The Olmsted Legacy

by Paul Mattingly

On September 21, 2006 Elizabeth dedicated a marble memorial to its 29 citizens (21 under the age of 25) who died in the Vietnam War. At the 11AM ceremony many dignitaries, including Chapter 779 official Willie Mitchell, Freeholder Alexander Mirabella, Mayor Chris Bollwage and others, attested to the commitments of those who gave their last full measure of devotion. Sheriff Ralph Froelich, longtime County peacekeeper and former marine, cut the ribbon that removed the memorial cover.

HOWEVER, few Olmsted designs received full implementation while staying true to his conception. Indeed, these designs, especially Olmsted’s 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 NYC’s Central park, is an historical phenomenon, a constantly changing creation.

Olmsted’s legacy is not a static inheritance; as custodians of this inheritance, we need to begin with Olmsted’s 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 America’s 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 landscape architect.

His journalist career produced articles, then widely read books in the 1850s on travel to England and then to the American South. His travels in England took him, among many other places, to the people’s Park in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, where he observed how managed parkland could respond to the ills of the modern city, the “most heart-hardening and taste-smothering” place of all. His travels to the South became several books – notably THE COTTON KINGDOM – which introduced many of his fellow 
Northerners to their first exposure to the institution of slavery and his abolitionist views. Ever afterward Olmsted recognized the power of publicity in any reformist enterprise.

In the 1850s he wrote for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, which published other voices of his generation, like Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville; later in the 1860s he worked strenuously for The Nation, still one of our leading journals of informed opinion. Implicitly Olmsted recognized the centrality of citizen understanding as a prerequisite of constructive change, something different than mere factual dissemination.

Olmsted’s 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 Olmsted’s 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.

Olmsted’s 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 Olmsted’s 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.

Olmstead Associates’s Warninanco Park,
Elizabeth NJ, Autumn 2003
Warninanco Park, Elizabeth NJ, Spring
Summer Roses, Elizabeth NJ