Olmsted Escapes - Landscape Designs of Beauty and Planning

Olmsted Escapes - Landscape Designs of Beauty and Planning

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Teaching With the Olmsteds

Student-Designed Landscape Model. Photo courtesy Joel Veak, National Park Service, Olmsted National Historic Site (cropped)

Landscape architecture is an exciting way to teach general concepts of planning, design, revision, and execution. Building a model park like the one shown above is a hands-on activity before or after visiting a landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Sons. After the 1859 success of Central Park in New York City, the Olmsteds were commissioned by urban areas throughout the United States.

The Olmsted business model was to survey the property, develop an intricate and detailed plan, review and modify the plan with the property owners (e.g., city councils), and then execute the plan, sometimes over a number of years. That's a lot of paperwork. Over a million Olmsted documents are available for study in the Olmsted Archives at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site (Fairsted) as well as the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site is run by the National Park Service and open to the public.

Join us as we explore some of the great parks designed by the famous Olmsted family, and find resources for planning your own learning vacation.

Learn More:

  • Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, at
  • Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, National Park Service
  • The National Association for Olmsted Parks (NAOP)
  • Researching an Olmsted Landscape, by Lucy Lawliss, Caroline Loughlin, and Lauren Meier, National Association for Olmsted Parks and National Park Service, 2008.
  • Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin martin (2011)
  • Civilizing American Cities: Writings On City Landscapes by Frederick law Olmsted
  • "A Clearing In The Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century," by Witold Rybczynski (2000)
  • The Olmsted National Historic Site and the Growth of Historic Landscape Preservation by David Grayson Allen (2007)
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Franklin Park, Boston

Franklin Park, the Largest Element of Olmsted's Emerald Necklace in Boston, Massachusetts, November 2009. Photo ©2009Eric Hansen from Flickr.

Established in 1885 and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Franklin Park is the largest part of the "Emerald Necklace" system of parks and waterways in Boston.

The Emerald Necklace is a collection of interconnected parks, parkways, and waterways, including the Boston Public Garden, the Commons, Commonwealth Avenue, the Back Bay Fens, the Riverway, Olmsted Park, Jamaica Park, Arnold Arboretum, and Franklin Park. The Arnold Arboretum and the Back Bay Fens were designed in the 1870s, and soon new parks connected with old to form what looked like a Victorian necklace.

Franklin Park is just south of the City of Boston, in the neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain. It is said that Olmsted modeled Franklin Park after "People's Park" in Birkenhead, England.


In the 1950s, about 40 acres of the original 527 acre park was used to build the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital. Today, two organizations are dedicated to preserving the Boston park system:

SOURCES: "Boston's Emerald Necklace by F. L. Olmsted," American Landscape and Architectural Design 1850-1920, The Library of Congress; "Franklin Park," Official Website of the City of Boston accessed April 29, 2012

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Cherokee Park, Louisville

Olmsted-Designed Cherokee Park, Louisville, Kentucky, 2009. Photo ©2009 W. Marsh at Flickr.

In 1891, the City of Louisville, Kentucky commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons to design a park system for their city. Of the 120 parks in Louisville, eighteen are Olmsted-designed. Similar to the connected parks found in Buffalo, Seattle, and Boston the Olmsted parks in Louisville are connected by a series of six parkways.

Cherokee Park, built in 1891, was one of the first. The park features a 2.4-mile Scenic Loop within its 389.13 acres.


The parks and parkway system fell into disrepair in the mid-20th century. An interstate highway was constructed through Cherokee and Seneca Parks in the 1960s. In 1974 tornadoes uprooted many trees and destroyed much of what Olmsted designed. Improvements for non-vehicular traffic along ten miles of the parkways is being led by The Olmsted Parkways Shared-Use Path System project. The Olmsted Parks Conservancy is dedicated to "restoring, enhancing and preserving" the park system in Louisville.

For More Information:

For trail maps, parkway maps, and more:

  • Cherokee Park, Olmsted Parks Conservancy
  • Profile of Cherokee Park in Louisville
  • Cherokee Park, City of Louisville
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Jackson Park, Chicago

Palace of Fine Arts in Jackson Park, Chicago. Photo ©Indiana University / The Charles W. Cushman Collection on Flickr

In the mid-nineteenth century, the South Park area was about a thousand acres of undeveloped land south of Chicago's center. Jackson Park, near Lake Michigan, was designed to be connected to Washington Park to the west. The mile-long connector, similar to the Mall in Washington, D.C., is still called the Midway Plaisance. During the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, this connecting strip of parkland was the site of many amusements-the origin of what we now call the midway at any carnival, fair, or amusement park. More about this iconic public space:

  • Designed in 1871 by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. and his Central Park partner, English-born architect Calvert Vaux
  • Used for the 1893 Columbian Exposition (The Chicago World's Fair). The Palace of Fine Arts, designed by Charles B. Atwood, was constructed for the Exposition. Olmsted and Henry Sargent Codman worked on the landscape architecture overseen by Daniel H. Burnham. Codman, an Olmsted partner, died suddenly during the project.
  • Redesinged in 1895 (after the Exposition) by Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot. Charles Eliot became a partner after Codman's death.


Although most of the exhibition buildings were destroyed, the Greek-inspired Palace of Fine Arts stood crumbling for many years. In 1933 it was restored to become the Museum of Science and Industry. The Olmsted-designed park itself was modified from 1910 to 1940 by South Park Commission designers and by Chicago Park District landscape architects. The 1933-1934 Chicago World's Fair was also held in the Jackson park area.

Sources: History, Chicago Park District; Frederick Law Olmsted in Chicago (PDF), The Frederick Law Olmsted Papers Project, The National Association for Olmsted Parks (NAOP); Olmsted in Chicago: Jackson Park and the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 (PDF), Julia Sniderman Bachrach and Lisa M. Snyder, 2009 American Society of Landscape Architects Annual Meeting

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Lake Park, Milwaukee

Grand Staircase in Olmsted-Designed Lake Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2009. Photo ©2009 by Julia Taylor on Flickr

In 1892, the City of Milwaukee Park Commission hired Frederick Law Olmsted's company to design a system of three parks, including over 100 acres of land along the shores of Lake Michigan.

Between 1892 and 1908, Lake Park was developed, with Olmsted overseeing the landscaping. Bridges (both steel and stone), pavilions, playgrounds, a bandstand, a small golf course, and a grand staircase leading to the lake were designed by local architects including Alfred Charles Clas and local engineers including Oscar Sanne.


Lake Park in particular is susceptible to erosion along the bluffs. Structures along Lake Michigan are in need of constant repair, including the Grand Staircase and the North Point Lighthouse, which is within Lake Park.

SOURCES: History of Lake Park, Lake Park Friends; History of the Parks, Milwaukee County accessed April 30, 2012

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Volunteer Park, Seattle

Olmsted-Designed Volunteer Park in Seattle, Washington, 2011. Photo ©2011 Bill Roberts at Flickr

Volunteer Park is one of the oldest in Seattle, Washington. The city purchased the land in 1876 from a sawmill owner. By 1893, fifteen percent of the property was cleared and by 1904 it had been developed for recreation before the Olmsteds came to the Northwest.

In preparation for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, the City of Seattle contracted with the Olmsted Brothers to survey and design a series of connected parks. Based on their past exposition experiences in New Orleans (1885), Chicago (1893), and Buffalo (1901), the Brookline, Massachusetts Olmsted company was well-qualified to create a city of linked landscapes. By 1903, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. had retired, so John Charles led the survey and plan for Seattle's parks. The Olmsted Brothers worked in the Seattle area for over thirty years.

As with other Olmsted plans, the 1903 Seattle plan included a twenty mile long connecting boulevard that linked most of the proposed parks. Volunteer Park, including the historic Conservatory Building, was complete by 1912.


The 1912 Conservatory in Volunteer Park has been restored by The Friends of the Conservatory (FOC). In 1933, after the Olmsted-era, the Seattle Asian Art Museum was built on the grounds of Volunteer Park. A water tower, built in 1906, with an observation deck is part of the Volunteer Park landscape. The Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks promote awareness with a permanent exhibit at the tower.

For More Information:

Source: Volunteer Park History, City of Seattle accessed June 4, 2013

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Audubon Park, New Orleans

Audubon Park Zoo in New Orleans, Louisiana, 2009. Photo ©2009 Tulane Public Relations at Flickr.

In 1871, New Orleans was planning for the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition of 1884. The city purchased land six miles west of the city, which was developed for New Orleans' first world's fair. This 340 acres, between the Mississippi River and St. Charles Avenue, became the urban park designed by John Charles Olmsted in 1898.


A grass-roots organization called Save Audubon Park seeks to protect "privatization, commercialization and exploitation" of the park.

For More Information:

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Delaware Park, Buffalo

With the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society Building in the background, the Olmsted-designed Delaware Park in Buffalo, New York, is peaceful in the summer of 2011. Photo ©2011 Curtis Anderson at Flickr.

Buffalo, New York is filled with iconic architecture. Besides Frank Lloyd Wright, the Olmsteds also contributed to Buffalo's built environment.

Known simply as "The Park," Buffalo's Delaware Park was the 350 acre site of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. It was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. and Calvert Vaux, creators of New York City's Central Park in 1859. The 1868-1870 Plan for the Buffalo Parks System included parkways connecting three major parks, similar to the connected parks found in Louisville, Seattle, and Boston.


In the 1960s, an expressway was built across Delaware Park, and the lake became more and more polluted. The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy now ensures integrity of the Olmsted park system in Buffalo.

For More Information:

  • Delaware Park, Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy
  • Olmsted in Buffalo