By Elizabeth Goldsmith (W&M Contributor)
Last week, I visited the Frederick Law Olmsted Historic Site in Brookline, Mass. It is a soothing place, an 1810 farmhouse purchased by Olmsted in 1883 and remodeled by him to accommodate his growing landscape architecture business. On just two acres of land, Olmsted managed to design the grounds using his favorite techniques, creating small, inviting stone paths that curve through stands of elm, pine, and oak, then opening out to a sunny lawn that Isabella Stewart Gardner allowed him to blend with the field below her summer house next door. In an early photograph, the whole Olmsted house is covered in vines.
As a National Historic Site it is also a modest place, considering the huge scope of the legacy left by the man who lived and worked there. Olmsted is best known as the creator of Central Park, a design he completed with his partner Calvert Vaux. With that celebrated project he may be said to have invented the field of landscape architecture, going on provide most of the major cities in America with a legacy of his genius. To name a few, the great parks of Boston, Chicago, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Louisville, Rochester, Buffalo, Baltimore, Denver, Seattle, all bear his signature. He designed the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and all or parts of the campuses of Stanford, Cornell, Amherst, Yale, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and many others.
The final work project of his life, though, was for a private client, George Washington Vanderbilt, who in 1895 had just completed The Biltmore, the largest private residence ever built in the United States. It was a 250-room chateau outside of Ashville, North Carolina. Olmsted worked to landscape the place. Perhaps recognizing that his 73-year-old landscape designer was in poor health, Vanderbilt arranged for Olmsted’s friend, the artist John Singer Sargent, to come down from Boston to paint his portrait on the grounds of the estate. Sargent chose to place his subject in a setting of thick vegetation. It is a poignant picture of an old man leaning on a cane and somehow receding slightly into the mass of greenery around him. Flowers and flowering bushes had never been Olmsted’s forte; he had always preferred to plant trees that took little tending. In Sargent’s portrait, the flowers seem slightly out of control, reaching to overtake the elderly gentleman standing in their midst.
Olmsted was ill, and had to leave the Biltmore before the portait was completed, leaving his son to put on his father’s coat and continue the posing sessions so that Sargent could finish his work. For the next two years Olmsted’s family and doctors tried to slow what became an inevitable decline into senile dementia, moving him to Deer Isle, Maine where they hoped that the isolation and beauty of the natural surroundings would have it’s usual curative effect on him. Through it all, he wrote letters obsessively, expressing his panic that the Biltmore and other commissions were not being properly completed. Finally, in 1898 he was committed to the McLean Asylum in Belmont, Mass.
The new McLean hospital, boasting a large campus sheltering the institutional buildings from the stressful urban environment where it had previously been located, had been built in 1895. The initial selection of the site and the first drawings for the grounds had been done by … Frederick Law Olmsted. He remembered that project. When he arrived at the hospital he was immediately drawn to the grounds, but to his disappointment he realized that the final plan used was not of his design. “They did not carry out my plan,” he said to his family, “confound them!”
He died at McLean on August 28, 1903.
Justin Martin, Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted ( Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2011).
Lee Hall, Olmsted’s America: An ‘Unpractical’ Man and His Vision of Civilization (Boston and New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1995).