Happy 200th Frederick Law Olmsted!

 Atlanta reconnects to the OG landscape architect with an epic birthday bash

By:  Lynne Anderson


Most know him as the designer of New York City’s Central Park or Boston’s Emerald Necklace, Frederick Law Olmsted is considered not only the father of landscape architecture but also one of its premier practitioners. Among his influence in Atlanta is the envisioning of Olmsted Linear Park and the Druid Hills neighborhood development. It continues today with patterning the Atlanta Beltline’s greenspace study and implementation after Olmsted’s Boston Emerald Necklace design.

Architect Daniel Burnham said of Olmsted that “he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountainsides and ocean views.” Those who know and love the six linear parks that Olmsted envisioned as part of the Druid Hills neighborhood would agree.

This spring, Atlanta will join the collection of parks across the nation in a celebration of 200 years since Olmsted’s birth on April 26, 1822. A weeklong celebration kicks off with a roaring 20s themed, black-tie-optional gala at the historic Callanwolde Fine Arts Center mansion. Attendees will enjoy sipping cocktails, croquet on the lawn and live music by Jazz artist, Joe Gransden.

Planned by the Druid Hills “Olmsted 200” Celebration Committee, the festivities also include the Druid Hills Home and Garden Tour, Plein Air Painting exhibitions, an outdoor artist market and more. 

[This neighborhood] was Olmsted’s final design before he passed away,” said OLPA executive director Sandy Kruger in sharing excitement about the upcoming events. “During COVID, the park welcomed visitors from all over in search of peace and tranquility in nature and continues to be a vital asset for one’s mental and physical health. It is a testament to the relevancy of Olmsted’s vision in creating democratic spaces that are accessible to all. Olmsted believed that creating public spaces for everyone to enjoy would strengthen communities and foster public well-being.”

Born in Connecticut, Olmsted was 43 before he became a landscape designer. On a trip in 1850 to Liverpool, he was impressed with the port city’s large public park. “I was ready to admit,” he wrote, “that in democratic America there was nothing to be thought of as comparable to this People’s Garden.”

A brief but significant stint as a journalist led him in the 1850s to the South to write about the South and slavery for what is now the New York Times. Olmsted was opposed to slavery, writing that he thought the South was worse off for it.

Having become famous for his literary career, Olmsted had powerful connections in New York City when he returned from his travels. In 1857, he was named superintendent of Central Park. His friend and future collaborator, Calvert Vaux, asked for Olmsted’s help in entering the competition for the design of the park. Thus began Olmsted’s landscape design career. 

By the early 1890s, Olmsted had earned world renown. And in Atlanta, entrepreneur Joel Hurt, was aiming to earn acclaim for his city. Hurt assembled a tract of land east of the city to develop into its first suburb. But his would be no ordinary suburb; he hired the venerated Olmsted to draw up plans. 

Olmsted laid out a string of parks that would incorporate the topography and the natural beauty of that area, which was soon to be called Druid Hills. Shade trees and a “pleasing rural, or, at least, semi-rural character of scenery” that could be enjoyed as city workers retreated from their offices at the end of a long day were part of his vision. He created original plans for this sylvan oasis, including the six linear parks that line Ponce de Leon Avenue.

The project was halted temporarily because of finances, and, during that time, Olmsted retired. Hurt stayed with the Olmsted firm, and Olmsted’s sons continued with their father’s plans. 

And the rest, you might say, is Druid Hills. 

In recent years, OLPA has restored, renewed and maintained the six individual parks that make up the entire greenspace, which starts at the beginning of Druid Hills, at the intersection of Briarcliff and Ponce. One of them, Deepdene Park, is actually old-growth forest – right in the middle of the city.

Notable designs include the Capitol Grounds in Washington, D.C.; parks in Buffalo and Brooklyn, N.Y., Montreal, and Louisville, Ky. are just a few. Others are in lesser-known areas but stun nonetheless. In Lake Wales, Fla., he turned a sandhill into a lush subtropical garden for Edward Bok and created the Bok Tower Gardens. He also designed the campuses for Stanford University and the University of Chicago. 
For more info about Olmsted and the birthday celebration, visit Omsted200.org.

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