Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.: Inspirations for the 21st Century

Posted on: October 23rd, 2013 by Elizabeth Byrd Wood

For years, landscape historians and scholars have attended symposia, lectures, and tours to celebrate and learn more about the work of the famous landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. Two weeks ago, however, at a symposium held at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., they turned their full attention to his son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., a 20th-century landscape architect and formative figure in city and regional planning.

The symposium was more than a look back at the accomplishments of Olmsted, Jr. Instead it was a refreshing look forward. As speakers made clear, the younger Olmsted’s influence on the design and planning profession is still very evident today, and provides valuable lessons for city leaders, planners, and designers as they guide the development of our communities, cities, and park systems.

If time travel actually existed and Olmsted, Jr., had been in attendence at the symposium, no doubt he would have felt at home in the Great Hall of the National Building Museum (or in Olmsted’s day, the Pension Building). After all, he was no stranger to Washington, D.C.  As the youngest member of the McMillan Commission, he helped create the McMillan Plan for the development of the city’s monumental core and park system, one of the first comprehensive plans for an American city.

He might have been amused, at first, as various presenters debated how best to address him so as not confuse him with his well-known father. Various forms of address included “Junior,” “Rick” (as he was called by his family),  and, jokingly, “Little Ricky.” (He probably would have been mystified to hear about a computer spell check program determined to change the spelling of his name to “Olmstead.”)

Yet listening to the various presentations, Olmsted, Jr., would most likely have been pleased to find  that his work continues to inspire architects and planners today.

He would have been delighted to hear that his early efforts to launch the fledgling profession of landscape architecture have been successful, and that today numerous schools offer graduate and undergraduate programs in landscape architecture. That the organization he helped to found, the American Society of Landscape Architects, now has more than 15,000 members.

He would have been gratified to discover that many of his planned residential subdivisions, such as Roland Park in Baltimore, the Palos Verdes Estates near Los Angeles, and Forest Hill Gardens in New York, are still beautiful, still functioning as he intended, and still very desirable places to live. That cities such as Louisville and Birmingham are taking renewed interest in his park plans from the 1920s and '30s and using them as a guide to address long-term growth and recreational needs. And that his vision for a national park system is now firmly in place, with scenic and natural areas enjoyed by millions of visitors.

He might have been disappointed, however, to see that some of his parks have been paved over, and his tree-lined parkways widened and straightened. But as one speaker noted, Olmsted, Jr., understood that we have to learn to live with the automobile, or rather, to live in spite of it.

The symposium, which was presented by the National Association for Olmsted Parks and the National Building Museum, is the most comprehensive look to date at the full scope of Olmsted’s work. A second symposium, “Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.: A Vision for the American West,” will take place March 27-28, 2014, at Stanford University. Session recordings from both events will be made available online on the websites of the National Association of Olmsted Parks and the National Building Museum.

I am fortunate enough to live in Homeland, a neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore designed by Olmsted, Jr., in the 1920s. It has curving streets, common open spaces, and a diversity of architectural styles. Almost a century old now, Homeland has stood the test of time. I used to say that I lived in an Olmsted-designed neighborhood, but would then backtrack a little and add that it had not been designed by the famous Frederick Law Olmsted himself, just his firm. But not anymore. It is time to pay service to his son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., a man whose vision is still being realized and an architect who continues to inspire in the 21st century.

This symposium was supported by the National Trust Preservation Funds grant program. For more information visit www.preservationnation.org/funding.

About Elizabeth Byrd Wood

Elizabeth Byrd Wood is senior content manager at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.