Olmsted, the Parkway and English Parks

Frederick Law Olmsted was the founder of the American Landscape Architectural profession and the designer of Central Park—our model of how the Parkway should look and be governed—and the greatest influence on him was the English Park.

One of his students John Nolen, drew out the first plans for the American River Parkway in December of 1913.

This superb article from the New York Times reports on Olmsted’s love of English Parks.

An excerpt.

“When Frederick Law Olmsted stepped off a ship in Liverpool in 1850, he was a gentleman farmer on Staten Island and intellectual, eager to embark on a walking tour of England. When he left, he had the makings of perhaps the greatest American landscape architect of all time.

“Several years later, he would take an undistinguished plot of land — the future Central Park — and sculpt meadows, knolls, ponds and waterfalls, winning international praise. Central Park, which he designed with Calvert Vaux, was soon followed by Prospect Park in Brooklyn and dozens of other commissions, from Chicago to Boston.

“But his vision of landscape design had its stirrings in England, a country he first visited with his brother. The tour of the English countryside took them from one charming village to another. Importantly for Olmsted’s career, the trip also led them to Birkenhead Park outside Liverpool, the first public park in England to be built with taxpayer money.

“Like Central Park, Birkenhead started as a blank slate. But a landscape architect named Joseph Paxton, who would prove hugely influential for Olmsted, had coaxed ponds and rock gardens, cricket fields and serpentine paths from the homely turf. Olmsted, whose politics leaned sharply left, saw in Birkenhead Park a radical civic experiment, a place where commoners and aristocrats could rub elbows.

“In his travel memoir “Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England,” he exclaimed: “Five minutes of admiration, and a few more spent in studying the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty, and I was ready to admit that in democratic America there was nothing to be thought of as comparable with this People’s Garden.”

“If Birkenhead Park set Olmsted musing about the democratizing power of parks, Chirk Castle, which he visited on the same trip, had the opposite effect. Set in northern Wales, on the English border, the medieval castle had belonged to the same noble family for centuries when Olmsted climbed its long drive.

“In his travelogue, he observed that the stone pile was in the “midst of the finest park and largest trees we have seen.” But he also voiced doubts about its privileged perch: “Is it right and best that this should be for the few, the very few of us?”

“As Central Park neared completion, Olmsted returned to England, touring more parks there, as well as on the European continent. Funded by the park’s board of commissioners, the trip was part reward and part temporary banishment. The pressures of Central Park were fraying Olmsted’s nerves, while his budget overruns were vexing the board.

“The second trip proved even more critical for Olmsted’s developing aesthetic. In surveying various landscapes, Olmsted was drawn to the natural style of the English country garden over the more formal, geometric look of French estates. For Olmsted, an effective park was not unlike a good parlor trick in its ability to transport city dwellers from their noisy, crowded surroundings to a man-made Eden.

“In an 1861 article for the New American Cyclopaedia, in which Olmsted traced the history of public spaces from ancient times, he wrote that European gardeners were “often faultless” in their execution of what he called “close scenery.” But, he concluded, the creation of entire landscapes, “all in imitation of nature, is to this day the peculiar art of England.”

“Together, the tours would shape the look of American public spaces for generations.

“The thing about Olmsted is that nothing was ever wasted with him,” said Justin Martin, author of “Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted.” “He would visit some place and years later draw on something that he saw.”

“A number of the British parks and gardens Olmsted visited are still open. Five of them — Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Derby Arboretum, Chatsworth, Birkenhead Park and Chirk Castle — form a wide loop through northwestern England (and a sliver of Wales), taking in both cityscapes and magnificent countryside.” Retrieved November 4, 2019 from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/30/travel/footsteps-frederick-law-olmsted-parks.html?


About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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