The 1970s, when I began my landscape architecture training, were a time of rising interest in Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. Laura Wood Roper’s biography had just come out and a number of other histories such as Albert Fein’s depiction of Olmsted as an early environmentalist were generating much enthusiasm. In contrast, his sons— Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and John C. Olmsted— were seldom mentioned, much less honored. One exception was Norman Newton’s comprehensive history of landscape architecture, Design on the Land. Newton devoted a chapter to both brothers and even went so far as to insist that Olmsted, Jr. was doubtlessly “the most outstanding practitioner of his time, with a store of energy and a capacity for application that wore out many a younger man.” It was high praise, but I more or less just filed it away as an interesting sidelight to the main story about the father.
In 1983, I moved to Baltimore, Maryland, and soon became involved in local park protection efforts, primarily focused on Wyman Park Dell, a wonderful little gem adjacent to both the Baltimore Museum of Art and Johns Hopkins University. After a year or so of doing park cleanups, some rehab, and getting the city to step up its maintenance, our group discovered it was Olmsted, Jr. and his firm that had designed our park (and also worked on the museum and university grounds). Our little park had a pedigree as did many of the places nearby that were so familiar! More significantly, we discovered Olmsted, Jr. had developed the city’s first overall park system plan as well as some of the city’s most attractive neighborhoods.
Soon after our enlightenment, Ann Satterthwaite of the National Association for Olmsted Parks and Charles Beveridge visited Baltimore and helped us learn more about our Olmsted heritage. One immediate result was the launching of the Friends of Maryland’s Olmsted Parks and Landscapes. One of our first efforts was raising money to reprint Olmsted, Jr.’s 1904 park plan for Baltimore that we could use to bring greater awareness of his Baltimore contributions to more and more of its citizens. Very dedicated members of our group even trekked down to the Library of Congress where, dime by dime, they copied all the available files of the Olmsted firm’s Baltimore region projects to create an archive for use in researching the various places it created. Another coup was rescuing many of the original drawings held by city agencies from continued destruction by mice and water, eventually moving them to a safer location. All this enabled us to develop a series of small essays and guidebooks and organize tours and lectures to widen our appreciation for the many things Olmsted, Jr. and his firm did for our city. More than once it equipped us better to oppose attempts of the city to give away parts of the parks that made up the Olmsted system, battles that in time we no longer needed to fight.
Through participating in such activities, I acquired a deep appreciation of Olmsted, Jr.’s overall career and became increasingly puzzled why the memory of his accomplishments, even in one of the cities for which he had done so much, had faded so badly. Prior to switching to landscape architecture and urban planning, I had trained to become a historian (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin). I began to wonder if I one day might use my historian skills to help correct such amnesia. Off and on for many years, I investigated much of his long and many-sided career. I also began to sort out whether Olmsted, Jr.’s core beliefs about the true nature of landscape architecture and the legacy he created might or might not remain pertinent to the needs of our time. Indeed, I have discovered much of it still does.
In his lifetime, Olmsted, Jr. was a public figure of great influence and admiration whose projects, lectures, or opinions on a variety of issues were often newsworthy and widely appreciated. He may have been little understood when I first learned about him some 50 years ago, but his reputation has once again grown as many valuable studies of various aspects of his long career have steadily come forth. I am now hoping to add to this awareness. Almost a half-century after first discovering Olmsted, Jr., thanks to retirement and much encouragement from family, friends, and associates, I am developing a full-length study of his influence, primarily on the public realm of the US in the first half of the 20th century. Olmsted’s work benefited scores and scores of communities across the nation. (Fortunately, we can still visit and enjoy many of these achievements.) Even more, Americans have benefited from his work for the National Parks as well as various state, regional, and local park systems. His was a career difficult to emulate today, but one that we can all admire and appreciate. I know I certainly do, and I hope more and more Americans will also come to discover why.
David R. Holden is a retired urban and regional planner and landscape architect currently working on a full-length, comprehensive study centered on Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.’s influence on the public landscapes of the US in the first half of the 20th century. A resident of Baltimore, MD, for 28 years, he was a co-founder in 1983 of the Friends of Wyman Park Dell and also co-founder in 1984 of the Friends of Maryland’s Olmsted Parks and Landscapes (FMOPL). He currently resides in Northampton, Massachusetts in the center of the exquisitely beautiful Connecticut River Valley.