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date: 25 September 2017

Parks in Urban America

Summary and Keywords

The creation and evolution of urban parks is in some ways a familiar story, especially given the attention that Frederick Law Olmsted’s work has commanded since the early 1970s. Following the success of Central Park, cities across the United States began building parks to meet the recreational needs of residents, and during the second half of the 19th century, Olmsted and his partners designed major parks or park systems in thirty cities. Yet, even that story is incomplete. To be sure, Olmsted believed that every city should have a large rural park as an alternative to the density of building and crowding of the modern metropolis, a place to provide for an “unbending of the faculties,” a process of recuperation from the stresses and strains of urban life. But, even in the mid-1860s he sought to create alternative spaces for other types of recreation. Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux successfully persuaded the Prospect Park commission, in Brooklyn, New York, to acquire land for a parade ground south of the park as a place for military musters and athletics; moreover, in 1868 they prepared a plan for a park system in Buffalo, New York, that consisted of three parks, linked by parkways, that served different functions and provided for different forms of recreation. As the decades progressed, Olmsted became a champion of parks designed for active recreation; gymnasiums for women as well as men, especially in working-class areas of cities; and playgrounds for small children. He did so in part to relieve pressure on the large landscape parks to accommodate uses he believed would be inappropriate, but also because he recognized the legitimate demands for new forms of recreation. In later years, other park designers and administrators would similarly add facilities for active recreation, though sometimes in ways that compromised what Olmsted considered the primary purpose of a public park. Urban parks are, in important ways, a microcosm of the nation’s cities. Battles over location, financing, political patronage, and use have been a constant. Through it all, parks have evolved to meet the changing recreational needs of residents. And, as dominant a figure as Olmsted has been, this is a story that antedates his professional career and that includes the many voices that have shaped public parks in U.S. cities in the 20th century.

Keywords: park, parkway, playground, gymnasium, reservation, Frederick Law Olmsted, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Daniel H. Burnham

Early Parks

William Penn’s 1682 plan for Philadelphia reserved five squares as neighborhood breathing spaces, and James Oglethorpe’s 1733 plan for Savannah established a ward system, with each neighborhood organized around a public square. Other urban spaces evolved from more prosaic uses to become parks: the Boston Common, for example, was originally a pasture for cows and became the location for military musters in the 18th century; only in the 19th century did it become a handsome park surrounded by four wide, planted malls for promenading. Similarly, the Battery, at the southern tip of Manhattan Island, started out as a fortification, but after the War of 1812, it became a place of resort for the fashionable. Washington Square had been the city’s potter’s field from 1797 to 1826; in the following year, New York acquired the land and began its transformation for park use. Gramercy Park, located between 18th and 23rd streets and Third Avenue and Park Avenue South, was created as (and remains) a private park owned by residents of buildings on nearby streets.1

The first urban park was undoubtedly Fairmount Gardens, in Philadelphia, created in 1812, when the city constructed its waterworks at the Schuylkill River. Originally a 5-acre tract surrounding the neoclassical buildings of the waterworks, the park proved so popular that by 1828 it had been enlarged to 24 acres. In the 1850s two large estates, Lemon Hill and Sedgley, were added to Fairmount, forming the nucleus of what became Fairmount Park. In Brooklyn, Walt Whitman, then the editor of the Daily Eagle, championed the creation of Washington Park (the modern Fort Greene Park) in 1847, in what was a working-class neighborhood close to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but it was apparently chosen as a park site because its hilly topography made it prohibitively expensive to grade into rectangular streets.2

The poet and editor William Cullen Bryant and the landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing became the most articulate spokespersons for a large public park for New York City. After visiting London in 1844, Bryant found the parks there essential to the “public health and happiness of the people” and expressed regret “that in laying out New York, no preparation was made, while it was yet practicable, for a range of parks and public gardens along the central part of the island.” In his influential essay “The New-York Park,” Downing dismissed the city’s squares as woefully inadequate: “What have been called parks in New-York are not even apologies for the things; they are only squares, or paddocks.” Numerous other Americans, especially after returning from London’s Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851 or visits to other European capitals, echoed the pressing need for large parks in the nation’s cities.3

The most important park plan undertaken prior to the construction of Central Park was Downing’s design for the public grounds in Washington, DC. This area, extending west from the Capitol Grounds, to the site of the Washington Monument, and then north, to the President’s House, was the centerpiece of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the new capital, but it was largely undeveloped in the first half of the 19th century. Indeed, one contemporary described it as “a large common . . . presenting a surface of yellow or white clay, cut into by deep gullies, and without trees except one or two scraggy and dying sycamores.” Smithsonian Institution Secretary Joseph Henry and financier W. W. Corcoran convinced President Millard Fillmore to invite Downing “to examine the grounds and report a plan of improvement.” Downing visited Washington in November 1850 and during the next two months worked on a plan that, he hoped, would transform the site into an extended landscape garden that would be an “ornament to the capital of the United States.” Work began on Downing’s plan in the spring of 1851, but his death in the burning of the Hudson River steamboat Henry Clay, in July 1852, halted development. Downing had hoped that the public grounds would become the first great urban park in the country and inspire other cities to create similar places of public resort and recreation, but the project remained incomplete and never proved as influential as he intended.4

Central Park

Downing’s advocacy of a large park for New York City, along with that of Bryant and others, convinced city leaders to begin the process of obtaining land and establishing a park. After a prolonged debate over whether the park should be in the Jones Wood section of Manhattan, along the East River, between 66th and 77th streets, or in the central part of the island, New York City began acquiring the land for Central Park, in 1853. The park site extended from 59th Street to 106th Street and from Fifth to Eighth Avenues, an area of 778 acres (in 1863 it was extended to 110th Street, as Olmsted and Vaux urged, and reached its modern dimension of 843 acres). Mayor Fernando Wood and Street Commissioner Joseph S. Taylor, the first Central Park commissioners, hired engineer Egbert L. Viele and, in 1856, adopted a plan for the park he had prepared. However, in what Olmsted termed a “storm of reform,” in 1857 the state legislature adopted a new city charter that replaced the Wood commission with the state-appointed Board of Commissioners of the Central Park. In one of their first acts, the new commissioners set aside Viele’s plan and announced a public competition to determine the park’s design. Thirty-three entries were submitted, and, on April 28, 1858, the commissioners awarded first place to Olmsted and Vaux’s Greensward plan. Olmsted, who had been the superintendent of labor under Viele, was named architect in chief and superintendent on May 17, 1858, and Vaux was named consulting architect.5

The site chosen for Central Park was distant from the built area of the city: the cost of Manhattan real estate precluded buying land for a large park in the densely built lower part of the island, and this would be true in other cities as they acquired land for parks throughout the remainder of the century. Still, the process of assembling land for park purposes was a visionary accomplishment, removing 9,792 standard 25 × 100 foot Manhattan building lots and reserving them for public use. Anticipating continued urban growth, Olmsted and Vaux recognized that within a generation “the town will have enclosed the Central Park.” The land was acquired at the cost of $5,029,000.6

However, the park site—a largely treeless, scarred landscape—was anything but park-like. Olmsted described the site as “filthy, squalid and disgusting,” and during his initial tour of the property, he was often knee-deep in mud. Major structures on the site included the Arsenal, near Fifth Avenue; the old, rectangular receiving reservoir of the Croton system; and the convent of the Sisters of Charity, at Mount St. Vincent. The new Croton receiving reservoir was under construction. A small community of African Americans and Irish immigrants, Seneca Village, stood on the park’s west side, near 86th Street. As many as sixteen hundred people resided within the boundaries of the park. During the fall of 1857, workers demolished or removed three hundred dwellings as well as a number of factories to make way for improvements to the park.7

Central Park was a massive public works project. As many as thirty-eight hundred men were employed at the height of construction. Olmsted calculated that workers used 260 tons of gunpowder to blast rock on the site and handled 4,825,000 cubic yards of stone and earth, “or nearly ten million ordinary city one-horse cart-loads, which, in single file, would make a procession thirty thousand . . . miles in length”—that is, extending from New York to San Francisco and back again, five times. During construction, workers used more than 46,000 cubic yards of manure and compost to prepare the ground for planting approximately 270,000 trees and shrubs. The elm trees along the Mall, or Pedestrian Promenade, were dug up in the Bronx and carted to the park for replanting. Workers built miles of drives, walks, and bridle paths, and more than twenty bridges and underpasses, to create a complete separation of ways as well as a number of buildings to serve the visiting public. The cost of construction was enormous. The state legislation establishing the park had authorized spending a maximum of $1.5 million in building the park. By 1859, costs totaled $1,765,000, at which time only part of the lower park had been completed and opened to the public. In 1861 the legislature authorized an additional $2 million for construction, bringing the total amount appropriated for building the park to $4 million. By 1870, Olmsted estimated that constructing Central Park had cost New York City approximately $8.9 million.8

Building the park was so expensive because of the rockiness of the site and the transformations Olmsted and Vaux made in reshaping the landscape.

Parks in Urban AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Terraces in Central Park, c. 1880.

Library of Congress, Image of America: Lantern Slide Collection

Swampy lowlands were excavated to become lakes, and so much rock was carted off the site and soil, brought in, that Olmsted estimated a change in the grade of the park’s 843 acres 4 feet. The result of all that work—blasting, construction, soil preparation, and planting—proved to be a marvel to New Yorkers, who first encountered the finished parts of the lower park in 1859. Horace Greeley, for one, was pleased that the designers had preserved the existing landscape more than he anticipated. As is true of many visitors in the early 21st century, Greeley did not realize the degree to which Central Park is a humanly created landscape, one that, in its meadows, its picturesque areas, and its water, provides a welcome relief from the cityscape beyond its borders.9

Perhaps inevitably, the park was drawn into the maelstrom of city politics from its very inception. The Charter of 1857, which created the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park, was a patently undemocratic document that attempted to remove control of park construction from the city’s Democratic leaders. Construction was halted by strikes, as a fractious workforce, beset by the deskilling that accompanied industrialization and by competition for jobs from immigrants, resisted Olmsted’s efforts to establish a strong work discipline among employees. Park commissioners of every political affiliation sought patronage appointments on the park’s workforce, which led Olmsted, in the 1870s, to maintain a journal recording his travails at the hands of city politicians. Moreover, opponents of the park’s administration and cost launched several administrative reviews of operations, each of which concluded that the management of Central Park was efficient, even exemplary.10

Despite the enormous difficulties and extravagant cost, Olmsted, Vaux, and their associates created, with Central Park, an urban landscape that delighted residents. Shortly after the park opened to the public, skating on the park’s lake and ponds became a favorite pastime, as was carriage driving and strolling on the park’s paths, though Olmsted fought to keep competitive sports, such as baseball, out of the park. Visitors wrote about their enjoyment of the park, publishers issued guides to its landscape, and photographers recorded its scenery and the public’s appreciation of its many features. Central Park remains one of the best investments New York City has ever made. Indeed, it is hard to imagine life in Manhattan without it.

The Influence of Central Park

Central Park’s example would transform U.S. cities. In 1859, the year the lower park was first opened to the public, the editor of the Horticulturist observed, with regard to parks, that Central Park had “given the initiative, and awakened inquiry and conviction of their importance.” Philadelphia, then the nation’s second-largest city, began the process of enlarging Fairmount Gardens in the 1850s and in 1859 held a competition to determine the park’s design. In 1868 the city began acquiring a much larger property on the west side of the Schuylkill River, which, two years later, totaled 2,648 acres, at the time by far the largest urban park in the nation. Baltimore’s civic leaders began their quest for a park in 1859, and the city used a penny tax on streetcar fares to finance the acquisition of what became Druid Hill Park, in 1860. The park was designed by Howard Daniels, perhaps best known for his work on rural cemeteries. Brooklyn sought approval from the state legislature in 1859 to acquire a park, and by 1860 the new park commission, headed by James S. T. Stranahan, had assembled a tract of land embracing Mount Prospect that became part of the modern Prospect Park.11

Central Park, like the grid street system that surrounded it, was a rectangular box two-and-a-half miles long and half a mile wide. The land acquired for Prospect Park was more irregular in outline, but the original site was bisected by Flatbush Avenue, a major north-south artery linking Brooklyn with southern Kings County. At Vaux’s recommendation, the park commission added land to the south and west of the original park site, with Flatbush Avenue becoming its eastern boundary. This realignment enabled the designers to create the Long Meadow, perhaps the most dramatic example of pastoral scenery in an urban park, as well as much of the Ravine and Lake areas. Pastoral scenery, exemplified by the Long Meadow, was key to Olmsted’s conception of an urban park. He described pastoral scenery as consisting of “combinations of trees, standing singly or in groups, and casting their shadows over broad stretches of turf, or repeating their beauty by reflection upon the calm surface of pools, and the predominant associations are in the highest degree tranquilizing and grateful, as expressed by the Hebrew poet: ‘He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters.’”12

Parks in Urban AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 2. Prospect Park’s lake, c. 1873.

Library of Congress, Images of America: Lantern Slide Collection

In Brooklyn, Olmsted and Vaux looked beyond the park to see its relationship to the rest of the city. Thus, they proposed construction of two parkways, Eastern and Ocean, which would be linear extensions of the park and provide recreational space in distant areas of the city. In 1866, Olmsted and Vaux described the parkway as a “shaded pleasure drive” and anticipated that Eastern Parkway would extend to the East River, where, by bridge or ferry, it would link with Central Park and the new system of boulevards the Central Park commission envisioned building in northern Manhattan; “such an arrangement,” they explained, “would enable a carriage to be driven on the half of a summer’s day, through the most interesting parts both of the cities of Brooklyn and New York, through their most attractive and characteristic suburbs, and through both their great parks.” Two years later, Olmsted and Vaux presented a fuller description of the parkway, a 260-foot-wide strip with a central roadway for pleasure driving, flanked by service roads and pedestrian paths separated by plots of grass and six rows of trees.13

Construction of Prospect Park began in the summer of 1866. At the height of construction, as many as eighteen hundred men were employed by the park. Even as construction proceeded, Olmsted and Vaux successfully urged the park commissioners to acquire land for a parade ground across the street from the southern end of the park, which they believed would be used for military musters and active recreation, and Vaux designed a lodge and shelter for users and spectators. The partners also prepared revised plans for Washington Park, which they intended to be the site for civic events, public meetings, and a memorial to the prison ship martyrs, as well as Carroll Park and Tompkins Square. In Brooklyn, then, Olmsted and Vaux moved beyond the design of a single large park and, through parkways and smaller parks, began to plan holistically for the city’s recreational needs.14

Olmsted visited Buffalo, New York, in mid-August 1868 and examined potential sites for that city’s parks. When he returned to the city on August 23, he was the featured speaker at a public meeting called to promote park development. According to the Commercial Advertiser, Olmsted

suggested that, commencing at the base ball lot and grounds in the vicinity, a small auxiliary Park might be constructed, giving a beautiful river front; from this a Boulevard could be laid out, with roads for business and pleasure travel, leading to the land on either side of Delaware street north of the cemetery, where the Central Park would be located. Thence by another roadway or Boulevard similar to the first one mentioned, to the elevated land in the neighborhood of High and Jefferson streets, where another small Park of thirty acres, more or less, for the accommodation of citizens in that vicinity, might be established, and in which, if the city carries out the plan of enlarging the Water Works, the tower could be erected.

The park and parkway development Olmsted proposed at this initial meeting became the Front, the Park (the modern Delaware Park), and the Parade (the modern Martin Luther King Jr. Park) as well as Lincoln Parkway and Humboldt Parkway. Here was the first American park system: three park spaces devoted to different uses. The Front, overlooking the Niagara River and Lake Erie, would be the site for civic events; the Park, the large, naturalistic area Olmsted considered essential to any city, a place for passive recreation; and the Parade, an area devoted to military musters and active recreation—all linked by broad, tree-lined parkways.15

Because of a parochial attitude shared by homeowners and other real estate holders, who viewed parks as a neighborhood matter rather than as part of an interconnected system, Chicago established three separate park commissions in 1869. For this reason, Olmsted believed that the city’s ambitious park system was not as successful as it otherwise would have been. The Parisian-trained engineer William Le Baron Jenney designed the west parks, and Olmsted and Vaux designed the South Park, a 1,000-acre expanse that consisted of an Upper Division (later known as Washington Park) and a Lower Division (later named Jackson Park), which were connected by a mile-long, 600-foot-wide strip, the Midway. Much of Olmsted and Vaux’s plan for Washington Park was carried out under the superintendence of Horace William Shaler Cleveland, in the 1870s, but only the northern part of Jackson Park had been improved at the beginning of planning for the World’s Columbian Exposition, in 1890.16

The phenomenon Downing termed parkomania was sweeping the nation. Smaller cities, such as Albany, New York, and New Britain, Connecticut, began taking steps to incorporate large parks in their midst. Olmsted also presented plans for Mount Royal, in Montreal, in 1881, and for Belle Isle Park, in Detroit, in March 1883.17

In the mid-1870s, Boston hired Olmsted to prepare a design for the Back Bay Fens, a sewage-filled tidal basin that was a noisome affront to residents’ sensibilities. The Fens was an area of approximately 106 acres, consisting largely of marsh, mud, and water, that carried sewage from homes along the Muddy River and Stony Brook, which drained into the Charles River. Creating a plan for the Fens involved sanitary engineering to address pollution, as well as the tidal inflows from the Charles River, and the use of water-tolerant plantings that could survive the fluctuations in the water level. The result was not a park, as Olmsted conceived the term, but an urban waterway reclamation project that could offer opportunities for passive recreation.18

The Back Bay Fens launched Olmsted’s career in Boston, and he would relocate to an old farmhouse on Warren Street, in nearby Brookline, in 1883. He then designed a park in West Roxbury (Franklin Park) and began conceiving the system of interconnected parks and parkways subsequently known as the Emerald Necklace. These included the Muddy River Improvement—like the Back Bay Fens, a creative combination of sanitary engineering and landscape architecture that linked the Fens with Jamaica Park, the Arnold Arboretum, and other parkways throughout the city.19

Parks in Urban AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 3. Preliminary Plan of Jamaica Park, Boston, Massachusetts, by Frederick Law Olmsted.

Library of Congress, Images of America: Lantern Slide Collection

The most distinctive aspect of Olmsted’s work in Boston, in the last decade of his professional career, was his attention to the need for facilities for active recreation. As early as his “Notes on the Plan of Franklin Park and Related Matters,” Olmsted had drawn attention to a significant number of small parcels of land, already owned by the city, that were “well situated for playgrounds for school children” and “for open air gymnasiums.” He argued that the park commission should obtain the use of these properties, especially in densely populated and working-class areas of the city, to afford opportunities for different forms of recreation. The first important success in developing these kinds of spaces was the Charlesbank, a relatively narrow property adjacent to the Charles River, for which Olmsted, together with the Harvard physical fitness expert Dudley Sargent, designed gymnasiums and turf fields, for women and girls at one end of the site and for men and boys at the other. He was pleased that the Charlesbank proved immediately popular with Boston’s poorer and working-class residents. He pointed with some satisfaction to the women’s gymnasium there, especially its child-care services and the educational potential of the facility, which could have “the character of an out-of-door kindergarten” and teach children how to play. The success of the Charlesbank was an example he used in arguing for an expanded program of facilities designed “expressly for the physical training of school children.” In the 1890s, Olmsted and his partners prepared designs for Wood Island Park, in East Boston; Marine Park, in South Boston; a playground in Charlestown; Dorchester Park; Charlestown Heights; and Copp’s Hill Terrace, many of which contained facilities for small children. The Charlesbank is especially important because it established a template for incorporating gymnasiums and facilities for active recreation in parks in other cities, including Genesee Valley Park, in Rochester; the Front, in Buffalo (the undeveloped plan for its expansion); and Jackson Park, in Chicago (1895 redesign after the World’s Columbian Exposition). Olmsted and his partners’ efforts to accommodate recreational facilities within park systems and, when necessary, within rural parks, is a significant if long underappreciated part of the history of urban public parks.20

Olmsted’s was not the only voice arguing for accommodations for active recreation. The Progressive journalist and housing reformer Jacob Riis did so as well, and organized play for children became a rallying cry for Progressive reformers. New York City adopted the Small Parks Act in 1887, and one of the first major accomplishments of the new law was the demolition of tenement housing along the Bend, on Mulberry Street, the heart of the Italian immigrant community, and the creation of Columbus Park. In his 1895 design for the park, Vaux proposed transforming a warren of streets and substandard housing into an expansive lawn, trees, walks, and benches. Witnessing the tenements being demolished, Riis wrote, was “little less than a revolution,” and all the better that what replaced substandard housing was an oasis of green space and fresh air. The creation of smaller parks in densely crowded areas of cities would remain a major focus of Progressive reformers well into the 20th century.21

Other landscape architects or engineers who designed public parks in the second half of the 19th century included H. J. Schwarzmann, who laid out Fairmount Park; William Hammond Hall, who created Golden Gate Park, in San Francisco, which contained what Olmsted considered the finest children’s playground in the country; and Maxmilian G. Kern, who directed construction of Forest Park, an expanse of more than 1,000 acres in St. Louis. Given the importance of turnverein (which emphasized gymnastic exercise) in German culture, Forest Park included significant opportunities for active recreation more than a decade before Olmsted began incorporating gymnasiums in the parks he designed. Although the Olmsted firm consulted with officials in Kansas City on a park for that city, the park system there would be designed by George Kessler, a German immigrant who turned to Olmsted for advice when he began his career as a landscape architect in the United States. Olmsted’s friend and frequent correspondent H. W. S. Cleveland designed a comprehensive park system for Minneapolis that included the preservation of Minnehaha Falls and other distinctive attributes of natural scenery in the metropolitan area. In 1889, Cleveland also prepared a plan for a park and boulevard system in Omaha, Nebraska. Charles Eliot, who apprenticed with Olmsted before becoming his partner, brought to the Olmsted firm the design of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, park system as well as his work with the Metropolitan Park Commission. Eliot linked Boston’s impressive park and parkway system to the new parks and reservations then being created beyond the city through a system of parkways and pleasure drives. Although the Olmsted firm dominated the nation’s park planning in the second half of the 19th century, it was not the sole voice for what a park should be.22

Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and the Washington, DC, Park System

Beginning in 1894, when his firm was appointed landscape architects advisory to the Brooklyn park commission, Olmsted fought to defend the pastoral qualities of Prospect Park that he and Vaux designed. Commissioner Frank Squier wanted to add neoclassical buildings and statuary to the natural landscape and replace the original rustic shelters and structures with more formal elements. Squier worked with the architect Stanford White, who apparently refused to meet with Olmsted. Squier also replaced the Vaux-designed fountain at the oval entrance plaza (Grand Army Plaza) with John H. Duncan’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch and hoped to add horticultural variety to the park by planting numerous species of ornamental trees and shrubs that Olmsted believed were inappropriate in a large, naturalistic park. Olmsted also feared that Richard Morris Hunt’s design for a monumental entrance at the Fifth Avenue and 59th Street entrance to Central Park, originally proposed in 1864, would finally be adopted in 1895. The battle over the proper design of parks for the 20th century was underway, and the most important new park and civic spaces created at the dawn of the new century, in Washington, DC, would reflect both the continuity of the Olmstedian tradition and the introduction of more formal plazas, terraces, and statuary.23

Olmsted had been involved in planning in Washington since the mid-1870s, when he began designing the grounds and west terrace of the U.S. Capitol. During the 1890s his firm was engaged to plan the National Zoo; consulted on the layout of a subdivision in northwest DC and adjacent Montgomery County, Maryland, for the Chevy Chase Land Company; and created a street system for areas of the city beyond the original L’Enfant plan as well as the campus of American University. Other than the Capitol Grounds, these projects were not realized before the end of Olmsted’s professional career. The greater impact on the park system of the nation’s capital was the work of his son and namesake, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. He joined his father’s firm in late 1895, after graduating from Harvard in 1894 and completing a thirteen-month apprenticeship at the Biltmore estate.24

Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. came to the forefront of the landscape architecture and urban planning professions when he was selected as a member of the Senate Park Commission panel of experts to advise on the planning of Washington. He joined his father’s collaborators from the World’s Columbian Exposition, the architects Daniel H. Burnham and Charles Follen McKim and the sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens. The goal of the Senate Park Commission, led by Senator James McMillan, was to restore L’Enfant’s plan for the District of Columba, and over the course of decades, guided by the Commission of Fine Arts, on which Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. served for almost a decade, the commission achieved much.25

The Senate Park Commission has rightly been credited with reviving L’Enfant’s plan for the monumental core of the capital and with launching the City Beautiful movement in American city and regional planning, though, as Olmsted’s battles over architecture and sculpture in Prospect Park and Hunt’s monumental gateways in Central Park demonstrate, it is more accurate to state that the Senate Park Commission plan gave impetus to a new direction in urban design already underway. The proposals for the areas surrounding the Capitol; the Mall; and the new land reclaimed from the Potomac, which became the sites of the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial, have been well documented. Perhaps surprisingly, given that it was a document prepared for the Senate Park Commission, the crucial role that Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. played in creating a modern park system for the capital has received far less attention.26

Washington had experienced significant growth during the Civil War, which continued in succeeding decades, and Alexander (“Boss”) Shepherd and the Board of Public Works had initiated an ambitious program of infrastructure construction for the fast-expanding city. Moreover, Congress approved the acquisition of land for a large park in the valley along Rock Creek in September 1890, but because of protests against the assessment of benefits—that is, the financing of the park’s construction by raising property taxes on adjacent land (as had been done for Central Park), the rationale being that the owners of that land would especially benefit from the park—little development took place until the first decade of the 20th century. The rapid increase in population, and the extension of streets beyond the original extent of L’Enfant’s plan, left the city poorly prepared to meet the challenges of urban growth. The Senate Park Commission plan addressed the redesign of the monumental core, the reclaimed land along the Potomac Flats, and proposed an ambitious park system for the district.27

At the heart of the park system was the Mall, long divided by railroad tracks that crossed it, and the grounds around the President’s House, which, during hot, wet summer months sometimes became a malarial swamp. The Senate Park Commission called for the removal of the railroad tracks from the Mall and the relocation of a passenger station to a new Union Station, north of the Capitol, and the restoration of the sweeping “grand avenue” of grass and trees L’Enfant had proposed in 1791, which would be lined by Beaux Arts classical buildings (for governmental purposes, on the south side of the mall, for national museums, on the north). The plan designated the construction of Union Square at the foot of Capitol Hill, a plaza with terraces and fountains organized around an equestrian statue of Ulysses S. Grant, as well as additional terraces to demarcate the site, just west of the Washington Monument, at the intersection of the north-south axis from the White House and the east-west axis along the center of the Mall, which L’Enfant had originally intended as the site for a statue of George Washington. The Senate Park Commission proposed a large memorial to Abraham Lincoln at the western terminus of the Mall and a site for another monument (eventually the Jefferson Memorial) on newly reclaimed land directly south of the White House.28

Beyond the Beaux Arts classicizing of the Mall, the Senate Park Commission report drew on much of the Olmsted firm’s recent work on the Boston park system and its proposals for the redesign of Jackson Park after the Columbian Exposition. The report called for the creation of hundreds of smaller parks, often in conjunction with sites reserved for schools; facilities for active recreation of adults as well as children; and a series of boulevards linking parks on hilltops formerly used as fortifications during the Civil War. Illustrated with photographs of the Charlesbank, in Boston, and other Olmsted firm projects, the report was clearly deeply influenced by Olmsted’s legacy. Rock Creek Park, of course, would be the city’s large, naturalistic park, but, as his father had done, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. also advocated the acquisition of land at key scenic destinations, most notably the Great Falls of the Potomac, which he proposed be linked to the city’s park system by a parkway.29

The most important example of how the Senate Park Commission plan built on the Olmsted firm’s work of the preceding decades was the proposal for a water park along the Anacostia River. The commission’s report decried the “outrageous condition of the Anacostia River,” a freshwater estuary that suffered from tidal inflows from the Potomac and that was severely polluted. Land adjacent to the river was periodically flooded or left to bake in the hot summer sun. As was true of the designs Olmsted had prepared for the Back Bay Fens and the Muddy River Improvement, in Boston, the Anacostia Water Park was first and foremost a work of sanitary engineering. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. called for construction of a dam at the confluence with the Potomac, which would regulate the water level, thereby eliminating much of the pollution that flowed into the Anacostia and that fouled the adjacent meadows, and the dredging of mud flats to the depth of 12 feet to create a large lake. As the report explained:

the result of the proposed treatment would be a great lake, deep enough to be clean and free from vegetation, refreshed by a sufficient flow of water, kept free from mosquitoes and malaria by its depth, by the unobstructed sweep of the wind, and by its clean shores, and surrounded by natural meadows and groves that need only to be cultivated and protected from inundation to become a charming park.

As his father had done in plans for the Boston parks, Chicago’s South Park, and the World’s Columbian Exposition, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. suggested that the lake would “provide opportunities for boating, such as are eagerly seized upon where they exist near other great cities.” Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and the firm remained deeply involved in the development of the park system in the capital, preparing 113 plans for Rock Creek Park and 42 plans for McMillan Park, both beginning in 1907, but his visionary proposal for the water park along the Anacostia River was never implemented.30

Modern Parks for Modern Life

At the turn of the 20th century, most northeastern and midwestern cities had large parks, and several had ambitious park systems. Seattle had established several parks and boulevards prior to 1903, when John Charles Olmsted first visited the city and proposed an ambitious program of park and parkway construction. Olmsted conceded that Seattle’s exceptional scenery made a large landscaped park unnecessary, and as a result he proposed a series of smaller parks in each of the city’s neighborhoods as well as a system of playgrounds. The park commission, however, had limited authority to raise money, and only the city council could approve the acquisition of land for park use. This fragmentation of authority impeded the development of Seattle’s parks, and many of the improvements Olmsted recommended were never implemented. Another early-20th-century park, Balboa Park, in San Diego, had its origins years earlier, but its improvement was largely the result of efforts by Kate Olivia Sessions, who operated a local nursery in the park and who planted one hundred trees annually to beautify it. Sessions invited Olmsted to visit San Diego in 1891 and prepare a plan for the park, but his firm was already overcommitted to other major projects and could not do so. Balboa Park was developed slowly and later became the site of the Panama-California Exposition (1915–1916) and the California Pacific International Exposition (1935–1936) as well as numerous museums and cultural institutions.31

Perhaps the most important park plan proposed in the early 20th century was embedded in Burnham and Edward H. Bennett’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. This marked the apogee of City Beautiful park planning, in which the landscape was defined by formal spaces, architectural design, and sculpture—really an elaboration of the Beaux Arts tradition first demonstrated on a large scale at the Columbian Exposition. Nevertheless, Burnham and Bennett pointed to the success of the Metropolitan Park Commission, in Boston, and to the work of the Senate Park Commission, in the capital, as examples for Chicago to follow. They advocated the reservation of the shoreline of Lake Michigan for an extended park, along with interior lagoons that would offer boating opportunities for residents. Burnham and Bennett also urged the acquisition and improvement of forests as well as large parks throughout the city that were “accessible to all citizens,” and an “encircling system of forest parks and park connections” that extended beyond the municipal boundaries. Significant, too, was the preservation of marshes and wooded ridges. Much of the park system proposed in the 1909 plan came to fruition in succeeding years.32

In the 19th century, parks were not designed for many of the changes the new century wrought, particularly the rise of the automobile. Park drives were designed for carriages, with grades and curves appropriate for leisure travel. But, as automobiles increasingly clogged city streets, drivers veered into parks and introduced new levels of noise, pollution, and speed in what had formerly been serene landscapes. The first automobile fatalities in Central Park occurred in 1906, when three people died in a crash. As the number of motorized vehicles grew, road surfaces were widened; graceful curves straightened; and the roadbeds paved with asphalt. Traffic engineers even installed stoplights and posted speed limits. In Central Park, road widening necessitated the destruction of the Marble Arch, which had enabled pedestrians entering the park at 59th Street to pass beneath a drive and reach the Mall and the interior of the park without crossing a line of traffic at grade. Ironically, to accommodate the automobile, park administrators eliminated important elements of the separation of ways at the very time when the greater volume and speed of traffic made the park more dangerous to pedestrians.33

Most of the large parks created in the second half of the 19th century also became the locations of municipal zoos, museums, and other cultural institutions. Olmsted fought the expansion of the Central Park Menagerie into a larger zoo throughout his career, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art was located in Central Park in 1880. Other cities followed suit: a zoo in Franklin Park (West Roxbury); a zoo and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Delaware Park (Buffalo); a zoo and the St. Louis Art Museum in Forest Park; a zoo and concert pavilion in Fairmount Park (Philadelphia); a zoo in Druid Hill Park (Baltimore); a zoo in Lincoln Park (Chicago); and so many institutions in Grant Park that it had become the cultural center of Chicago. There are numerous similar examples throughout the nation. Many cities also constructed large conservatories in their parks. Like the expansive parking lots necessitated by the rise of the automobile, these cultural institutions consumed considerable park space.

The enlargement or redesign of older park systems was a major theme of the early 20th century. Louisville, Kentucky, for example, where Olmsted and his partners had designed Iroquois, Cherokee, and Shawnee parks in the 1890s, added two large parks in the 1920s, Chickasaw Park (1923) and Seneca Park (1928), as well as a number of smaller neighborhood parks, all designed by the Olmsted firm. After Louisville’s parks were segregated, in 1924, Chickasaw, not completed until the early 1930s, was the only large park accessible to African Americans. Jens Jensen redesigned Chicago’s west parks in the early decades of the 20th century and helped popularize a new style of landscape planning, the prairie style, which, inspired especially by the landscape of the Midwest, emphasized horizontality in plant materials.34

Major park development in the 1920s took place not in cities, but in suburbs and on the metropolitan fringe. Robert Moses developed Jones Beach and other Long Island parks in the 1920s, but these were state parks and were accessible only by automobile. The Bronx River Parkway was a waterway reclamation project. When it opened in 1923, the parkway provided motorists with a smooth ride and handsome scenery as well as places to picnic and play. The parkway also presented a new way to commute between central Westchester County and New York City, which made possible a new wave of suburban development. Moses’s work and the Bronx River Parkway were imitated in other places but did not add to the recreational opportunities available to most residents of the nation’s cities.35

The stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression created enormous personal hardship throughout the nation, but New Deal federal funds for combating unemployment and stimulating the economy made possible the renovation of many existing parks and the creation of new parks in urban America. Moses used Civil Works Administration funding to put men to work in New York City’s parks. According to the Moses biographer Robert Caro, by May 1934:

every structure in every park in the city had been repainted. Every tennis court had been resurfaced. Every lawn had been reseeded. Eight antiquated golf courses had been reshaped, eleven miles of bridle paths rebuilt, thirty-eight miles of walks replaced, 145 comfort stations renovated, 284 statues refurbished, 678 drinking fountains repaired, 7,000 wastepaper baskets replaced, 22,500 benches reslatted, 7,000 dead trees removed, 11,000 new ones planted in their place and 62,000 others pruned, eighty-six miles of fencing, most of it unnecessary, torn down and nineteen miles of new fencing installed in its place.

It was a remarkable accomplishment, one warmly greeted by residents. Moses also oversaw the construction of new golf courses and tennis courts and fifty-one baseball diamonds in 1933 and 1934 and introduced a much heightened level of active recreation to the large parks Olmsted had long defended as places of passive recreation. Throughout his long tenure as park commissioner, Moses continued to add facilities for active recreation and playgrounds, demolished historic structures (the Casino, Mineral Springs Pavilion), and erected buildings not in keeping with Central Park’s historic landscape. For all his achievements in the early 1930s, Moses’s ultimate legacy was to transform the city’s historic parks into his own vision. Lewis Mumford described Moses’s improvements to the city’s parks as “damnably neat,” but his overall assessment was that “wide, asphalted paths and stone embankments completely counteract the natural loveliness of the landscape.” New Deal–supported projects in parks in other cities were dwarfed by the money Moses received in New York but were nonetheless important in maintaining and upgrading parks throughout the nation.36

The outbreak of World War II ended New Deal funding, and the postwar years were not kind to the nation’s cities. Suburbanization took its toll, as did deindustrialization, which shrank the tax base of cities, even as the percentage of poor and minority residents rose. Crime went up as well, leading to increased migration to the urban periphery. As municipal revenues decreased, at least relative to demands on resources, many cities cut expenditures for parks and recreation, with the result that maintenance and the proper stewardship of public landscapes declined dramatically. When New York City endured a fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s, the condition of its public parks became deplorable. In Central Park, graffiti was omnipresent, buildings were in disrepair, benches were left with missing slats, litter was everywhere, and once lush greensward had been ground into dust. With the city unable to maintain the park, the private sector responded. Several wealthy individuals organized the Central Park Community Fund, and a citizen’s group organized the Central Park Task Force to prepare a strategy for returning the park to its former glory. In 1979, park commissioner Gordon Davis appointed Elisabeth Barlow Rogers the first Central Park Administrator, and under her guidance, the Community Fund and Task Force merged the following year to become the Central Park Conservancy. Since 1980 the conservancy has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to restore the park, maintain its facilities, and improve visitors’ experience. The conservancy has led a remarkable effort to revialize the park. The conservancy’s success led other parks, in New York and other cities, to establish conservancies or friends groups to lobby for the parks, to raise money for restoration, and to articulate to the public the importance of these historic parks to the quality of life in cities.37

New Parks for the New Millennium

Three projects demonstrate different strategies for urban park creation in the 21st century. Each involves different strategies for financing improvements as well as innovative solutions to different problems.

In 1997 the Illinois Central Railroad donated its lakefront land to the city of Chicago, and in March 1998, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced a major new project on the Grant Park lakefront, Millennium Park. Planning began with a relatively modest set of goals—linking the new space to Grant Park; constructing an intermodal transportation center and a new parking garage; and, as a civic amenity, building a small park atop the garage. Under the leadership of John H. Bryan, who raised an enormous amount of money from private, foundation, and corporate donors, the park became the newest and most modernist icon of the city. Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion and BP Bridge; Anish Kapoor’s sculpture Cloud Gate; a small theater for music and dance; Crown Fountain; Lurie Garden, and other elements of the park constitute a modernist statement that integrates the park with the 19th- and 20th-century skyscrapers reflected in Kapoor’s sculpture and also reconnects Chicago with Lake Michigan. Millennium Park in some ways harkens back to Downing’s conception of the urban park as an omnibus cultural center, yet it is also the most powerful statement of the role of the park and public-private initiatives in urban planning and revitalization in the 21st century.38

Boston confronted a different challenge. Instead of railroad tracks, what divided its downtown was the elevated Central Artery, completed in 1959, which became a wall that separated the central business district from southern parts of the city. As planners studied ways to replace this misguided link in the Eisenhower Interstate System, and proposed a tunnel instead (the Big Dig), they realized that they had the opportunity to knit together a city long fragmented by a superhighway. In place of the highway, Boston constructed a greenway, named in honor of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy; a 15-acre trail that follows the route of the elevated highway, linking downtown Boston with South Boston and the harbor. Small parks along the route of the greenway provide recreational amenities to residents. Boston’s greenway is certainly one of the most important remedies to the tragic construction of interstates in urban areas, if not the most important, and has returned much of central Boston to a walkable city, though it still lacks the density and activity that its promoters surely hoped to achieve. A greenway conservancy joined with the city in a fifty-fifty funding program to construct and maintain the park.39

A third example of a new park for a new millennium is Brooklyn Bridge Park. This 85-acre park extends for 1.3 miles along the East River, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, opposite Lower Manhattan. Although this was once among the busiest ports in the world, the shipping industry had changed with the shift to containerized transport, which even the finest natural port in the eastern United States could not accommodate. With piers decaying and the once thriving riverfront’s economic future grim, the city and state collaborated in creating a public-private partnership, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, which hired Michael Van Valkenburgh and partners to prepare a plan for a site. Van Valkenburgh’s plan called for adaptive commercial and recreational use of the piers (the commercial uses are to generate revenue to pay for the maintenance of the park), and a sweeping greensward along the riverfront, with spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline. The park combines active and passive recreation, hotels and shopping, and breathtaking scenery. Brooklyn Bridge Park has quickly become a destination for residents and tourists alike, contributing to the borough’s renaissance, and, most important, reconnecting the city with its waterfront.40


The history of urban parks in the United States is long and continues to evolve. This history illuminates key themes in the American experience. The great parks created in the second half of the 19th century were constructed by cities, though often under limitations imposed by state legislatures. As immigrants crowded the nation’s cities, and density increased to intolerable levels, park planners and public officials added new places for active recreation for children and adults, especially in the most congested areas of the city. Cycles of decline and renewal followed, and in the closing decades of the 20th century, a new model emerged, a public-private partnership in which philanthropic giving largely replaced public expenditures for park maintenance and improvement.

Public-private partnership has a long history in the United States, extending back at least as far as the incorporation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History, in 1870. In each case, New York City agreed to erect the building and provide certain services, such as security and maintenance, while a private board of trustees assumed responsibility for assembling the collections and paying professional staff. But, with parks there is a fundamental difference. The creation of Central Park was an assertion that parks are important to the physical health and psychological well-being of residents—that parks are not amenities but essential public services. In the early 21st century, unfortunately, city governments seeking to balance budgets without raising taxes have cut funds for parks, thus increasing the need for support from other sources. Through the efforts of private sector conservancies, Central Park and some other parks have thrived in this new economic environment, but many, if not most, parks in midsize and smaller cities have not fared as well. Downing Park, in Newburgh, New York, for example, has seen its public sector dollars decline precipitously, and this poor city cannot call on the wealthy corporations and individuals that surround Central Park for support. Downing Park, whose 1889 design by Olmsted and Vaux was their last collaboration, is probably more representative of the future of urban parks than Central Park, with the wonderful accomplishments of the Central Park Conservancy, or Millennium Park, made such an icon of the modern city by Chicago’s civic and corporate leaders. Residents of poorer cities and small towns desperately need a place to walk amid grass and trees or for active recreation, as a respite from everyday life. That is the great challenge facing urban parks in the early 21st century—to maintain Olmsted’s vision of the park as the one essential space in a modern city. As he wrote in 1870, Central Park, in New York, and Prospect Park, in Brooklyn were

the only places in those associated cities where, in this eighteen hundred and seventieth year after Christ, you will find a body of Christians coming together, and with an evident glee in the prospect of coming together, all classes largely represented, with a common purpose, not at all intellectual, competitive with none, disposing to jealousy and spiritual or intellectual pride toward none, each individual adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of all others, all helping to the greater happiness of each. You may thus often see vast numbers of persons brought closely together, poor and rich, young and old, Jew and Gentile.

This is a vision of the park as civic space, the one common ground shared by all residents of a city, and it is as relevant in the early 21st century as it was when Olmsted spoke these words in 1870.41

Discussion of the Literature

The subject of urban parks in the United States has received considerable attention in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, but it, too, has a long history. Gherardi Davis published the pamphlet “The Establishment of Public Parks in the City of New York” in 1897. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and Theodora Kimball devoted the second volume of Frederick Law Olmsted, Landscape Architect, 1822–1903 (2 vols., New York: Putnam’s, 1922–1928) to documents detailing the creation of Central Park.

Sara Cedar Miller, Central Park: An American Masterpiece (New York: Abrams, 2003): Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992)Charles E. Beveridge and David Schuyler, eds., The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Vol. 3: Creating Central Park, 1857–1861 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983)

Of all urban parks in America, Central Park has received the most attention. Important studies include , and . Other New York City parks have not gotten the attention they deserve. Prospect Park, which Garden and Forest, in 1888, described as “one of the great artistic creations of modern times,” is the subject of Clay Lancaster’s brief, unannotated, and dated Prospect Park Handbook (New York: Long Island University Press, 1972), but the park desperately needs a comprehensive history. Other parks have been almost completely neglected, including the massive Bronx parks the city added in the 1880s, including Van Cortlandt Park and Pelham Bay Park, each more than 1,000 acres, as well as smaller parks and three parkways in what was then the Twenty-Third and Twenty-Fourth wards of New York, frequently referred to, before the 1898 consolidation of Greater New York, as the annexed district. Parks created in Queens and Staten Island in the 20th century also deserve attention.

Cynthia Zaitzevsky’sFrederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1982)Francis R. Kowsky’sThe Best Planned City in the World: Olmsted, Vaux, and the Buffalo Park System (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013)Daniel Bluestone’sConstructing Chicago (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991)Terence Young’sBuilding San Francisco’s Parks, 1850–1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008)Elizabeth Milroy’s forthcoming The Grid and the River: Philadelphia’s Green Places, 1682-1876 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015)

is an important work, as is . Two chapters in analyze that city’s 19th-century parks, and traces the evolution of that city’s parks. promises to add significantly to our knowledge of parks in that city.

As significant as these writings are, save for Rosenzweig and Blackmar’s The Park and the People, much work remains in documenting the evolution of parks and park systems in the 20th century. Moreover, major 19th-century park systems require comprehensive study. Blake McKelvey long ago published “An Historical View of Rochester’s Parks and Playgrounds,” Rochester History 11 (January 1949): 1–24, but Rochester’s parks call for a full, modern history. The same is true of Louisville, the site of the most important new park system undertaken by Olmsted and his partners in the 1890s and where the firm continued to design public spaces into the third decade of the 20th century. New studies should focus on changing conceptions of recreation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and how these ideas affected both historic parks and the design of new ones. Crucial, too, is careful analysis of public sector funding and the role that private conservancies have been playing in the early 21st century as cities have faced budgetary shortfalls.

In addition, much work remains to be done on the individuals who designed urban parks. Olmsted’s partners John Charles Olmsted, Henry Sargent Codman, and Charles Eliot deserve full biographies, as does Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. Other park makers who are worthy of study include such 19th-century figures as Horace William Shaler Cleveland, William Hammond Hall, and George Kessler, and in the 20th century, Gilmore Clark, among many others. Parks in smaller cities, especially those not designed by significant figures in landscape architecture or planning, are also deserving of scholarly attention.

The history of urban parks in the United States is a rich, exciting field. Long dominated by study of Olmsted, the field must move beyond his towering shadow and especially investigate how historic parks evolved in the 20th century and how new parks have been created to meet modern recreational needs.

Primary Sources

Primary source materials are located online and in archives at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site; the Frederick Law Olmsted Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC; the John Charles Olmstead Papers, Frances Loeb Library, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; the Charles William Eliot Papers, Harvard University Archives, Cambridge, MA; the Annual Reports and Minutes of the New York City Department of Parks; the Olmstead Associates Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC; and the Olmsted Research Guide Online.

Further Reading

Beveridge, Charles, and Paul Rocheleau. Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape. New York: Rizzoli, 1995.Find this resource:

Cranz, Galen. The Politics of Park Design: A History of Urban Parks in America. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Kowsky, Francis R.The Best Planned City in the World: Olmsted, Vaux, and the Buffalo Park System. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.Find this resource:

McLaughlin, Charles Capen, et al., eds. The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted. 11 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977–.Find this resource:

Miller, Sara Cedar. Central Park, an American Masterpiece. New York: Abrams, 2003.Find this resource:

Rosenzweig, Roy, and Elizabeth Blackmar. The Park and the People: A History of Central Park. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Schuyler, David. The New Urban Landscape: The Redefinition of City Form in Nineteenth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Zaitzevsky, Cynthia. Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1982.Find this resource:


(1.) For an overview, see John W. Reps, The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965). See also M. A. DeWolfe Howe, Boston Common: Scenes from Four Centuries (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1921), 41–42, and Kenneth T. Jackson, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York City, 2d ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 102–103, 541–542, 1243.

(2.) David Schuyler, The New Urban Landscape: The Redefinition of City Form in Nineteenth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 67, 101–103.

(3.) Schuyler, New Urban Landscape, 59–66.

(4.) David Schuyler, “The Washington Park and Downing’s Legacy to Public Landscape Design,” in Prophet with Honor: The Career of Andrew Jackson Downing, 1815–1852, ed. George B. Tatum and Elisabeth Blair MacDougall (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks—Trustees for Harvard University and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia,, 1989), 291–311; David Schuyler, Apostle of Taste: Andrew Jackson Downing, 1815–1852 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 191–203.

(5.) Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 37–58; Charles E. Beveridge and David Schuyler, eds., The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Vol. 3: Creating Central Park, 1857–1861 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 14.

(6.) Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, “Description of a Plan for the Improvement of the Central Park: Greensward,” in Beveridge and Schuyler, Creating Central Park, 120.

(7.) Frederick Law Olmsted, “Passages in the Life of an Unpractical Man,” in Beveridge and Schuyler, Creating Central Park, 84–94; Rosenzweig and Blackmar, Park and the People, 59–91.

(8.) Frederick Law Olmsted, “Statistical Report of the Landscape Architects, 31st December, 1873, Forming Part of Appendix L of the Third General Report of the Department,” in New York City, Department of Public Parks, Third Annual Report (New York, 1875), 46–47; Frederick Law Olmsted to William R. Ware, May 31, 1893, Columbia University Archives; New York City, Board of Commissioners of the Central Park, Fourth Annual Report (New York, 1861), 24.

(9.) Olmsted, “Statistical Report,”46–47; Greeley is quoted in Clarence C. Cook, A Description of the Central Park (1869; New York: B. Blom, 1972), 110; Frederick Law Olmsted, “Patronage Journal,” in Beveridge and Hoffman, Supplementary Series 1, 653–704.

(10.) Edward K. Spann, The New Metropolis: New York City, 1840–1857 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 384–397; Rosenzweig and Blackmar, Park and the People, 150–170; J. M. Murphy et al., “Report of Special Committee Appointed to Examine into Condition, Affairs, and Progress of the New York Central Park,” Board of Commissioners of the Central Park, Fourth Annual Report, 121–122.

(11.) Schuyler, New Urban Landscape, 102–116.

(12.) David Schuyler and Jane Turner Censer, eds., The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Vol. 6: The Years of Olmsted, Vaux and Company, 1865–1874 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 19–22; Olmsted, Vaux and Company to the Board of Commissioners (of Prospect Park), January 24, 1866, Beveridge and Hoffman, Supplementary Series 1, 90–91.

(13.) Beveridge and Hoffman, Supplementary Series 1, 105–106; Olmsted, Vaux and Company, “Report of the Landscape Architects and Superintendents,” in Beveridge and Hoffman, Supplementary Series 1, 134–141.

(14.) Schuyler and Censer, Years of Olmsted, Vaux, 23–25, 202–208, 309–312.

(15.) Frederick Law Olmsted to Mary Perkins Olmsted, August 23, 1868, and August 25, 1868, Schuyler and Censer, Years of Olmsted, Vaux, 266–273; Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, August 26, 1868, 3; Olmsted, Vaux & Company to William Dorsheimer, October 1, 1868, Beveridge and Hoffman, Supplementary Series 1, 158–170. See also Francis R. Kowsky, The Best Planned City in the World: Olmsted, Vaux, and the Buffalo Park System (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

(16.) Daniel Bluestone, Constructing Chicago (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), 7–61.

(17.) A. J. Downing to J. J. Smith, n.d. (probably 1847) and March 17, 1850, Horticulturist, n.s., 6 (April 1856), 160. For Olmsted’s reports on Mount Royal and Belle Isle Park, see Beveridge and Hoffman, Supplementary Series 1, 350–436.

(18.) Frederick Law Olmsted, “Paper on the (Back Bay) Problem and Its Solution Read before the Boston Society of Architects,” in Beveridge and Hoffman, Supplementary Series 1, 437–459; Frederick Law Olmsted to the Board of Commissioners of the Department of Parks (Boston), December 29, 1880.

(19.) See Cynthia Zaitzevsky, Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).

(20.) Frederick Law Olmsted, “Notes on the Plan of Franklin Park and Related Matters,” in Beveridge and Hoffman, Supplementary Series 1, 467–472; Zaitzevsky, Boston Park System; John Charles Olmsted to William A. Stiles, February 15, 1896, Olmsted Associates Records, A series, Vol. 45,580–580; William A. Stiles, “The Revised Plan for Jackson Park, Chicago,” Garden and Forest 9 (May 20, 1896), 201–202.

(21.) Francis R. Kowsky, Country, Park, and City: The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 308–309.

(22.) For Schwartzmann and Fairmount Park, see John Maass, The Glorious Enterprise: The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and H. J. Schwartzmann, Architect-in-Chief (Watkins Glen, NY: American Life Foundation, 1973); for Hall and Golden Gate Park, see Terence Young, Building San Francisco’s Parks 1850–1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Park, 2004); for Kern and Forest Park, see Caroline Loughlin and Catherine Anderson, Forest Park (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986); the most comprehensive assessment of Cleveland’s significance is Aaron Sachs, Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), pp. 241–251; for Eliot, see Keith N. Morgan’s introduction to the reprint edition of Charles W. Eliot, Charles Eliot: Landscape Architect (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press for the Library of American Landscape History, 1999).

(23.) Clay Lancaster, Prospect Park Handbook (New York: Long Island University Press, 1972), 70–74; Rudolph Ulrich to Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot, September 11, 1894, Olmsted Associates Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, B series, microfilm reel 25, frame 500; Frederick Law Olmsted to Calvert Vaux, late August 1894, Olmsted Papers.

(24.) Frederick Law Olmsted to Frank Baker, late 1890, Olmsted Papers; Frederick Law Olmsted to Francis G. Newlands, November 16, 1891, Olmsted Papers; DC Streets Memorandum, December 30, 1891, Olmsted Papers; Frederick Law Olmsted to Samuel Beiler, Department 28, 1894, Olmsted Associates Records, A series, reel 19, frame 784.

(25.) Jon A. Peterson, “The Senate Park Commission’s Plan for Washington, D.C.: A New Vision for the Capital and the Nation,” in Designing the Nation’s Capital: The 1901 Plan for Washington, D.C., ed. Sue Kohler and Pamela Scott (Washington, DC: U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, 2006), 1–46; on the Commission of Fine Arts, see Sue Kohler, “The Commission of Fine Arts: Implementing the Senate Park Commission’s Vision,” in Kohler and Scott, Designing the Nation’s Capital, 245–273.

(26.) Timothy Davis has provided the fullest account of the Senate Park Commission’s park planning, but while he points to the Olmsted firm’s work in Boston and to Charles Eliot’s 1893 report to the Metropolitan Park Commission, he does not identify specific projects that are direct antecedents of the 1901 plan. Timothy Davis, “Beyond the Mall: The Senate Park Commission’s Plans for Washington’s Park System,” in Kohler and Scott, Designing the Nation’s Capital, 137–180.

(27.) Alan Lessoff, The Nation and Its City: Politics, “Corruption,” and Progress in Washington, D.C., 1861–1902 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 233–234.

(28.) Daniel H. Burnham et al., “Report of the Park Commission,” in The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia, ed. Charles Moore (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1902), 23–53.

(29.) Burnham et al., “Park Commission,” 83–89, 96.

(30.) Burnham et al., “Park Commission,” 105–109.

(31.) William H. Wilson, The City Beautiful Movement (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 147–167; Kate O. Sessions to Frederick Law Olmsted, October 14, 1891, Olmsted Associates Records, C series, box 4, folder 1; Writers Program, California, Balboa Park, San Diego, California; A Comprehensive Guide to the City’s Cultural and Recreational Center (San Diego: Neyenesch Printers, 1941).

(32.) Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett, Plan of Chicago, ed. Charles Moore (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1993), 43–60.

(33.) Roseenzweig and Blackmar, Park and the People, 400–401.

(34.) For Louisville, see the Our Parks section of the Frederick Law Olmstead Parks website; Robert E. Grese, Jens Jensen: Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 62–93.

(35.) Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Knopf, 1974), 221–240; on the Bronx River Parkway, see Randall Mason, The Once and Future New York: Historic Preservation and the Modern City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

(36.) Caro, Power Broker, 372 passim; Lewis Mumford, “The Sky Line: Artful Blight,” New Yorker, May 5, 1951, 85.

(37.) Information provided by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers.

(38.) See Timothy J. Gilfoyle, Millennium Park: Creating a Chicago Landmark (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

(39.) Tom Lewis, Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 307–308.

(41.) Frederick Law Olmsted, “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns,” Beveridge and Hoffman, Supplementary Series 1, 186.