OLMSTED, FREDERICK LAW (1822-1903), American landscape architect, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on the 27th of April 1822. From his earliest years he was a wanderer. While still a lad he shipped before the mast as a sailor; then he took a course in the Yale Scientific School; worked for several farmers; and, finally, began farming for himself on Staten Island, where he met Calvert Vaux, with whom later he formed a business partnership. All this time he wrote for the agricultural papers. In 1850 he made a walking tour through England, his observations being published in Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England (1852). A horseback trip through the Southern States was recorded in A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856), A Journey through Texas (1857) and A Journey in the Back Country (1860).
These three volumes, reprinted in England in two as Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom (1861), gave a picture of the conditions surrounding American slavery that had great influence on British opinion, and they were much quoted in the controversies at the time of the Civil War. During the war he was the untiring secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. He happened to be in New York City when Central Park was projected, and, in conjunction with Vaux, proposed the plan which, in competition with more than thirty others, won first prize. Olmsted was made superintendent to carry out the plan.
This was practically the first attempt in the United States to apply art to the improvement or embellishment of nature in a public park; it attracted great attention, and the work was so satisfactorily done that he was engaged thereafter in most of the important works of a similar nature in America—Prospect Park, Brooklyn; Fairmount Park, Philadelphia; South Park, Chicago; Riverside and Morningside Parks, New York; Mount Royal Park, Montreal; the grounds surrounding the Capitol at Washington, and at Leland Stanford University at Palo Alto (California); and many others. He took the bare stretch of lake front at Chicago and developed it into the beautiful World's Fair grounds, placing all the buildings and contributing much to the architectural beauty and the success of the exposition. He was greatly interested in the Niagara reservation, made the plans for the park there, and also did much to influence the state of New York to provide the Niagara Park.
He was the first commissioner of the National Park of the Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove, directing the survey and taking charge of the property for the state of California. He had also held directing appointments under the cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Wilmington and San Francisco, the Joint Committee on Buildings and Grounds of Congress, the Niagara Falls Reservation Commission, the trustees of Harvard, Yale, Amherst and other colleges and public institutions. Subsequently to 1886 he was largely occupied in laying out an extensive system of parks and parkways for the city of Boston and the town of Brookline, and on a scheme of landscape improvement of Boston harbour. Olmsted received honorary degrees from Harvard, Amherst and Yale in 1864, 1867 and 1893. He died on the 28th of August 1903.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920