January 12, 2022

Morven Talk on Olmsted Legacy Is Among Events Marking His Birth

CELEBRATING A RENAISSANCE MAN: Morven Museum and Garden marks the 200th birthday of Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of Central Park and numerous other urban green spaces, with a lecture by scholar Lawrence Cotton on January 27.

By Anne Levin

Frederick Law Olmsted is widely known as the designer of New York’s Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, and to locals, Trenton’s Cadwalader Park and the campus of The Lawrenceville School.

But Olmsted was more than a landscape architect. He was a dedicated conservationist, abolitionist, author, and public servant. Across the country, the 200th anniversary of his birth is being celebrated this year with lectures, public programs, exhibits, and restoration projects. Among them is “Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America,” a virtual lecture sponsored by Morven Museum and Garden on Thursday, January 27 at 6:30 p.m.

Lawrence Cotton, a historian and authority on Olmsted and his legacy, will present a “mini-travelogue” of select Olmsted landscapes across North America. Cotton was the originator, principal researcher, and consulting producer of the 2014 Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentary Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America. He sees Olmsted, whose firm is credited with 700 parks and 6,000 commissions, as a true Renaissance man.

“One could say that he saw his parks as a place to enact democracy for all races, religions, and classes to come together in one place for free recreations, for solace, fresh air, and health,” Cotton said in a phone interview this week. “He foresaw all of that. And it was part of his design intent from the very start.”

There were two Frederick Law Olmsteds — father and son — in addition to a second son, John Charles Olmsted, in the Olmsted firm. “Many people confuse who did what when,” Cotton said. “I’ll be covering all of that in my presentation.”

Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm, which continued into the 1970s, left a huge imprint on the landscapes of North America. “[There were] public parks, private estates and gardens, residential neighborhoods, entire community designs, and institutional campuses,” reads a release from Morven. “Not only did Frederick Law Olmsted and his progeny found the field of landscape architecture, they also were early proponents of urban planning. The Olmsted design philosophy addressed public health — physical and mental health, and issues of equity and access that are even more relevant to contemporary park managers and users. Olmsted foresaw the crucial role of the experience of nature in the urban setting, and the very role that parks can play for the enactment of democracy in a multi-ethnic, multiracial society.”

Olmsted’s life was not easy. He suffered a near-fatal accident, which left him maimed, during the building of Central Park. “One week after that, his son died,” Cotton said. “He blamed himself. One could say that he suffered from bouts of depression.”

Particularly in the later years of the enormous Central Park project, Olmsted felt pushed aside. “He was ignored by politicians and bureaucrats of the day,” Cotton said. “They wanted him out.”

Cotton will focus on salient aspects of Olmsted’s life. “I retell and emphasize various aspects of his biography,” he said, “including his travels through the South where he saw slavery. There are echoes to this day of his extraordinary work. He became an abolitionist, and then the director of the U. S. Sanitary Commission, which provided medical relief and care to the volunteer members of the Union army throughout the Civil War. He resigned because it became too challenging for him. But he was right there in the aftermath of the bloodiest battles, including Antietam. He was literally a witness to the Civil War.”

The actual date of Olmsted’s birth is April 26. That day is “a fairly significant national event,” said Cotton. “There will be things going on in New York City, Washington, Boston, Buffalo, and the Biltmore estate in Asheville, North Carolina. On that very day, I am honored to be a featured speaker at Biltmore.”

To find out more about national events celebrating Olmsted this year, visit Olmsted200.org. Tickets for the Morven event are $10-$15. Visit morven.org to register.