“The Father of American Landscape Architecture”

Picking up where I left off last month … Frederick Law Olmsted. Touted as “the father of American landscape architecture”, Mr. Olmsted has left behind an impressive list of work. Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1822, Olmsted had an auspicious career in journalism before his heightened success as a landscape architect. Aside from his most notable commissioned work, the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, North Carolina, Frederick Olmsted’s work is so long, that just listing them would surpass the word count requirement of this article. Highlights include the academic campuses of Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, Stanford University, Cornell University and Yale University to name a few. Other notable commissioned works include the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts, Branch Brook Park in Newark, New Jersey and the Niagara Reservation, now the Niagara Falls State Park. The point being that Olmsted was sought after everywhere and worked everywhere. His genius is undisputed and his contributions are numerous. However, with all that he had accomplished, New York’s Central Park, another of his creative works, is located virtually in our own backyard.

Embarrassed to admit this, growing up in New Jersey my parents routinely took my brother and me into New York City for various cultural events. Continuing those experiences as a young adult, it was not until my wife and I decided to take our daughter to the Central Park Zoo that I actually spent time in Central Park.  Not dismissing the efforts of Frederick Law Olmsted, how could you, many give him sole credit for the park’s design.  In fact, the English-born architect Calvert Vaux shares credit for the design. Olmsted and Vaux entered the design contest together and were pitted against Egbert Ludovicus Viele, a civil engineer and United States Representative. “The design of Central Park embodies Olmsted’s social consciousness and commitment to egalitarian ideals.” Olmsted believed that the common green space of Central Park should be equally accessible to all citizens. And what about that green space…where did it come from? The Greensward project, which was the plan that Olmsted and Vaux submitted for the now Central Park, was a parcel of land that was seen as undesirable. More than 700 acres, the land between Fifth and Eighth avenues and 59th and 106th streets, was acquired by the power of eminent domain. The project had irregular terrain and swamps and displaced some 1600 residents who lived in shanties.

While there were many besides Olmsted and Vaux who helped shape, design and maintain America’s first landscaped public park in the United States, Central Park had another person’s strong influence. Ignaz Pilat was an Austrian-born gardener who migrated to the United States and worked on design and planting of Central Park. Accomplishments include studying botany at the University of Vienna and obtaining a position at the Imperial Botanical Gardens of the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna.  It was here where Pilat acquired many of his skills. Ignaz Pilat has been credited for many of the plant choices seen throughout the park. A list so diverse it’s worth the Google search…trees of Central Park.

My family’s outing in Central Park was full of excitement! Standing inside the Central Park Zoo watching the Snow Monkeys through our daughter’s eyes was worth the price of admission. For me, standing behind that attraction with a sweep of Crape Myrtle in bloom gazing up at the rigid architecture of the city through a large mass of American Elm was awe inspiring. What a great place to have so close to home. Walking under the George Delacorte Music Clock on our way to the Tisch Children’s Zoo was another highlight. The park is filled with too many attractions to list here, but I will say this, when you build up an appetite walking through all its grandeur, don’t miss the Central Park Boathouse for lunch. The scenery and culinary treats will hold your attention.

Olmsted’s ideal to preserve areas of natural beauty for future public enjoyment is heard through his own words. “What artist so noble…as he who, with far-reaching conception of beauty, in designing power, sketches the outlines, writes the colors, and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations, before the work he arranged for her shall realize his intentions.”   Olmsted’s attempt to improve society is echoed in his work. His open spaces are seen as “places of harmony” where we can, even today, escape from the grind of our everyday lives to a more perfect place.