The enigma of Olmsted

The enigma of Olmsted

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Home tomorrow night? You can catch the newest documentary on Frederick Law Olmsted on PBS. Entitled Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America, this is a basic overview of the seminal landscape architect’s career, starting with Central Park and ending with his final projects in Massachusetts and North Carolina.


We’ve discussed Olmsted a few times on this website. After all, what are parks but gardens writ large? And when it comes to landscape design, in America it starts with Olmsted—but you must wrestle with the fact that his career is so riddled with contradictions. On one hand, Olmsted is the most fervent advocate for the preservation of scenic beauty that we have ever had or ever will have. He saw a Niagara Falls desecrated by paper mills—where the Falls could only be seen for a fee—and successfully advocated for a place where wild beauty could be preserved for the benefit of the populace, an unheard of notion at the time. On the other hand, Olmsted’s designs were always intended for human consumption—conservation of nature was  secondary, if it was even a factor at all. The fact that these contradictory missions existed and thrived in the same mind is but one facet of his genius.


The film is narrated by Stockard Channing and has a standard documentary structure, with much panning over archival images à la Ken Burns, incisive commentary by a series of experts, and lovely contemporary footage of Olmsted sites throughout America. It was co-produced by my PBS TV station, WNED-TV Buffalo/Niagara and Florentine Films/Hott Productions.

The Buffalo park plan

Here are some of my favorite quotes, some from FLO, some from the doc’s interviewees:

It was a pestilential spot; it was filthy, squalid, and disgusting, filled with heaps of rubbish. … It had rocks; it had swamps; it was treeless. [the site that would become Central Park]

The plan when you look at it from a classically minded point of view, is beautiful and welcoming and, by comparison to a Parisian park, chaotic. It has no obvious inner architecture. [the Olmsted/Vaux Greensward plan for Central Park]

It was this notion of a city within a park that was so unique—nothing had been achieved on this scale that it was achieved in Buffalo. It is the most comprehensive network the two did together and then becomes a template that is repeated by Olmsted and other firms in cities throughout the country.

I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future.

The thing that most strikes me about Olmsted as a man is the deep, deep vein of melancholy that runs through all his writing. He was a serious man and I think that the seriousness of purpose is what unites his work.

The gem of Niagara Falls Park is Goat Island, and to Olmsted and Vaux it was the most beautiful part. Areas of it are [still] as they would have known it. If the mist is rising at the right angle, you can put yourself back in time.

He was a deep believer in artifice. Central Park is an artificial design, every bit as artificial as Disney World.

He was very good as creating stage sets for human life.

Guard against the impulse to fill up space with things.

The last quote is my favorite. Of course, many if not most of the Olmsted parks have become filled with things that he never intended should be there—golf courses, zoos, parking lots, baseball diamonds, snack bars, and much, much more. But in many if not most cases, the beauty has remained. (Though I could do without the golf courses, which have intruded on two of the Buffalo parks.) Utility was always part of the plan.

It seems there are at least two Olmsteds. There is the respecter and protector of natural beauty—without whom we might not have those vestiges of wild America that remain today. Then there is Olmsted the magician of contrived space, without whom we might lack those respites from urban congestion that remain in so many of our cities. There are probably other Olmsteds too, and that’s why the man is so fascinating—and why there will continue to be documentaries.

Images here are all screen shots from the documentary.

Posted by

Elizabeth Licata
on June 19, 2014 at 8:00 am, in the category Everybody’s a Critic, Unusually Clever People, Watch Someone Else Do It.

5 Comments
    • Chris
    • 29th January 2016

    The book The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America is about the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. There is quite a bit about Olmsted’s work on its landscaping, plus other things as you can tell by the title. It is a good read.

    • Chris
    • 9th June 2016

    “Now I need to go set the DVR, thanks for the heads up!”

    • Patterson Webster
    • 6th July 2016

    “After all, what are parks but gardens writ large?” Not sure I agree with that statement. Parks may be gardens writ large. They may also be other things, serving different purposes.

    • Deborah Banks
    • 4th September 2016

    Thanks very much for the heads-up. I haven’t been in front of a TV since last winter, so I would have missed it. I enjoyed the show very much. I hope it’s a new PBS trend.

    • erin bailey
    • 24th September 2016

    I do not find Olmstead an enigma… preserving unique wilderness beauties did not mean that he wanted to close down all paper mills. Just that there were some places so spectacular that they should be preserved for future generations. A city park is not a natural thing in the sense of saving the original wildlife, it is an outdoor house servicing people, a public garden for the public to enjoy. I love seeing “natural” sites, too, but I do not forsake my flower or my vegetable garden to preserve all wildness, just as I am not willing to give up my house to burrow underground like a chipmunk!

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