The Architect of New York’s Central Park Has an Incredibly Unexpected Legacy

Frederick Law Olmsted is celebrated for designing some of the world’s most iconic parks, such as Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, and the grounds of the White House. The father of landscape architecture’s most commemorated space is New York City’s crown jewel, Central Park. But this eminent landscape architect, who turns 200 today, has a legacy that runs far deeper.

Long before Olmsted and his codesigner, Calvert Vaux, designed Manhattan’s verdant gem, the 31-year-old Olmsted embarked on a journey, one that contributed to his aesthetic sensibility as a means of creating a more civilized and welcoming society. The Connecticut native had studied surveying and engineering, chemistry, and scientific farming (he even ran a farm on Staten Island for seven years). Now, he was assigned to report on the American South.

In the years leading up the Civil War, The New York Daily Times—a newspaper still in its nascent stages—dispatched Olmsted to cover the American slave states. It was at this time that Olmsted spoke candidly with a diverse group of Southerners, from enslaved people to slave owners to abolitionists, in order to wrestle with the cotton complex and the forces at play in the antebellum South. His narrative writings were published contemporaneously as a column in the Times.

bridge over the water in park

Central Park is the largest in Manhattan as it occupies an area of 840 acres, extending between 59th and 110th streets and between Fifth and Eighth avenues.  Photographer: Sergey Borisov/Getty Images

“It sparked a lot of debate,” says Sara Zewde, founder of Studio Zewde and assistant professor at Harvard in the department of landscape architecture. “Olmsted was the most cited witness of 19th-century slavery because of the breadth and depth of his travel,” Zewde continues. “The information he was delivering was very influential both for a northern audience and a European audience.”

This immersive work was published as a three-volume book and then a single volume, titled Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom. Published in 1861 at the beginning of the Civil War, the book expressed Olmsted’s conviction that slavery was backward, both financially and socially.

man looking at paper

A photograph of Frederick Law Olmsted from the 1860s, during the time of the Civil War.  Photo: Getty Images

“This strengthened a growing abolition movement,” continues Zewde, whose “Cotton Kingdom” seminar investigates the relationship between contemporary issues and the documented conditions in Olmsted’s 1861 book. Journeys and Explorations also helped shape Central Park and the public parks movement, according to Zewde.

aerial view of park

Regarded as the most visited urban park in the United States, some 42 million people walk through Central Park each year.  Photo: Getty Images

“He came back to the north with this resolve to try and mitigate the effects the slavery… It’s out of that commitment that the public park system is born. The Central Park design competition was the opportunity to translate those thoughts into landscape design.” Many elements in the design of Central Park were informed by Olmsted’s ideals of openness and equality. “There’s no center in Central Park; there are disparate, different pieces of the park. The way of moving through the park became the opposite of Manhattan’s grid, which marks the efficiency, structure, capitalism, and ownership that undergird the city,” Zewde says.

Throughout his career as one of the world’s most eminent landscape architects, Olmsted remained committed to his research, which today provides relevant tools and insights for looking at built landscapes. And to this day, the undulating green spaces envisioned by Olmsted still reflect accessibility, harmony, and a welcoming sense of community.

via Architectural Digest

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