Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America is the latest film from Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey for PBS’s American Experience series. It is made in the traditional PBS style, perfect for the Olmsted neophyte and ideal for classroom use because of its length (55 minutes) and subject matter. You can stream it from the American Experience website.
That Hott and Garey have made a film about the father of American landscape architecture and his legacy is of little surprise. As pioneers in the film genre of environmental biography, they have been circling Olmsted as a topic for a quarter century.
Their first two films produced for PBS broadly examined the history of wilderness in the United States. The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness (1989) an oversimplified story of the “rivalry” between John Muir versus Gifford Pinchot and the debate over constructing the dam in Yosemite Park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley is used to tell the larger history of how the United States came to embrace the idea of preserving wilderness (personified by Muir) as a sanctuary against the progressive, industrial society (as embodied by Pinchot) the country had become by the early 1900s.
Wild by Law: The Rise of Environmentalism and the Creation of the Wilderness Act (1991) picks up where The Wilderness Idea left off and handles the subject in a more nuanced way than does the earlier film. Viewers learn how “wilderness” evolved from a theoretical and philosophical construct, as expressed through the writings and experiences of foresters-turned-wilderness advocates Robert Marshall and Aldo Leopold, to a legal one embodied in the Wilderness Act, which exists largely due to the herculean work of the Wilderness Society’s Howard Zahniser. Since releasing those two films, Hott and Garey have done films on John James Audubon and John Muir, as well as environmental history films on the Adirondacks and two films on Niagara Falls (which Olmsted helped to restore and protect), and other topics of interest to environmental historians.
This new film covers the fascinating life and work of Frederick Law Olmsted. Born in 1822 to a prosperous Connecticut family, Olmsted spent the first 35 years of his life failing upwards. His formal education was limited due to frequent eye problems and he learned mostly through reading in the family’s book collection and observation while wandering the countryside. Oddly, this and some other telling details are not in the film. But we do learn that at 18, he started a series of jobs and unhappily labored as a surveyor, a clerk, and a deckhand on a merchant ship sailing to China (and nearly died) before his father bought him a farm at age 24. For six years he tried his hand at “scientific farming.” He failed at all these things but the experiences would be incorporated into his life’s work.
The film also does not mention that two years before giving up farming, Olmsted traveled to Britain with his brother John and Charles Loring Brace, a close friend who supplemented his travel expenses by writing for newspapers back home. (Brace later entered the ministry and became a social reformer in his own right.) Olmsted was stunned by the level of poverty he saw in England’s cities, and the aristocracy’s indifference to less fortunate humans reinforced his beliefs in democracy and doing what he could to help the poor. He took extensive walking tours of English gardens, public parks, and the countryside, travels that influenced his thinking not only about the purpose of public spaces but how landscapes mechanically functioned. Still thinking like a farmer while traveling, he saw how clayey fields drained and other things that would later find their way into his landscape design work.
He compiled his observations of British society from his journal entries and letters into a book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, which led to his next job. If the film had concerned itself less with Olmsted’s personal life later on (the film’s attempts to humanize Olmsted by documenting the many deaths in his large family feel somewhat forced), more time could have been given over to revealing incidents like his time in England—ones that explain his interest in helping the poor and tell us more about the roots of his egalitarian vision for parks. At any rate, at age 30, Walks and Talks led to an agreement to tour the South for a then-new newspaper called the New York Times, and report on the economic aspect of slavery to their readers. His articles shaped Northern perspective on the matter and the experience turned him into a committed social reformer.
After a series of setbacks in 1857, including losing his job in publishing followed shortly by his beloved brother dying of tuberculosis, Olmsted landed the job of superintendent of New York’s Central Park, then under construction. He joined with architect Calvert Vaux and submitted a design for the park and won the public competition. His life, and America, were never the same after. In time cities would become livable because of protected greens spaces.
At this point, Hott and Garey begin doing what they do best as filmmakers. The film engagingly illustrates and explains the vision Olmsted had for Central Park’s design (and of those he subsequently developed), what made his parks so different from European parks, and also the impact of his parks on American society. The interviews with historians, park enthusiasts, and employees help us better understand the critical role the park still holds in New Yorker’s lives and by extension those of all Americans.
What we learn is that, to Olmsted, Central Park provided a democratic landscape. For the first time, men and women could recreate together—bicycling or ice skating, for example—and without chaperones. Additionally, the landscape allowed different classes and religions to mix. Yet Olmsted sought to impose an upper middle-class vision of behavior on the park’s visitors and hoped to have rules enforced. Rules included not walking on the lawns or using vulgar language, and visitors were expected to dress nicely. Olmsted’s skewed democratic vision is contrasted with footage of present-day Central Park visitors recreating in innumerable ways and a couple of interviews with those who use it. (One can only imagine how he would react to how people dress today while visiting his park.) It is this impulse to influence if not control behavior that gives deeper meaning to the film’s subtitle Designing America.
Thus began an on-again, off-again twenty-year relationship with the park as architect-in-chief as well as superintendent. His work at Central Park was interrupted by the Civil War, during which he established and led the U.S. Sanitation Commission (a precursor to the American Red Cross) for two years before exhausting himself and resigning. His experience with the commission and virtually every subsequent job repeated that of Central Park—“he did brilliant work,” narrator Stockard Channing tells us, “and quarreled bitterly with his superiors.” Actor Campbell Scott acquits himself well as the voice of Olmsted.
Olmsted went west and found work at an enormous mining operation near the Yosemite Valley area in California. He came to serve as head of the Yosemite Park Commission, which prepared a detailed assessment of the recently created national park. In writing the report he expounded upon a connection between land preservation and “the pursuit of happiness” and the role of a republican government in providing “means of protection for all its citizens” in that pursuit from “the selfishness of individuals or combinations of individuals.” His writings from this period provided a firm foundation upon which both the wilderness and conservation movements could and did in part build.
When the mining company went under a few years later, Olmsted returned to New York at the invitation of his old partner Vaux to plan and build Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Prospect Park differs dramatically in form and in history from Central Park. The latter was confined to a rectangular shape; they had greater freedoms in designing and building Prospect Park. They were told they had unlimited funds and few constraints on its shape. Their work touched off an urban park movement. Soon other cities across the country wanted what New York had. Olmsted, Vaux and Company—which opened an office in Manhattan—took on several other commissions, including a new park system in Buffalo, New York.
There, in the booming inland port city, they undertook a very ambitious plan. Instead of converting one location into a park, as the city leaders asked, they developed three separate areas and connected them by parkways—tree-lined boulevards that function like green arteries, connecting three green “hearts,” in this case three distinctive neighborhoods, with each park reflecting the characteristics of the surrounding neighborhoods. With the Buffalo plan, Olmsted moved beyond landscape architecture to, in effect, city planning. The parkway system became the template repeated by Olmsted and competing firms in many other cities, like Boston, Seattle, and Louisville. Interestingly, his attempt at planning an entire city was rejected. Asked by the Northern Pacific Railway to design their West Coast terminus city, Tacoma, Washington, Olmsted laid out a city with streets that followed the contours of the sloping land: it was a city plan “without a straight line or a right angle.” The client wanted a city laid out on the familiar grid system and didn’t accept the plan.
The challenge in designing any of these parks, we learn, is that a landscape architect must take the long view and look far out into the future: “In laying out Central Park, we determined to think of no results to be realized in less than forty years,” wrote Olmsted. Each park’s open space, he felt, must be maintained and the impulse to fill in those spaces guarded against. In nearly every public project, Olmsted’s larger vision of open space would be sacrificed or ignored by impatient or unenlightened commission members in favor of ball fields or golf courses or, as in Boston, a zoo and a hospital.
The other notable point made is that Olmsted did not give us natural landscapes, but artificial ones—ones “every bit as artificial as Disney World,” asserts writer Adam Gopnik in one of the interview clips. According to landscape architect Faye Harwell both Walt Disney and Frederick Olmsted were masters of hiding engineering and “the nasty parts”—the waste management and the traffic management. What Olmsted was doing, Harwell says, was “creating stage sets for human life,” meaning beautiful backdrops and scenery. The point is punctuated by newsreel footage showing a mass wedding in Prospect Park from mid-twentieth century.
By age 70, Olmsted had created designs for every space imaginable: parks, gardens, hospitals, the U.S. Capital, and even a world’s fair, the White City at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. One of his last commissions was not for public space but for a private residence. In the early 1890s, millionaire George Vanderbilt was constructing his country home in western North Carolina, the Biltmore Estate. He invited Olmsted to design the gardens and parkland. Olmsted encouraged Vanderbilt to think bigger—and at the same time to give back to his country—by initiating forest management on the exhausted farmland he had purchased. In time, Vanderbilt would own 125,000 of forested acres which became home to America’s first school of forestry, a site now preserved as the Cradle of Forestry in America.
By 1895, dementia had begun to affect Olmsted’s ability to work, so he retired and turned the business over to his sons. His wife cared for him for three years before placing him in McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. Ironically, he had submitted a design plan for the grounds there years before but it was rejected. He died in 1903. Long before then, the film makes amply clear, Frederick Law Olmsted had made parks an essential part of American life and society.