Travels with Frederick Olmstead: The Art of Landscapes

by Louise Glickman

Daryl and I recently took the driving trip of my dreams to art museums and historic homes throughout the Hudson Valley and Berkshires. Storm King, Dia Beacon, Mass MOCA and  the FDR LIbrary shot to the top of my must-see list. But it was the draw of places and artists I had not considered that have left indelible marks. I found Frederick Law Olmstead’s landscapes from Manhattan to Niagara Falls, but it is his influences on our urban world that will continue to inspire me most.

Returning home, I dug deeper into Olmstead, reading  “A Clearing in the Distance” which reveals his life and work in detail. He was a writer, entrepreneur, raconteur, visionary, and world traveler. He learned, after many false starts, to weave together life experiences with hard work and a network of people who embraced his progressive ideas.

Biltmore Estate here in Asheville is renowned for Olmsted’s vision where he worked closely with his remarkable collaborators architect Richard Sharp Smith and forester Carl Schenck, founder of the first forestry school in America. I have been fortunate to live in four cities imprinted by Olmstead. Best known for his creation of and commitment in creating Central Park, close to my Manhattan digs post college.  As a newly married in Chicago, I strolled Jackson Park and later jogged, picnicked and partied in New Orleans’ Audubon Park. The latter two were sites for Olmstead’s World Expositions. 

Generations of my family have played in Audubon Park

Olmstead “aimed for the unconscious” by design. He still leads pedestrians through subtle paths with thoughtfully placed species that continue to embrace our unconscious appreciation for nature. The Biltmore Estate will celebrate Olmstead’s bicentennial year with activities and programs in 2022. 

Mrs. Church’s “hidden” garden at Olana in Hudson, NY

It was at Olana, the home of Frederick Church, the preeminent and possibly best known artist of the Hudson River School, that Olmstead’s landscapes again sparked wonder. Church preferred nature’s greenery but his wife begged for Olmsted to give her a garden of color, shielded from her husband’s view, yet ever-present. Niagara Falls was beyond all expectations but it was the creation of his park system of six parks, seven parkways and eight landscaped circles that still allows pedestrians to walk from one park to another in beauty and serenity. Olmstead revived Niagara Falls dwindling flow starting in the 1860’s. As one of the earliest conservationists, he founded the Free Niagara movement and protected the natural beauty of the surrounding land, now Niagara Falls State Park.

Niagara Falls links America to Canada through Olmstead’s visionary work

Olmstead’s achievements also speak to perseverance and patience. It took 15 years of pressure for Congress to grant appropriations to create Niagara. Olmstead worked on and in Central Park for almost thirty years. Olmstead planned and planted with the future in mind so that today, his extraordinary talents remain vital to our appreciation of nature’s bounty.