Frederick Law Olmsted was born on April 26, 1822, in Hartford Connecticut. His father was John Olmsted, a prosperous merchant, and his mother was Charlotte Law (Hull) Olmsted; a younger brother was John Hull Olmsted. The father shared his “lively interest in nature, people, and places” with his two sons. Charlotte Olmsted passed away before Frederick was four years old. In 1827 John Olmsted married Mary Ann Bull, and she shared his “strong love of nature and had perhaps a more cultivated taste.”
Frederick Olmsted graduated in 1838 from Phillips Academy and planned to attend Yale College; however, he had to give up his plans to attend college because his eyes were weakened by “sumac poisoning.” [This term was new to me so I followed this link to learn about it.
I learned “poison sumac is a shrub or small tree, growing up to nearly 30 feet in height.” It grows in “very wet or flooded soils, usually in swamps and peat bogs in the eastern United States and Canada.” It is “far more virulent than its relatives poison ivy and poison oak” and could be “the most toxic plant species in the United States (Frankel, 1991)….
“The dermatitis shows itself in painful and long continued swellings and eruptions. In the worst case, smoke inhaled by burning poison sumac leaves results in a medical condition pulmonary edema whereby blood enters lungs and the victim dies of suffocation.”
Olmsted gave up his plans for college and began “working as a seaman, merchant, and journalist.” His father “helped him acquire” a farm located “on the south shore of Staten Island,” and he “settled” there in January 1848. The farm was named the Akerly Homestead originally but renamed by Olmsted Tosomock Farm; a later owner named Erastus Wiman renamed it again to “The Woods of Arden.” Olmsted’s house still stands at 4515 Hylan Boulevard, near Woods of Arden Road.
Olmsted married Mary Cleveland (Perkins) Olmsted on June 13, 1859; she was the widow of his brother John (who passed away in 1857). He adopted her three sons – who were his nephews; two of them were John Charles Olmsted and Frederick “Fritz” Erskine Olmsted. The couple had three children together: a son named John Theodore Olmsted (born June 13, 1860, and died in infancy), a daughter named Marion (born October 28, 1861), and a son named Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.
Frederick Olmsted was a landscape architect, journalist, social critic, and public administrator. “He is popularly considered to be the father of American landscape architecture” and “was famous for co-designing many well-known urban parks with his senior partner ….” Among those parks are Prospect Park and Central Park in New York City and Elm Park (Worcester, Massachusetts). Elm Park is “considered by many to be the first municipal park in America.”
Olmsted was forced to retire in 1895 because of senility. He moved to Belmont, Massachusetts, in 1898 and became a patient at McLean Hospital. He was there until his death on August 28, 1903; he was buried in Hartford, Connecticut, in the Old North Cemetery.
John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. continued the work of their father as the “Olmsted Brothers.” Their firm lasted until 1980, and many of their works are credited to their father.
In March 1893, Daniel Burnham – a friend and colleague architect – said of Olmsted: “An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views.”
Olmsted was honored with a residence hall at the University of Hartford named after him. “Olmsted Point, located in Yosemite National Park, was named after Olmsted and his son, Frederick.”
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