"An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views." Architect Daniel Burnham
The father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted (April 26, 1822 – August 28, 1903) is the man who helped to design the ground of Smithsonian National Zoological Park, United States Capitol grounds, American University Main Campus, Gallaudet University and St. Albans School.
This drawing, which is oriented with east at the top, shows the arrangement of drives, paths, trees, fountains, and terraces that Olmsted created at the Capitol beginning in 1874. The outline of the Capitol includes an east front extension that Olmsted expected; the actual east front extension, which was constructed in 1958-1962, took a different shape.
Olmsted was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on April 26, 1822, the son of a prosperous merchant who played an active role in his son’s life and fed his many interests. Olmstead graduated from the prestigious Phillips Academy in 1838 but a bout of sumac poisoning cost him parts of his eyesight and kept him from graduating from Yale College. Instead, he worked as a seaman, merchant, and journalist (In 1865, he cofounded the magazine The Nation and was one of the six founding members of the Union League Club of New York.) finally settled, in 1848, on farming on the south shore of Staten Island.
In 1850, he traveled to England to visit public gardens, where he was greatly impressed by Joseph Paxton's Birkenhead Park. He subsequently wrote and published Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England in 1852. This supported his getting additional work.
In 1858, Olmsted and his partners were chosen to design New York's Central Park. He left the business during the US civil war to take a position as Executive Secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission here in DC (The precursor to the Red Cross) After the war he held a series of positions including manager of the Rancho Las Mariposas-Mariposa mining estate in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California.
In 1865, Olmsted formed Olmsted, Vaux and Company and completed a series of well-known projects including Prospect Park in New York, Chicago's Riverside parks; the park system for Buffalo, New York; Milwaukee, Wisconsin's grand necklace of parks; and the Niagara Reservation at Niagara Falls.
Here in DC, Olmsted and his firm, Olmsted Brothers, designed American University Main Campus, Gallaudet University, St. Albans School, the National Zoo as well as the Capitol grounds.
Senility forced Olmsted to retire in 1895. He died in 1903 and is buried in Hartford. His son Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. helped to plan the National Mall, the Jefferson Memorial, the White House grounds and Rock Creek Park. The Olmstead firm was closed in 1980.