spring 1858 deadline.
Evenings and Sundays, Olmsted and Vaux scouted park sites together on horseback and on foot, inspecting each part of the park for ideas to improve the bare landscape and sites to add footbridges and innovative sunken roadways. Almost a month after the April 1, 1858 deadline, the commission announced that out of 33 submissions, their final Greensward plan had won the top prize. Thus began a nearly lifelong off and on landscape design partnership.
Meanwhile, his brother’s family—a now-widowed Mary and her three young children (John Charles [JCO], Charlotte, and baby Owen)—who had stayed abroad to avoid a winter crossing of the Atlantic after John Hull’s death in November 1857, settled back into New York routines with continuing comfort and help from FLO’s father in Connecticut.
The Staten Island farm, which farmer Fred had handed over to John Hull years before, was mostly rented to tenants. Mary found a rented home in the city near the park where FLO was knee-deep in getting his winning park design cleared and finished by ground work crews.
On June 13, 1859, not quite two years after losing the brother who was also his best friend, Olmsted married his widow in a quiet ceremony in the Bogardus House in the park, presided over by New York City Mayor Daniel F. Tiemann. He kept his promise to his brother, “Don’t let Mary suffer while you are alive.”
The newest Olmsted family moved into the sprawling abandoned Mount St. Vincent Convent. Originally located along the old Boston Post Road, the convent sat on a hillside within the eastern park boundary between 102nd and 106th Street. There the children had glass galleries to explore, and eventually father FLO set up his office nearby.
By autumn 1859, Olmsted was deep in park duties and mired in Greensward design change details with ever-expanding park crews. Park commissioners granted him a two-month leave of absence to travel abroad. Once again he visited the grand parks there, but this time, instead of design plans, he brought back much-needed daily park operations details.
Letters during that separation—just three months after his marriage—provided a glimpse into happier and more settled times ahead on the home front. Joined dockside on September 28, 1859, by his closest supporters—his father John Olmsted came from Connecticut, his park design partner Calvert Vaux, and his new wife Mary, who wrote down details in a letter that arrived long after FLO’s ship docked in Liverpool. The three companions waved goodbye, then rushed to catch the Staten Island ferry that would follow FLO’s big ship through the harbor. “Our Staten Island boat was delayed behind barges which prevented us getting very near,” Mary wrote. Did he, by chance, see the three companions waving while he stood at the railing of his bigger ship, she asked?
As John Charles Olmsted, now almost 8 years old, waited back at the convent for his father’s return, a letter arrived describing the harbor and ocean sights. “Tell Charley I saw five whales, altogether, snorting and turning somersets (so it looked) in the water. Lots of birds floating and flying, and once, a little sparrow several hundred miles from land, too tired to move more, dropped on deck and allowed itself to be caught. It is alive—the sailors keeping it.” More adventures, such as FLO and JCO traveling to Europe in 1878, would follow in the decades ahead.
Olmsted’s brief 1859 visit to England and France showed his progress since the youthful 1850 journey abroad and his successful 1852 book Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England. With formal letters of introduction to England and France’s leading garden and park makers, he conducted a professional tour, gathering information for the new (and news-worthy) Central Park of New York City.
In his December 28, 1859, report to park commissioners, he summarized his rushed journey. Working from the north of England to the south, his first stop (as in 1850) was Birkenhead Park, where he “obtained full particulars of its construction, maintenance and management.” With no time to delay, he continued south and visited the park and gardens of Chatsworth, including the private grounds of one of Olmsted’s most admired English designers, Sir Joseph Paxton.
On the 17th he visited The Royal Park and Forest of Windsor before reaching London on the 18th. There, he approached the Office of Works of Her Majesty’s Palaces and Parks and found a “generous kindness,” and warm welcome, which almost immediately transferred to each superintendent of public parks in the vicinity of London, Olmsted reported.
“During the following fortnight, I was engaged every day upon the parks of London, some of which required several visits. I then proceeded to Paris, being detained one day on my way thither by a violent gale which prevented the boats from crossing the channel.”
Olmsted also met with former Central Park advisory commissioner James Phalen, now living in Paris, who introduced him to valuable contacts. French engineer John Charles-Adolphe Alphand showed the visitor newer French parks of the Bois de Boulogne, near Paris. Olmsted made eight subsequent visits there which “were of value to me,” he reported. His two weeks in Paris also included a visit to the formal gardens of Le Notre at Versailles, after which he headed north to London for his final week.
While there he visited the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, “the superintendent of which, Sir William Hooker, I found extremely interested in the Central Park, expecting my visit, and ready to furnish me with most valuable advice”. The Regents Park gardens filled out the week, along with helping New York nurseryman Samuel Parsons choose specimens for Parsons’ private and public clients (including Central Park). Pursuing a new interest, Olmsted also collected books for his park library.
On the second of December, he was off to Ireland to visit Dublin’s popular Phoenix Park and Zoological Gardens before boarding his ship back home to America.
After a decade of discovery and designing, the apprentice farmer had transformed into a professional landscape observer. Settled in his new home life at the Mount St. Vincent Convent with family and support nearby, his path seemed clearer now. The park gained support and visitors through the year 1859 as it opened—even during construction—to the Greensward designer’s best ideas.
Next month: Olmsted’s Civil War service in Washington, D.C., while on temporary leave from Central Park.
The abandoned Mount St. Vincent Convent buildings, within the boundary of the new Central Park, became the home—and office—of the expanded Olmsted family after the June 1859 marriage of Frederick Law Olmsted to his brother’s widow. The three children (including the oldest, John Charles) found many glassed-in warm rooms below the living quarters to play in and enjoy the park scenery just outside their front door.
Courtesy of the New York Historical Society.
John Charles Olmsted at his new home in Central Park, aged almost 8 years old. He would eventually design many Pacific Northwest parks, home and school sites for clients at the turn of the next century after apprenticing with his father FLO in the early years of the landscape architecture profession.
Architect Calvert Vaux, who invited park superintendent Frederick Law Olmsted to enter, together, the contest for the Central Park design. Their Greensward design plan won over 32 other entries in spring 1858. The two men would collaborate on many other design projects in the years ahead.
Photo courtesy of Olmsted’s personal collection of photographs, Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Boston, Massachusetts
Greensward Study No. 10. “Spring on Bogardus Hill”
Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.
The Greensward Plan for Central Park. Lithograph from (Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux), Description of a plan for the Improvement of Central Park, Greensward, New York, 1858.
Courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
By the time John Charles Olmsted arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 1903, he was a seasoned landscape architect who had worked with Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. in his Brookline, Massachusetts, landscape architecture office at his 99 Warren Street home (now a National Park Service historic site). This chapter takes place in the 1850s and tells the story behind his first American home.
After Frederick Law Olmsted (FLO) settled on scientific farming as his life’s work, and a decade before he won his first Central Park assignment, his father, a Hartford, Connecticut, resident, purchased a small coastal farm on an isolated peninsula near Guilford on Sachem’s Head. The year was 1847.
The farm was not far from Yale, where FLO’s brother (and best friend), John Hull, and other friends were still studying. Although they could visit on weekends, the rocky soil and isolation were great obstacles to success.
Earlier, while visiting Staten Island, FLO’s father had seen Tosomock Farm. Situated near the southern shore of the island, it was closer to New York City. In 1848, FLO’s father loaned his son $12,000 for the purchase. The 140-acre property had splendid views of the waterfront between the island and the Atlantic.
Surrounded by a more lively farming community and closer to his brother and friends, the new farm was more agreeable to FLO’s future plans than Guilford farm. Its old Dutch stone farmhouse and surroundings also suited the new farmer. With his brother John embarking on a medical career and many Yale friends still nearby, the Staten Island farm, Tosomock (also known as Southside), soon became a weekend gathering spot.
Neighbors also came to call or invited the new farmer to dinner. One was Dr. Cyrus Perkins, a retired medical professor, who gave FLO four grapevines from his Holly Farm. He also introduced his granddaughter, Mary Perkins, who had come to live with him after the death of her parents. A friendship soon blossomed between her and John Hull. She also became a bedrock of stability for FLO in the decades to follow.
By the early months of 1850—spurred by the engagement of John Hull and Miss Perkins—the families drew closer. Eager for one last overseas adventure before settling down, and hoping to improve his health, John Hull and his friend Charles Loring Brace planned a walking trip through England. Caught off guard, Frederick wrote his father for help in joining his brother abroad.
Father Olmsted of course agreed, and the three boys set sail for England on April 30, 1850. FLO brought his notebook, intending to write about his travels and learn from farmers abroad about the craft and crops of farming there. At sea, the three passed the time playing chess matches using improvised playing pieces made from cork, and reading aloud to one another. They eventually docked near Liverpool in late May—high springtime in England.
Learning as much from the preserved—or historically designed—country landscapes surrounding each farm and village as from his interviews with local farmers, FLO’s first visit to the English countryside proved a turning point. His successful 1852 book about that English adventure initiated his landscape (and publishing) future.
After the tour, John Hull returned to Staten Island, married Mary Perkins, and headed back to Europe for a honeymoon. In 1853 he, his bride, and their new baby, “Tot” or “Charley” (in time they settled on the name John Charles Olmsted), came home to live in the nine-bedroom Southside farmhouse.
The brothers soon set off together to explore the vast Texas territory—eventually on horseback. The New York editors of FLO’s newspaper column (written under the pen name “Yeoman”) awaited news from San Antonio. FLO had already published coastal South news and views of plantation owners on the topic of the day—slavery. Edited by John Hull, this last installment produced the final touches to the Olmsted literary endeavor, bringing much-needed publishing notoriety and setting the stage for FLO’s next achievement—Central Park.
A decade of living, farming, and writing for New York newspapers and publishing houses from his Staten Island farm was drawing to a close. The loss of his best friend and a chance conversation in a Connecticut Inn would dramatically change Frederick’s life.
Next month, we’ll explore FLO’s move from Southside Farm across the water to New York City and into the abandoned Mount St. Vincent Convent building in the city’s sprawling, recently-acquired Central Park property.
The Staten Island farmhouse, “Southside,” sketch attributed to Frederick Law Olmsted in 1848.
John Hull Olmsted (1825-1857). His medical career on hold, by the end of the decade his tuberculosis was causing concern. John and his family (including John Charles Olmsted) took one last trip to southern Europe to enjoy sunnier, warmer, winter weather. He never returned. With his wife and children nearby, he died in Nice, France, on November 24, 1857. FLO lost his best friend—”You, almost your only friend” his father wrote—and traveling companion.
(From Olmsted’s personal collection of photographs, The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Boston, Mass.)
For this important anniversary year, we invited Olmsted family chronicler Joan Hockaday to write a series of essays. This is her first installment, with more to come:
Happy New Year to all Washington State University Press book readers, writers, and editors.
This year, park-maker, landscape architect and author Frederick Law Olmsted (FLO) turns 200! There are bicentennial events planned across the country on his birthday, April 26. Happy birthday, FLO!
On the 26th of each month throughout 2022, 200 years after his birth in Hartford, Connecticut, we will explore the family ties that helped FLO achieve one of the highest profile professional standings in America. His own father willingly helped finance each of FLO’s whims—and there were many—preceding his 1858 early career start with Central Park’s design.
FLO, along with his best friend and younger brother John Hull Olmsted, explored the English landscapes from Liverpool to London. Mostly traveling on foot to save money, the trip provided FLO with the visual inspiration for a lifetime of landscape design and park-making. He soon produced a book (pictured below)—his first—of those 1850 travels abroad.
Back in the States just before the Civil War, the pair explored the South on horseback together—despite his brother’s poor health and recent marriage to Staten Island neighbor, Mary Perkins. After John Hull Olmsted died of tuberculosis in 1857, FLO married his brother’s former bride and kept his promise to take care of their children, including John Charles Olmsted. It was a lifelong gift to honor his beloved brother.
Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (Rick) was born in 1870, just a decade before the Olmsted Boston office opened, and he joined his father FLO and brother John Charles (JCO) during the early years of their landscape architecture venture. After FLO and JCO (profiled in Greenscapes) died in the early 1900s, he helped carry on the Olmsted Brothers office with his own successful career. Indeed, family ties led to a thriving business, and then to the profession of landscape architecture in America in 1899 with the younger Olmsted, JCO, as its first president.
Without these young men helping father FLO, would his new profession and firm have flourished? This is one of the questions we’ll explore throughout 2022.
We look forward to seeing you for the next essay in the “Greenscapes/Earlyscapes” series.
December 8, 2021 from 11 am – 3 pm in the Terrell Library Atrium on the Pullman campus!
Festivities include steep discounts of 20-50% on all titles, drawings for free books, and complimentary refreshments.
Sale prices will also be valid for phone and online orders during the online Holiday Book Fair timeline, December 6 – 12, 2021, but you can start your browsing now!
The fair highlights books published throughout the year. With every $45 purchase (pre-tax), choose one of these four books from our FREE book table! For qualifying online orders, the option to select one of the four free books will be available at checkout.
If you’re nearby, you can save on shipping. Stop at the Cooper Publications Building on the Pullman campus to pick up your order between 9AM and 4PM on Friday, December 10th, and Monday, December 13th, or request a convenient time. Just choose Pullman pickup when you check out, and indicate in the notes the day and time you expect to arrive.
In 1847, missionary Henry Spalding shipped two barrels of “Indian curiosities” to his friend Dr. Dudley Allen in Kinsman, Ohio. Inside were exquisite Nez Perce shirts, dresses, baskets, horse regalia, and more—some decorated with porcupine quills and others with precious dentalium shells and rare elk teeth. Twenty-five years ago, after more than a century away, they returned to the Nez Perce. The extraordinary pieces are intimately connected to their home region, and their close proximity helps preserve cultural traditions. Homecoming commemoration events included a lecture series and a June 26, 2021 collection renaming celebration. The newest title from Washington State University (WSU) Press, Coming Home to Nez Perce Country: The Niimíipuu Campaign to Repatriate Their Exploited Heritage, draws on interviews with Nez Perce experts and extensive archival research to delve into the collection’s fascinating story. In addition, the book examines the ethics of acquiring, bartering, owning, and selling Native cultural history, and can serve as a case study for those seeking to restore their own ancestral heritage.
Donated to Oberlin College in 1893 and transferred to the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) in 1942, the Spalding-Allen Collection, now renamed wetxuuwíitin’ (“returned after period of captivity”) languished in storage until Nez Perce National Historic Park curators rediscovered it in 1976. The OHS loaned most of the artifacts to the National Park Service, where they received conservation treatment and were displayed in climate-controlled cases. Josiah Pinkham, Nez Perce cultural specialist, notes that they embody “the earliest and greatest centralization of ethnographic objects for the Nez Perce people. You don’t have a collection of this size, this age, anywhere else in the world.”
Twelve years later, the OHS abruptly recalled the collection, but after public pressure and extended negotiations, agreed to sell the articles to the Nez Perce at their full appraised value of $608,100. Given a scant six-month deadline, the tribe formed the Nez Perce Heritage Quest Alliance and mounted a brilliant grassroots fundraising campaign and sponsorship drive. Musicians created an MTV video. Schoolchildren, National Public Radio, and artists contributed.
Author Trevor James Bond participated in the commemoration as a Nez Perce National Historical Park Lecture Series panelist. He is co-director of the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation and associate dean for digital initiatives and special collections at the WSU Libraries. He recently was named director of WSU’s Center for Arts and Humanities. He holds a Ph.D. in history.
Shortly after the 1929 stock market crash, a flamboyant false prophet and mass-marketing genius decided to reinvent himself. Utilizing $2,500 from investors, he printed 1,000 sets of Psychiana lessons (the first and only religion with a money-back guarantee), 10,000 sales letters, and placed a $400 ad in Psychology Magazine. Soon rural Moscow, Idaho, became home to one of the era’s most successful New Thought religions. Award-winning author Brandon R. Schrand’s newest book, published by Washington State University Press and titled, Psychiana Man: A Mail-Order Prophet, His Followers, and the Power of Belief in Hard Times, tells the story of Frank Bruce Robinson, his correspondence gospel promising health, wealth, and happiness to anyone who believed in the “God Power,” and his unwavering followers—from a desperate dust bowl farmer to a former heavyweight boxing champion. Despite their faith, he was not who he claimed to be. Officials investigated Robinson for mail fraud and immigration violations, eventually indicting him for falsifying information on his U.S. passport application. As Latah County’s largest private employer, his small-town trial packed the courtroom and made national headlines.
Schrand first learned about Robinson and Psychiana entirely by chance from a brief entry in a local history book. “The story was so bizarre and baffling that it seemed like bad fiction. But it wasn’t. It was all too real. The more I looked into it, the more fascinated I became,” he explains. To tell the story, Schrand drew from Robinson’s prolific writing, the Psychiana papers housed at the University of Idaho, Latah County Historical Society materials, and other primary sources. Surprisingly, in combing the archives—including more than a thousand pages of letters from and to Robinson’s students—he found no instances of anyone requesting a refund, and almost no negative feedback. Indeed, when Postal Inspector Stephen Howard Morse dispatched a form letter to Psychiana students asking for negative experiences, he received only praise and stalwart defenses of the religion and its leader.
Brandon R. Schrand is the author of The Enders Hotel: A Memoir, a 2008 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers summer selection, and Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem and Misbehavior. His nonfiction has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Utne Reader, The Georgia Review, North American Review, and numerous other publications. A winner of the Pushcart Prize, he has also been a resident at Yaddo. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing, Nonfiction, from the University of Idaho, and an MS in American Studies from Utah State University.
Psychiana Man is paperback, 6″ x 9″, 414 pages, and lists for $24.95. It is available through bookstores nationwide, direct from WSU Press at 800-354-7360, or online at wsupress.wsu.edu. A nonprofit academic publisher associated with Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, WSU Press concentrates on telling unique, focused stories of the Northwest.
Based on interviews with students and staff, Teaching Native Pride: Upward Bound and the Legacy of Isabel Bond by Tony Tekaroniake Evans, offers first-hand accounts by Native people and highlights how one person can make a difference. In it, Native and non-Native voices tell the story of the federally sponsored Upward Bound program at the University of Idaho, intertwining personal anecdotes and memories with accounts of the program’s inception and goals, as well as regional Native American history and Isabel Bond’s Idaho family history. Dedicated to helping low-income and at-risk students attend college, its unique curriculum celebrated that heritage, helping Native students break cycles of poverty, isolation, and disenfranchisement, and non-Indians gain a new respect for Idaho’s first peoples.