The Olmsted-Beil House on Staten Island, NY, was the site of agricultural and landscaping experiments by Olmsted and his home base for intellectual pursuits and travels that transformed his worldview and informed his social conscience, inspiring him thereafter to endeavor to improve society.
Now hidden from sight by a busy thoroughfare on the south shore of Staten Island are Frederick Law Olmsted’s farmhouse and the 1.58 acres that remain of the 130-acre farm where he resided from 1848-1855. The property, which Olmsted named Tosomock Farm, is now preserved as a New York City park, Olmsted-Beil House Park.
At the farm, Olmsted experimented with landscaping and agricultural techniques, making many improvements that would influence his later designs throughout the United States. He redesigned the grounds to improve their aesthetics and utility, including moving structures to improve views of the nearby Raritan Bay, and created winding roads and paths. He refined drainage techniques for improving sanitation, and he planted native and exotic trees in great numbers and variety. Some tree species he planted at Tosomock Farm would feature prominently in his designs of Central Park and other spaces.
Expanding his interests to pursue the greater good of his community, Olmsted proposed the formation of a county agricultural society, with the hope of improving the value and beauty of Staten Island properties. He also developed acquaintances and friendships with local intellectuals and wealthy landowners. William Vanderbilt, for one, was so impressed with Olmsted’s enhancements at Tosomock Farm that he asked him to improve his own Staten Island property. Years later, William’s son George would ask Olmsted to design the grounds of Biltmore.
During his residency at the farm, Olmsted embarked upon travels to England and other parts of Europe in 1850 that would inspire him with the democratic ideal of accessibility to parks for all people and with the understanding of the health aspects of time spent in nature. He would return to Tosomock to collect his journal entries and the letters he had written home as Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, which was published in 1852 by his prominent neighbor George Putnam. With the farmhouse as his home base, Olmsted’s emergent role as a social observer and activist expanded when he made two journeys through the American South in 1852–1854, making astute observations of the lives of slaves and slaveholders and eventually becoming an anti-slavery activist. He shared his descriptions in dispatches to the fledgling New York Times, on the basis of which he published four volumes to great acclaim, including The Cotton Kingdom. Today, these writings remain important resources in the study of the pre–Civil War South.
Olmsted’s farmhouse was purchased in 2006 by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation from the family of its last private owners, naturalist Carlton Beil and his wife, Louise Beil, with the ultimate goal of opening it as an educational center. One of the first properties to be designated a landmark by New York City, the Olmsted-Beil House is on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places. The New York Landmarks Conservancy raised funds, which have been used to stabilize the house until New York City restores it. The house is closed to the public as it awaits restoration.
In 2018, the Friends of Olmsted-Beil House was established to encourage support for efforts to preserve the house. For more information on Olmsted’s Staten Island farmhouse, visit the website of the Friends of Olmsted-Beil House and https://olmsted200.org/olmsted-the-scientific-farmer-on-staten-island/.