From Frederick Law Olmsted: Writings on Landscape, Culture, and Society
Downing was an early proponent of open spaces in urban settings and an insistent advocate for the creation of a large park in the middle of Manhattan. Unfortunately, in 1852, soon after publishing Olmsted’s article on pears in his magazine, Downing was killed, along with eighty others, when the steamboat Henry Clay, carrying five hundred excursionists, burst into flames and crashed onto the bank of the Hudson River. The year after Downing’s death, the New York legislature finally agreed to develop a 67-block stretch in central Manhattan for the city’s Central Park, and in 1857 Olmsted teamed up with Downing’s surviving business partner, Calvert Vaux, and submitted the winning design.
Central Park was just the beginning; it is impossible to imagine the American landscape without Frederick Law Olmsted. (The National Association for Olmsted Parks has created a map showing the thousands of projects designed by the Olmsted family over a century-long span.) By the early 1880s he had already designed, among countless ventures, Manhattan’s Riverside Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Niagara Falls State Park, Chicago’s South Park system, and Detroit’s Belle Isle. Other commissions included numerous college campuses (such as Cornell University, University of California–Berkeley’s Piedmont Avenue, and the University of Maine), the management of the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove, and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Throughout his career he published voluminously, often outlining—and defending—his aesthetic views. And his writings often explained how the inclusion of trees played a pivotal role in his projects; as Witold Rybczynski, the author of the recent best seller A Clearing in the Distance, succinctly put it, “Olmsted loved trees.”
Like several of his contemporaries, Olmsted made much of the “sanitary” aspects of landscape design—the term is scattered throughout his 1882 essay “Trees in Streets and in Parks”—but he resisted those well-meaning proponents who saw “nothing in a park but an airing apparatus, to be made attractive by decorations.” He instead used the term in far more holistic sense; as Charles E. Beveridge writes, “Olmsted’s emphasis on the ‘sanitary’ influence of his style of landscape design reflected his desire to have his designs produce an effect on the whole human organism. He believed that such service to human needs, and not simply the creation of decoration, should underlie all art.” Similarly, Melvin Kalfus, in his book Frederick Law Olmsted: The Passion of a Public Artist, affirms that Olmsted argued “that both the ‘air purifying value’ and the ‘decorative motive’ of planting trees were subordinate to its paramount object: to offer a restorative, often unconscious, ‘solace and comfort’ to town-strained minds.”
Note: The “pamphlet prepared by an eminent physician” mentioned on page 590 is Public Parks: Their Effects upon the Moral, Physical and Sanitary Condition of the Inhabitants of Large Cities; with Special Reference to the City of Chicago (1869), by John Henry Rauch.
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