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Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), the father of landscape architecture in America, set in motion an organization that has produced over 10,000 projects in a near-century of work. The Olmsted name now instantly conjures associations with stunning landscapes and more important, a tradition of GRAND DESIGN. These associations have become axiomatic and proud resources for any city fortunate enough to receive the benefit of the Olmsted genius.
HOWEVER, few Olmsted designs received full implementation while staying true to his conception. Indeed, these designs, especially Olmsteds parks, have experienced both insightful and heavy-handed modernizing over the years. (Also one of the least studied features of the Olmsted legacy). Art, as Frederick Law Olmsted learned to his chagrin, particularly with his design of NYCs Central park, is an historical phenomenon, a constantly changing creation.
Olmsteds legacy is not a static inheritance; as custodians of this inheritance, we need to begin with Olmsteds intention as a benchmark and measure of our own stewardship of his parks and other Grand Designs.
Olmsted had multiple careers, each of which
contributed to his ultimate achievement as Americas foremost landscape
architect. First, he became in his early 30s a journalist; second, he
became an administrator for the US Sanitary Commission (a prototype Red
Cross) during the Civil War, and third, of course, as a self-invented
Olmsteds second career broke open with the Civil War. He took the first salaried position of the US Sanitary commission, which began as a voluntary association of affluent New York women who wished to do their part for the war effort. Their collection of money and medical material mushroomed into a multistate enterprise that needed a more formal bureaucracy than volunteers could manage. This new mode of organization mirrored in a way the expansive military organization that won the war, which had to accommodate the changes implicit in an army of 15K in 1861 becoming an army of 2.4M by 1865. Olmsted established a chain of command, from central NYC to all the northern states and many local units, allocated medical supplies on the recommendation of doctors, thereby privileging scientific expertise over political priorities. He quickly created an efficient organizational engine that was lionized for its ongoing adaptation and social reconstruction.
SO PUBLICITY, ORGANIZATION became two mainstays of Olmsteds urban legacy.
His third career, of course, centered on design but he had learned how misdirected politics had compromised his Central park plan and did not wish to repeat the process with his later (more satisfactory) blueprint for Prospect Park in Brooklyn. How did the two differ? First, Olmsted knew local residents influence the maintenance and appreciation of his park plans. He promoted park borders of middle-class town houses rather than apartment houses. Resourceful residents reflected more proprietary attitudes toward the park as an urban resource than did renters. His sense of a city as congested and multi-faceted - indeed endangered by overcrowding and potentially riotous behavior - made him think of his pleasure grounds not only as a locus of recreation but also of coercing different social classes into a harmonizing civility.
Olmsted institutionalized these values - PUBLICITY, ORGANIZATION AND CIVILITY - into the cornerstone of his legacy. He invested them dramatically in his design of, for example, the US Capitol grounds in Washington, the groundplan for the influential Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, the invention of the parkway in Buffalo, NY; the promotion of the suburb in Riverside, Illinois and Atlanta, Georgia; the creation of the idea of a campus for Berkeley California, Stanford University and in the state of New Jersey, for Lawrenceville School near Princeton. - among many other examples. His son - Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. - would carry on the work with still more expansive projects, like the first two integrated county park systems in the US, first in Essex County NJ, then in Union county, showcasing respectively the cities of Newark and Elizabeth.
Olmsteds legacies appeared most dramatically in his Grand Park Designs. They were active engines for social cooperation rather than passive ornaments of beautification. Their fresh air - the lungs of the city he called Central park - and design were modern urban necessities, powerful places that quietly regenerated the rough edges of group and individual proclivities, so often the causes of social breakdown.
So Olmsteds three career stages - journalist, administrator, landscape architect - translated into an urban legacy, which expects changes and continuous adaptations and which requires constant publicity, adaptive and politically sensitive organization and above all an inclusive civility. These three but the greatest of these was civility, the product of a self-conscious, artistic design.
This urban legacy is a powerful, propulsive force in any city fortunate to have an Olmsted Design. Today the Historical Society; Elizabeth, NJ Inc is keeping the Olmsted flame with PUBLICITY - encouraging public engagement - in three languages - via instruments like our Elizabeth Forums, our new Historical Society website, and our constituent-sensitive Park brochure; with ORGANIZATION - networking with the NJ Historical Society, the New Jersey Historical Commission, Union County Historic and Cultural Affairs office, the Weequahic park Association, among many public and private corporations; and thru CIVILITY - researching the changing multiethnic and multiracial uses of parkland and other city resources over the past century. We welcome your reactions.
Warinanco's Gum Tree Walk, 2003
Warninanco Park, Elizabeth NJ, Spring
Summer Roses, Elizabeth NJ