Walnut Hill Park in New Britain, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted John Phelan, Creative Commons

The 200th anniversary of Frederick Law Olmsted’s (1822-1903) birth on April 26th is being celebrated nationwide in hundreds of communities that owe their beloved parks to him and the landscape architecture firm run by his sons. Olmsted — born, raised, influenced and eventually buried in Hartford — was regarded by peers and contemporaries as a genius. He viewed each assignment in life through lenses – as a journalist, artist, systems analyst, manager, entrepreneur, horticulturalist, collaborator, salesman, politician and more.

William Hosley

A few years ago The Atlantic invited a group of ten eminent historians to identify the 100 most influential figures in American history. Olmsted ranked 49th.

Central Park in Manhattan, the masterpiece he created with partner Calvert Vaux, is arguably the greatest work of art in the art capital of America. Eventually he went on to create a hugely successful landscape design firm. They designed renowned urban parks in Buffalo, Montreal, Boston, Rochester, New Britain, Chicago and more. Also the campuses of mental hospitals in Hartford, Boston and Buffalo; the grounds of the U.S. Capitol; college campuses at Stanford, Berkeley and Smith College; and many great estates – most famously the Biltmore estate of George Washington Vanderbilt (whose uncle Cornelius Vanderbilt II is buried in Hartford’s Spring Grove Cemetery).

With Olmsted there is so much more. Indeed, had his career in landscape architecture never happened he’d still be an important historical figure. Here’s why.

Olmsted was a late bloomer. His father, a successful dry goods merchant in the then-booming city of Hartford, repeatedly provided financial support to his autodidact of a son. Olmsted bounced around several schools, audited a few classes at Yale but never matriculated, and was a voracious reader who took full advantage of Hartford’s then-new Young Men’s Institute library, where he discovered the writings of British landscape design influencers – Uvedale Price, Sir William Kent, William Gilpin, Joseph Addison, Humphrey Repton, Joseph Paxton and the American Andrew Jackson Downing. The Olmsted family made a habit of what we’d call Sunday drives – his mother with her basket for clippings. The prominent Hartford County Agricultural Society had an horticultural committee active through Olmsted’s youth. In 1848, the Hartford Horticultural Society was founded. A revolution in what they called “scientific agriculture” was underway and Connecticut remained highly agrarian. Farming continued to be the backbone of Connecticut’s economy into the 1850s.

In 1850, Frederick, his brother John and a friend talked father Olmsted into underwriting a “walking tour” of England – an experience that changed his life. His account of his adventure, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, was published in London and New York in 1852 and put him on the map among readers in the landscape design movement.

It also established him as a writer and journalist so that in 1853, when the recently established New York Times was looking for someone to travel through the South and report on a world few up north knew or understood – he got the nod, which sent him on a series of trips from Kentucky and Mississippi to Texas. His serialized reports were later repackaged for publication as a series of three books that, in 1861, were condensed into The Cotton Kingdom. Nothing in our literature captures the antebellum South like these books do. He described his assignment as “observing the condition and character of the citizens” as the “principal object while traveling in the slave States.” What he witnessed radicalized him, changing him from someone who viewed slavery with genteel distaste to a devout abolitionist. As such, The Cotton Kingdom became nearly as influential as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both in England and the U.S.

A statue of Frederick Law Olmsted in the North Carolina Arboretum

Having already designed and substantially built Central Park, when war broke out in 1861 Olmsted pivoted again, backstopping an unprecedented need for system and organization in medical care and logistics for a war many times the scale of any prior war. What do you do when wounded warriors are arriving hundreds at a time from the battlefields? He became the founding director of the United States Sanitary Commission – the precursor to the Red Cross. His up-close-and-personal experience – from the Peninsular Campaign in Virginia to Gettysburg – was traumatic and intense. It yielded another book, as riveting as anything I’ve ever read about the Civil War.

Throughout this period Olmsted cobbled together a livelihood. Though already renowned for his work on Central Park, he had yet to make landscape architecture a self-sustaining career.

His next opportunity came in 1863 with an assignment to manage a gold mining property in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, known as the Mariposa Estate. Long story short, that lead to his being appointed chairman of a new Yosemite Valley commission and an assignment from President Lincoln to make the case in writing for what became the Yosemite Grant – a report that was the opening act in what eventually became the formation of our National Parks, an institution his son Fred lived long enough to see and influence.

Parks, promoting abolition, the formation of the Red Cross and the National Park Service – this is a lot of accomplishment for a late bloomer who drank deep from the rich well that was 1830s and 40s Hartford. Olmsted’s personal mission statement – adopted at the age of 24 – read, “I want to make myself useful in the world – to make others happy – to help advance the condition of society.” Few ever succeeded to the degree he did.

Want to learn more and participate in a wreath laying ceremony at Olmsted’s grave site in Old North Cemetery?

The morning of April 23rd, Connecticut Landmarks and Historic Hartford team up, with a pair of back-to-back lectures by myself and Dr. Donald Poland at Hartford’s Isham-Terry House museum, almost across the street from where Olmsted’s family lived. Afterward we take a ten minute walk to Old North for the wreath laying and comments.

Learn more and register here.

William Hosley is curator at Historic Hartford.