August 28: Genius of the Places

2016/08/28 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1903 Frederick Law Olmsted died.

To say that Olmsted (b. 1822) was not just an American landscape designer; he was the American landscape designer.  Olmsted’s resume includes public parks in Buffalo, Montreal, Boston, Rochester, Detroit, Milwaukee, Louisville, Ontario, Chicago, Trenton and New York; the parkway at Niagara Falls, the Midway Plaisance at the Columbian Exposition, the country’s first commuter suburb at Riverside, IL, the massive acreage surrounding the Biltmore estate in Asheville and the grounds of the US Capitol, as well as dozens of university campuses, including Berkeley, Stanford,  Chicago, Bryn Mawr, Stanford and Cornell.

In good nineteenth-century fashion, Olmsted came to his vocation after trying out several others.  At the age of 44, after serving as a correspondent to the Confederate states for the New York Times, after managing a gold mine in California, after managing the US Sanitary Commission, after farming on Staten Island, after working in a dry-goods store, after a yearlong sojourn through Europe, he decided to try his hand at parks and other landscapes.

Perhaps because he had no training in design, horticulture, or other related subjects, Olmsted thought broadly about the possibilities of parkland, especially in public settings.  Probably his best known work (and potentially his project enjoyed most regularly by the greatest number of people), Central Park, was not an ornament for the metropolis but rather a gift to ordinary people, average workers, without the means to take fabulous summer breaks in the new hotels of the White Mountains or their cottages in Newport.  Olmsted believed that a public park provided an opportunity to visit “a specimen of God’s handiwork” in the midst of a great city teeming with workers.  Such respite in nature was significant to the human condition, and should not be only within the reach of those with resources to remove themselves from the city for a month or two at a time.  Olmsted held that “the occasional contemplation of natural scene of an impressive character,” associated with changes in “air and habits” would improve residents’ “health and vigor.”  He explained the potential of the landscape to improve the mental and emotional health of individual:

The want of such occasional recreation where men and women are habitually pressed by their business or household cares often results in a class of disorders the characteristic quality of which is mental disability, sometimes taking the severe forms of softening of the brain, paralysis, palsey, monomania, or insanity, but more frequently of mental and nervous excitability, moroseness, melancholy, or irascibility, incapacitating the subject for the proper exercise of the intellectual and moral forces.

In any and all circumstances, Olmsted provided landscapes of graceful lines, open spaces, simple local flora to suggest leisure, rest the mind, encourage contemplation and inspire tranquility.  Olmsted’s work was never virtuoso nor self-aggrandizing, neither self-consciously artistic nor overtly ‘designed.’  He believed his job was to celebrate the “genius of the place” rather than make his signature mark as a designer and by doing so left a legacy of engaging, humane places that still provide refreshment to the “intellectual and moral forces” of those who take the time to enjoy them.

Image: portrait by John Singer Sargent, painted in 1895 for the Biltmore house (from this source)

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