Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Notes & Comments

The Man Who Built Forward Better

On Frederick Law Olmsted’s Bicentennial

Witold Rybczynski

Portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted (detail), 1895, by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925); The Artchives/Alamy Stock Photo.

What would Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) make of his works today, in the bicentennial year of his birth? No doubt he would be delighted by the survival and continued popularity of so many of his big-city parks, particularly Central Park and Prospect Park, but also parks in Boston, Chicago, and Montreal, as well as Buffalo, Detroit, Rochester, and Louisville. He might be surprised by the bewildering range of activities these parks now accommodate—not only boating and ice-skating, as in his day, but exercising, jogging, picnicking, and games, as well as popular theatrical and musical events. I don’t think this variety would displease him. After all, it was he who introduced free band concerts in Central Park, over the objections of many of his strait-laced colleagues. He would be pleased by the banning of automobiles; his winding carriage drives were never intended for fast—and noisy—traffic.

Olmsted might complain that so many of his landscapes had been allowed to become overgrown; he was always relentless in cutting back greenery to preserve views and vistas. I think he would be disappointed that so many of his urban parkways have been lost, converted into highways, as in Buffalo, or opened to commercial traffic and widened, as in Louisville. Nor would he approve of the intrusion into the parks of skating rinks, zoos, golf courses, and, soon, a presidential center in Chicago. He always resisted the efforts of politicians to use parks as convenient building sites for their pet projects.

Whatever he would have thought of their uses and abuses, Olmsted’s landscape creations, especially his urban parks, are anything but relics of the past—they remain a vital part of the present. What was it about his own life, and particularly his early experiences, that prepared him so well for the work that he would take on, and what lessons does that remarkable career have for us today?

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