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The Life and Legacy of the Olmsted Family by Laurence Cotton, Historian

Celebrating Olmsted: BRINGING NATURE TO THE CITY AND CREATING BREATHING SPACE FOR DEMOCRACY

As part of a series of nation-wide, year-long events celebrating the legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted and the Olmsted family of landscape architects, historian Laurence Cotton presented a lecture detailing their impact at The Birmingham Botanical Gardens on February 16th.

Consulting producer on the PBS film, Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America, Cotton had not only visited, but was often intimately familiar with many of the Olmsted projects he discussed. His slides traveled the audience across America, giving the history, motivation, and importance of each of the parks and green spaces. Many are well-known and include:

  • Niagra Falls
  • The Biltmore Estate
  • Central Park in NYC
  • Yosemite
  • The Capitol Grounds and The Washington Mall
  • The Great White City – Chicago
  • Boston’s Emerald Necklace
  • Prospect Park in Brooklyn

Cotton emphasized the social importance of the Olmsted legacy. The green spaces and parks were designed to be available to all walks of life, to enhance the health and well-being of visitors, to encourage social engagement across economic & cultural divides, to provide forestry and landscape experiments, and to stand the test of time. As he stated, Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons were true artists of the landscape, while working on a vast scale, in FOUR dimensions, with the fourth being time…to allow their design visions to mature over decades.

However, their public spaces were not always green, as Cotton illustrated by Olmsted’s plan for the Capitol steps in Washington, D.C. There, Olmsted’s step design again encouraged democracy and provided an open forum for public engagement.

As another example, their design for Niagra Falls restored and enhanced the beauty that was already there. Before and after images were startling.

Niagra gorge circa 1901

Cotton ended his travel log in Birmingham, drawing upon the resources written by The Birmingham Historical Society and Marjorie White, with a special recommendation for Shades Creek, Flowing Through Time. Related artifacts assembled by The Southern History Department of The Birmingham Public Library, were part of a special exhibit and reception following the lecture. Books by The Birmingham Historical Society on Olmsted were available, and a reading list assembled by Laurence Cotton is available HERE.

Happy 200th Birthday, Frederick Law Olmsted!

Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America is a co-production of WNED PBS, Buffalo/Toronto and Florentine Films/Hott Productions Inc., made possible by major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor and The Margaret L. Wendt Foundation. With funding provided by HSBC, The Tiffany & Co. Foundation and The C.E. & S. Foundation. With additional support from The Peter C. Cornell Trust and Mass Humanities. (Click on image above to view)

Birmingham is among many American cities that owes a debt of gratitude to the efforts and vision of Frederick Law Olmsted. Considered the founder of American landscape architecture, he was among the first to recognize the importance to public health of providing green spaces and parks in burgeoning cities at the turn of the century.

First, as a writer for the New York Times, he toured the country, and saw the anxiety, irritability, and impatience that close quarters in smoke-filled cities induced. He abhorred the segregation of the antebellum South. Olmsted was convinced that access to green spaces would reduce stress at a time when that real estate was being rapidly developed. Ultimately, Olmsted believed that public spaces would bring people from all walks of life together in a harmonious environment.

Subsequently in 1865, at the age of 43, upon becoming a landscape designer, he became an unintentional reformer who set out to change the way urban Americans engaged with one another.

His legacy in Birmingham includes:

  • an impressive plan for a comprehensive park system,
  • the plan for Birmingham’s civic cen­ter with its governmental buildings surrounding today’s Linn Park,
  • the site selection for today’s Samford University, and
  • the site selection and general plan for the Vestavia Country Club.

He invented parkways; he promoted curving, landscape- driven, suburban streets; he created planned communities, and experimental forestry. He connected cities with a series of parks, and ’rules of engagement’ that would allow everyone to protect and enjoy common green spaces. And perhaps his best known and also his first project is Central Park in New York City.

“The time will come when New York will be built up, when the rocky formations of [Manhattan] will have been converted into foundations for rows of monotonous straight streets and piles of erect, angular buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface, with the single exception of the Park.” ~ Frederick Law Olmsted

His legacy provided the guidebook as to how American cities are planned today. We will forever celebrate the gifts he gave us! So, Happy Birthday, Mr. Olmsted!

(Many events are being planned and attendance may be in person, virtual or streaming due to Covid restrictions. Stay tuned for more details.)

A comprehensive film and commentary has been produced by WNED PBS and can be viewed HERE

To see the sheer VOLUME of work by The Olmsted Brothers, view the MAP HERE. Select an area to explore and download project maps. For instructions, read THIS

View Birmingham Historical Society’s newsletter regarding Olmsted’s legacy HERE

Please also refer to Birmingham Historical Society’s publication: The Olmsted Vision – Parks for Birmingham. A Publication about the Early Years and Today

Read more HERE: https://birminghamhistoricalsociety.com/the-olmsted-vision-parks-for-birmingham/