Episode posted April 21, 2021
Podcast Episode #10: https://cream-city-windy-city.simplecast.com/episodes/frederick-law-olmsted
Title: Frederick Law Olmsted
This is Cream City, Windy City. I’m Wendy Bright.
Every episode, we explore thought-provoking connections between Milwaukee and Chicago, two cities 90-miles apart on the shores of Lake Michigan. This podcast is an effort to lay out some of these links, to connect the stories of both cities.
Today we look at the Father of Landscape Architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted, who had an outsize impact on Milwaukee and Chicago. Olmsted is best known for New York’s Central Park but his incomparable work spans North America. Olmsted designed some of Milwaukee and Chicago’s most exquisitely conceived parks. The early 1890s found him working on projects in both cities, traveling back and forth by train the 90 miles between Chicago and Milwaukee.
Let’s travel back to March 1893. The Columbian Exposition – the Chicago World’s Fair – was soon to open. Daniel Burnham, lead architect and planner of the Fair, was to be honored at a gala dinner in Chicago. When he rose to address the crowd, he turned their attention to another man, who was not in attendance. Burnham said: “Each of you knows the name and genius of him who stands first in the heart and confidence of American artists, the creator of your own parks and many other city parks. He it is who has been our best advisor and constant mentor. In the highest sense he is the planner of the Exposition—Frederick Law Olmsted.” Burnham saw the many nods of recognition. He continued: “An artist, he paints with lake and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views. He should stand where I do tonight, not for the deeds of later years alone, but for what his brain has wrought and his pen has taught for half a century.” The audience erupted in applause.
In the book Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, author Justin Martin asserts that Olmsted is one of the most important figures in American history …but strangely not widely known by most Americans. Yet his work has affected us all, whether we’re aware of it or not.
Frederick Law Olmsted lived quite the fascinating life. Before he settled into his career as a landscape architect – relatively late in life – he had traveled extensively, studied, and worked in many fields. Olmsted was a renaissance man who brought his wealth of experience to bear in his revolutionary landscape work.
Born in 1822 in Hartford, Connecticut, at a young age he was introduced to beautiful landscapes. His father, a great lover of natural scenery, took young Frederick around New England and upstate New York “in search of the picturesque.” Olmsted later credited his success to this early exposure. He said: “The root of all my good work is an early respect for, regard, and enjoyment of scenery.”
In his 20s, Olmsted embarked on a year-long voyage as a sailor in the China Trade, spending months living in China. He then took up the study of surveying and engineering, chemistry, and scientific farming. He then operated his own farm on Staten Island for several years and learned much about land management. During that time, he also took a six-month walking tour of Europe, closely studying the parks, gardens, and scenic countryside.
Those travels led to his next professional path as a writer. His first book, published in 1852 was entitled Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England. The book led to a challenging assignment in the 1850s for the New York Times. As the country’s tensions between north and south intensified, Olmsted was sent to the slaveholding South to report back for northern readers. He intended to be an impartial journalist, but soon found that impossible: he had to speak out about all that he witnessed in the South. In the late 1850s Olmsted published three volumes about his travels, which included his unapologetic opposition to slavery. His work as a journalist then led to time living in London and more travel in Europe focusing on public parks.
By the time he would begin work as a landscape architect, Olmsted had already formed the social and political values that would undergird his landscape design. In 1857 at the age of 35, through his many New York literary connections, he won the job of supervisor of the new city park. His multifaceted knowledge of topography, soil, agriculture, surveying, and engineering, as well as his ideas about human needs in an urbanizing country, resulted in the project that would consume him for decades and earn him great fame: New York’s Central Park.
A young English architect in New York City, Calvert Vaux, invited Olmsted to collaborate on a submission to the official Central Park design competition. Their flowing, naturalistic design made the most of the rocky topography and was to provide a natural escape from the rapidly developing city. They won the competition.
But Olmsted had a few more life adventures to embark upon.
When the Civil War began, Olmsted was appointed director of the U.S. Sanitary Commission (a precursor to the Red Cross), overseeing the health and camp sanitation of the Union Army, as well as devising a national medical supply system.
Toward the end of the war, the 42-year-old Olmsted headed west to manage a vast gold-mining operation in northern California. While there, he defended California’s redwoods and Yosemite, which prompted President Lincoln’s signing of the Yosemite Grant Act of 1864, which would lead to the national parks system. But Olmsted found himself again horrified in California as he had been in the South, as he witnessed the widespread mistreatment of Black Americans, Native Americans, and Chinese immigrants.
In 1865 he returned to New York. He and Vaux formed Olmsted, Vaux & Co., and continued their work on Central Park. It would take another 13 years before the masterpiece would be completed. 1865 was also the year, when Olmsted, at the age of forty-three, made the decision to fully devote himself to landscape architecture, a profession that he virtually founded.
Frederick Law Olmsted thus embarked on a 30-year career as landscape designer. His sons and successor firm would carry on long after his retirement. Olmsted’s sublime work includes Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the Biltmore Estate, and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and the White House…and, of course, magnificent parks in Chicago and Milwaukee. All across the continent, Olmsted created visually compelling and accessible green spaces within urban environments. He instinctively understood how to integrate the natural world into the city.
The brilliant Olmsted was a voracious reader. His many ideas, formed over time, developed into mature theory. He brought together a new way of looking at problems of landscape design. It can’t be overstated how transformative Olmsted’s work was. Prior to his influence, any landscape work was known simply as gardening. Gardens were most often private and exclusive, formal, and artificial in the use of non-native plants. Olmsted elevated the arranging of landscapes from the realm of nurserymen to art. He made use of native species in a natural manner.
And his landscapes were meant for everyone to experience. This was a new concept in America: public parks for the common good, not restricted by income or social status.
Olmsted believed that landscape design was in service to deep human needs. Scenery could have a salubrious effect on people. This effect was produced, not through the rational mind, but subconsciously and emotionally. Olmsted said that he cultivated “susceptibility to the power of scenery.”
Olmsted’s designs were manmade works of art, carefully conceived, but made to look absolutely natural. Olmsted designed like a painter, using trees, ponds, rocks, and meadows in his compositions. He created scenery of balance, harmony, and variety. He heightened certain qualities in nature, created vistas, and orchestrated sequences of experiences. Olmsted’s landscape design could seem subtle, but it was actually powerful.
Olmsted believed that urban parks should supply three things not found in the city itself: air purified by abundant foliage, a place to relax and room to move, and landscapes to delight the eye. His parks would be free from the rigidity, confinement, and artificiality of the city. His designs replaced the harshness of the city with pastoral serenity.
Not everyone understood Olmsted’s genius. He challenged the preconceptions of the era, especially the preference for fussy, formal layouts composed of exotic hothouse plants. His relaxed, almost rural designs were criticized as rough and unkempt. Olmsted combined the rich wildness of nature with intentional composition in a way never seen before. But once experienced, people couldn’t help but be enchanted.
In 1869 Chicago hired Olmsted, Vaux & Co. to design a park system as they had done in Buffalo, NY. Olmsted saw public parks as a system, ideally connected with one another through scenic boulevards. The boulevards or parkways extended the parks’ green space further in the city and also enhanced nearby property values. Chicago wanted two large parks on the city’s south side: one on the lakefront and another one mile inland, with a parkway connecting the two.
The immense Chicago park system project, called South Park, would be the firm’s largest up to that time, encompassing 1,000 acres with a mile-long parkway. The plan called for the lakefront site, Jackson Park, to be transformed into a network of waterways for boats and swimming; the waterways would be the primary way to move through the park – a new idea in park design.
The park inland, Washington Park, would be a naturalistic design in the manner of New York’s Central Park. It included a vast open meadow on which cows and sheep would roam to enhance the pastoral experience and keep the lawn trimmed.
The mile-long parkway between them would be named the Midway Plaisance. Midway meaning between the two parks and Plaisance from the French roughly translated as pleasantness. The Midway Plaisance would have a canal cut down its center so that people could boat between the two parks in the summer or skate between them in the winter.
But the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the 1870s economic depression disrupted plans for the park system. In the aftermath of the city’s major disaster, the idea of building a park system was now a costly and extravagant dream – one that was soon mostly forgotten. Washington Park would slowly be developed, but Jackson Park would lie fallow for another 20 years.
In Milwaukee city leaders were also planning a park system. The driving force behind it was Bavarian-born Christian Wahl, who was familiar with the great parks and gardens of Europe. As a young man Wahl, along with his brothers, had relocated to Chicago. They opened their Wahl Brothers glue factory on the South Branch of the Chicago River in Bridgeport. After 20 years of success, in 1886 they sold their glue business to Philip Armour.
Christian Wahl retired to Milwaukee. He spent his retirement as a great patron of the arts and as a Park Commissioner. While living in Chicago, Wahl had witnessed the growth of the Chicago park system and understood Olmsted’s role in it. He was eager to lend his expertise toward the same in Milwaukee.
It was Christian Wahl who suggested that the Milwaukee Park Commission hire Olmsted’s firm. He knew that Olmsted would be working as Landscape Architect for the Columbian Exposition. Wahl reasoned that Olmsted was already nearby and could conveniently make his way up to Milwaukee. As the Park Commission’s report of the time added: “The fact that Olmsted & Co. had charge of the landscape work at the World’s Fairgrounds enabled them to offer more liberal terms than would have been the case had they not had work in the West.”
Olmsted would design a system of three parks for Milwaukee: Lake Park on the lakefront, River Park on the Milwaukee River (renamed Riverside Park), and West Park, on the city’s west side (renamed Washington Park). A tree-lined residential parkway, Newberry Boulevard, would connect Lake and River Parks. Milwaukee’s three-park system became known as the Grand Necklace of Parks.
Riverside Park was a modest 25 acres featuring an oak grove, a waterfall, and the wooded slope down to the Milwaukee River.
Extending straight east from Riverside park is Newberry Boulevard, nearly one mile long, wide and tree-lined. An eclectic array of homes was built from 1896 into the 1920s. The American Society of Landscape Architects named Newberry Boulevard one of America’s Great Streets, calling it an “iconic example of Olmsted’s ideas.”
Newberry Boulevard leads to the formal entrance of the elegant Lake Park. The 138-acre park is dramatically sited on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Olmsted took full advantage of all the natural attributes of the location, from the streams running through the ravines, to the spectacular views of the lake, but he, of course, enhanced all of it. Walking paths wind through the ravines evoking the experience of wandering in deep woods. Olmsted called for the strategic planting of trees to both obscure views and to reveal them, especially of the lake.
Lake Park would feature carriage drives, waterfalls, and rustic bridges. In 1893, the year of the Chicago World’s Fair, the German engineer Oscar Sanne, working alongside Olmsted on the Fair, also designed two Lake Park bridges that span the ravines: the Steel and Brick Arch open-spandrel bridges. A few years later, the eight famous lion sculptures would grace those bridges.
Milwaukee’s Washington Park completed the Grand Necklace of Parks. Located on high ground on the burgeoning west side of the city, the large park would become one of the city’s most popular. Olmsted worked with the naturally rolling topography and enhanced it with winding pathways, carefully conceived vistas, groves of trees, and a small lake. Many thousands of trees, bushes, and flowers of varied species were planted to create a natural appearance. A deer paddock was included in the park, a small animal viewing area that would soon become Milwaukee’s first zoo.
Olmsted had begun working on Milwaukee’s set of parks at the same time as he was working as Landscape Architect for the Chicago World’s Fair. Starting in 1890, Olmsted would travel by train several times between Milwaukee and Chicago to oversee both cities’ projects.
In Chicago, Olmsted again revealed his preference for Lake Michigan. He had helped choose the site for the World’s Fair out of seven potential places around Chicago. He believed the lakefront setting to be a grand and striking setting for the Exposition. Since most of the Chicago area was flat and relatively featureless, he concluded that “there is but one object of scenery near Chicago for special grandeur or sublimity”…and that was Lake Michigan.
For the fairgrounds, he revived his 20-year old plan for Jackson Park, which would include the network of waterways.
Olmsted opened a Chicago field office in Burnham and Root’s Rookery building in the Loop, where their office was, as well. It was there that the original master plan for the Fair – with John Wellborn Root doing the expansive drawing – took form. Olmsted was there again in February 1891 when all of the architects gathered to present their pavilion designs. Olmsted especially approved of the fact that each major pavilion had water access to accommodate the boats on his waterways.
The one-mile-long Midway Plaisance outside the official fairgrounds held the Fair’s amusement attractions. The world’s first Ferris Wheel was here. And this is where we get the term ‘midway,’ referring to any fair’s entertainment and rides area.
Olmsted’s design for the landscape of the Columbian Exposition was a huge undertaking. The 690-acre site had to be drained and cleared and only then could construction and landscaping begin. Olmsted created his Venice-like waterways and complemented them with profuse naturalistic plantings, lush and green. He planted mostly indigenous species and included fragrant plants to provide visitors with a full sensory experience. He sent out foraging parties to lakes and rivers in Illinois and Wisconsin to gather willows, rushes, and cattails for planting. The Wooded Island was one of the highlights of Olmsted’s design; architect Louis Sullivan called it the best part of the Fair. Sullivan’s assistant, Frank Lloyd Wright, spent much time on the island, admiring the Japanese pavilion in its naturalistic island setting.
Frederick Law Olmsted was present for the Chicago World’s Fair opening day, May 1st, 1893. But he wasn’t in the audience for the speeches. He was out on the fairgrounds making one last check to ensure that all was perfect.
Frederick Law Olmsted over the course of his career created hundreds of works of landscape architecture. His legacy goes beyond these masterworks to his theory and writings that pass on his design principles, which have informed landscape architecture ever since. The Olmsted home and office in Brookline, MA is now a national historic site.
Olmsted’s designs have unquestionably graced Chicago and Milwaukee.
In Chicago, the World’s Fairgrounds survive as Jackson Park, having kept much of the Olmsted waterway landscape and the Wooded Island with its Japanese garden.
The Midway Plaisance still runs between Jackson and Washington Parks today, a long strip of green in the middle of the University of Chicago campus.
Chicago’s Washington Park retains much of its Olmsted design, yet has expanded and changed over time, including the addition of the Administration Building, today’s DuSable Museum, and the monumental Fountain of Time sculpture by Lorado Taft. With its many opportunities for community gatherings and activities, the park remains the heart of its neighborhood.
In Milwaukee, Riverside Park has been altered the most, but efforts to restore some of its original design have been ongoing.
Milwaukee’s Washington Park is much like Chicago’s in that it has changed over time yet remains a sublime landscape in the middle of the city, and one that is likewise the heart of its neighborhood.
Lake Park has also changed over time, but of all the Olmsted designs in Milwaukee, this is the one closest to his original vision. Highly walkable and popular, Lake Park is one of the most beloved and breathtaking places in the city.
Frederick Law Olmsted gave both cities park systems, urban parks connected by green parkways. He showed Chicago and Milwaukee that Lake Michigan was a magnificent asset. His designs added to the health, well-being, and beauty of both cities. His landscapes endure for us. They deserve our careful preservation and invite our discovery.
Thanks so much for joining me. I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions. You can leave them at the blog post for this episode, where I’ve got many great photos of Olmsted’s Chicago and Milwaukee work at WendyCityChicago.com
If you would like to know more about the title of this podcast, take a listen to Episode 1.
Many thanks to my son, Zack Goehner, for his brilliant graphic design work.
Intro music: “Chicago Blues,” by the Kenny Dorham Quintet.
Background music: Jean Sibelius – Symphony No. 3, in C major. 2nd movement: Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto
See you next time.
Photos/images: Olmsted Archives https://www.flickr.com/photos/olmsted_archives/