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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Genius of Place

Air Date: Week of

Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace. (Emerald Necklace Conservancy)

Fredrick Law Olmsted was an inspired landscape architect, famous for spaces like Central Park. But his path to greatness was winding. Steve Curwood visits one of Olmsted’s jewels, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, with Justin Martin, author of “Genius of Place: The Life of Fredrick Law Olmsted.”


GELLERMAN: Frederick Law Olmsted literally invented the term “landscape architect.” His career spanned the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and he’s perhaps best known for creating New York’s Central Park. It was his first work, and embodies Olmsted’s vision of crafting America’s democratic ideals into our nation’s parks.

Justin Martin chronicles the life and legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted in his new biography "Genius of Place."


GELLERMAN: It’s a story of strange turns and serendipity, as Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood learned while walking with the author in the Boston Park Frederick Law Olmsted designed and wanted to call "the Jeweled Girdle".

MARTIN: Once upon a time, this was just literally a fetid swamp. It was just really disgusting place where Bostonians dumped their garbage. And a Bostonian Parks Commission held a design contest. Olmsted takes a look and he sees right away that this is a really decrepit salt marsh - it’s really in disrepair, and he comes to the conclusion that with a lot of engineering, it’s going to be possible to be restored to being a salt marsh once again.

Salt marshes are a type of landscape that he remembers very fondly from growing up in Connecticut, and he ultimately executes this design for what’s known as the Back Bay Fens. And it really represents America’s very first active wetlands restoration.

CURWOOD: How is this typical of Olmsted’s style of design?

A portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted from 1895. (Credit: John Singer Sargent)

MARTIN: Well, it grows out of a design idea and that was the idea of the park system. And the park system was a brilliant idea. It was the idea that instead of trying to have one parcel of land be your park, why not have a park that’s put together? Or why not have a system of parks in which you have several, possibly very different pieces of land?

The Emerald Necklace is the absolute masterpiece of this concept, because in this case you have 1,100 acres, a 700-mile green ribbon extending from downtown Boston that incorporates so many different types of parks.

I mean, you have a salt marsh, you have a glacial kettle hole that a park’s built around, you have a nice wooded area, and an area of playgrounds, and you have all these waterways and parkways and so forth connecting them. So he really managed to cobble together all of these different types of park concepts and create his absolute masterpiece park system.


CURWOOD: Already famous for his work in New York’s Central Park, Fred Olmsted moved from New York City to Brookline, Massachusetts to oversee firsthand the construction of the Emerald Necklace. It would take 18 years. He would use science and engineering to mold the wild urban landscape while keeping it looking natural.


CURWOOD: The chain of parks that make up the Emerald Necklace may appear unpolished, but it is actually carefully crafted. Olmsted began his work in Boston, not far from where the Red Sox baseball team would later build Fenway Park.

A fen is a type of wetland, and Justin Martin writes that this visionary re-engineered the fens of Boston’s Back Bay into fields for sports and trails for serene walks, interspersed with cultivated gardens, ponds and tall trees.


CURWOOD: Where do you think Olmsted got his love of nature - his desire to use the esthetic of nature in building his parks?

MARTIN: Olmsted’s father was a very, kind of, gruff, heart-of-gold kind of man - not particularly well educated. It was not a family where book learning was particularly valued, but what was valued was nature. His father would take him on what he described as ‘loitering journeys.’

And he would place little Fred on a pillow that he'd set right in front of the saddle of the horse, and Olmsted later described it as being an atmosphere of ‘hushed reverence’ that they take in these landscapes. And I think it really shaped his appreciation for landscape from a very early age.

CURWOOD: How did he become such an amazing designer? This is a guy - in your biography you say, what - spent three months at Yale - that was his college education.

MARTIN: Uh huh. He wound up … he kind of studied in the school of life. He tried all different things, and he made lots of mistakes, lots of false starts. Part of the reason for this was he was just on a different clock than most people.

He felt like he had the time and the luxury to sort of dabble, particularly when he was young - learn different things. And he seemed to have a sense that somewhere over the horizon, something great lay in store for him, he just wasn’t sure what.

CURWOOD: Frederick Law Olmsted grew up in the home of a well-to-do Connecticut merchant. But as his short stay at Yale reflects, he had little taste for formal education. Still, a young man has to do something, so in a desperate attempt to find a career, he went to sea on a boat bound for China.

When that didn’t work out, he tried farming. And then he tried raising pear trees. At one point, his father underwrote a trip to Europe for young Fred, and there he would see the grand gardens that would later inform his own work.

[MUSIC: Erling Jan Sorenson “The Dream/Jenny Lind Song” (www.erlingmusic.dk).]

MARTIN: He takes this trip across Europe, and just as a coincidence, his neighboring farmer is a man named George Putnam. His name still has some resonance for people probably as the head of the Putnam Publishing Company. He asked Olmsted to write a book about his recent walking tour, and Olmsted produces a book called: "Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England." And that allows Olmsted to make this incredible transition from being a farmer/sailor, onto being a writer.

[MUSIC: Erling Jan Sorenson “The Dream/Jenny Lind Song” (www.erlingmusic.dk).]

MARTIN: At this point, what happens is just an extraordinary coincidence. Olmsted is thinking less and less about being a farmer, leaning towards being a writer. There is a brand new newspaper called the New York Daily Times, they’re searching about for a way to stake the reputation - this is the early 1850s - it’s a time of rising tensions between the northern and southern regions of the United States.

They want to send somebody down to the south, to treat the south, or cover the south almost as if they were a foreign correspondent. Olmsted applies for the job. He has a five-minute interview with the editor Henry Raymond. He’s handed the job. It’s actually because he’s a farmer and the south in this era is nothing if not an agrarian society. And the fact that Olmsted is a farmer, and is going to be traveling through the south visiting plantations and so forth is viewed as a plus, and he’s handed this incredible assignment.

CURWOOD: What did Olmsted bring to the story when, as a farmer, he tours the south to write these stories. What did he come away with?

MARTIN: Viewing the south, in part through a farmer’s eye, Olmsted produced a really well-argued series of dispatches in which he described how plantations were terribly inefficient enterprises.

What was wrong was slave labor. Anyone under 12 couldn’t work as a slave. Older people couldn’t go out and work in the fields. So, what you were left with was these plantation owners had to house, and feed, and clothe every one of these slaves. He made the powerful point, that, in order for people to allow this very inefficient system to continue, it really reflected something very grotesque.


CURWOOD: How does Frederick Law Olmsted get from being a sailor, farmer and writer for the nascent New York Times, to creating Central Park?

MARTIN: A great opportunity grew out of a terrible crisis, basically. In 1857, a terrible economic cataclysm in US history - what’s become known as the Panic of 1857 - Olmsted loses his journalism job, he’s low on coal, he has a hole in his hat, he owes money to everybody including his father, and he takes an incredibly modest job to try to just get by.

And this job is, he’s clearing a piece of land in the middle of New York City. It’s very prosaically named for its position in New York City - it’s called Central Park. There’s an existing design for Central Park that’s been provided by someone else. Olmsted is simply clearing this piece of land - knocking down shanties, and draining swamps to prepare it for someone else’s design.

CURWOOD: And how does he go from knocking down shanties and clearing land to becoming this amazing designer that we know today?

MARTIN: Well, Olmsted is the beneficiary for a lot of incredible coincidences, and sort of behind the scenes machinations sometimes that he benefits from. What happens here is an English-trained architect named Calvert Vaux. Calvert Vaux takes a look at that existing design for Central Park and he pronounces it horribly amateurish.

And Vaux has friends in high places - he’s actually designed the Fifth Avenue mansion of one of the Central Park board members. And Vaux starts saying - lets replace this amateurish design, what’s more, in England, where I’m from, when we want to get the best design, we hold a public contest.

The board agrees to hold this public contest. Then Vaux seeks out Olmsted and asks Olmsted if he wants to partner up for the design contest. And Vaux couldn’t care a wit about Olmsted’s profile - his accomplishments as a journalist - that was of no consequence here. What Vaux was drawn to was Olmsted had been out on this piece of land, knocking down shanties, draining swamps.

He figured if he and Olmstead teamed up, they’d have a leg up in the competition because Olmsted knew the lay-of-the-land. Nothing could have prepared Olmsted for what a spectacular talent, what incredible ideas he would bring to this design competition, because he did not want to create what I would describe as "imperial parks" that had huge triumphal archways and fountainry and so forth, because those would be constant reminders of visitors to those parks of their lowly station in the world.

You pass through a triumphal arch and you think there some great general or politician who this is a tribute to, and it is a constant reminder of one’s lowly station. Whereas nature, which was Olmsted's aesthetic - the aesthetic that he applied in his parks - nature belongs to everyone. You walk through a park such as Central Park or the Back Bay Fens in Boston, it's nature and everyone owns it

CURWOOD: So the vision Frederick Law Olmsted brought to the design of Central Park was shaped in part by his political beliefs. His goal was to create places where democratic values were realized - parks for all people.

But with success also came tragedy. Fred Olmsted was later forced out of his position in Central Park. His beloved brother died. And, to make ends meet he even ran a gold mine in California for a while. But his passion was shaping the land. And over the years, Frederick Law Olmsted would help design and engineer more than 5,000 park projects in 45 states and several countries.

MARTIN: He does everything from a variety of different parks - such as Prospect Park in Brooklyn - to the Chicago Parks System, university campuses such as Stanford. He does the grounds of mental institutions - that’s one of his favorite kinds of commissions because he himself suffers from all kinds of tumultuous mental states - he loves the idea of a landscape that actually can have a therapeutic effect on the patients.

He designs a couple of subdivisions, of sort of model suburbs, in the late 19th century and he designs the Chicago World’s Fair. Olmsted really played a key role in the preservation of Yosemite. He played a key role in the preservation of Niagara Falls. But even more importantly, Olmsted made the argument again and again that one could not look to any kind of private interest to take care of these wild places - it necessary for a benevolent and far seeing government to do this.

[MUSIC: Lorraine Hammond “The Emerald Necklace” from The Muddy River Suite (Snowy Egret 2008).]

CURWOOD: Justin Martin’s book is called "Genius of Place: The Life of Fredrick Law Olmsted: Abolitionist, Conservationist and Designer of Central Park." Thank you so much, Justin.

MARTIN: My pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Justin Martin spoke with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood.



Learn more about the book

Justin Martin web site


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