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Parks & Recreation: The Olmsted Family Business

FLOJR (2)As far as family businesses go, few have had such an effect on the American landscape as the Olmsteds’. While Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.’s projects are world renowned (Central Park, the U.S. Capitol, the Biltmore Estate, Niagara Falls, Boston’s Emerald Necklace), the influence of his son Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (1870-1957) is also far-reaching.

FLO Jr., known as Rick, learned from the best, working with architect Daniel Burnham on the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair while a zoology student at Harvard and as an apprentice to his father at George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore (the birthplace of U.S. forestry) after graduation. He was among the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects, established the first university landscape architecture program in the country, and was the first president of the American City Planning Institute.

He and his stepbrother, John Olmsted, took over their father’s landscape architecture firm upon his retirement and went on to complete some 3,000 commissions. In the East, these include the Jefferson Memorial, the White House and National Cathedral grounds, and other aspects and updates to Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for Washington, D.C.

It is in the West, however, that FLO Jr. leaves perhaps his greatest legacy: his 1928 survey of potential state parklands in California. Most of the 125 sites he identified as scenic and recreational treasures have indeed been saved from development. (They are joined by the newest national monument as of March 11, Point Arena–Stornetta, on the state’s north coast.)

He also had a voice in the creation of the national park system, helping to write the statement of purpose for the nascent National Park Service: “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

FLO Jr. first visited what is now Yosemite National Park at age 16, while on a trip to California with his father to scout the site that Leland Stanford wanted to turn into a university. Forty years later, he became a long-serving member of Yosemite National Park’s advisory board while working to preserve California's redwoods and America's recreation spaces -- rural, urban, and suburban. In a full-circle turn of sorts, the relevance of FLO Jr.'s vision for parks and preservation today will be explored at the National Association for Olmsted Parks symposium “Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.: Inspirations for the 21st Century,” March 27–28, at Stanford University.  --M.P. Klier

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--images courtesy of the National Association for Olmsted Parks

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