The Olmsteds

A Father & Son Legacy

The Father

Utica’s park and parkway system (which comprises approximately 80% of the city’s public parkland) was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (1870-1957), between 1905 and 1919.  Olmsted also designed neighborhoods adjacent and near to this park system and in the nearby village of New Hartford between 1913 and 1930.

Olmsted’s father, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. (1822-1903), co-designed Central Park in Manhattan with Calvert Vaux in 1858-62.  Olmsted, Sr., went on to design or co-design Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace park system, America’s first park and parkway systems in Buffalo and Louisville, and parks in Chicago, Rochester, and many other American communities, in addition to Mount Royal Park in Montreal.  He also devised the landscape designs for the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, North Carolina, and the famous Columbian Exposition of 1893 known as the “White City.” 

Olmsted, Sr., was a champion of naturalized park design, in contrast to the previously more common, more formal English and French garden styles.  Although Olmsted’s style looked naturalized, the final product very much depended on the human hand and often entailed major, if well-camouflaged, alterations to the natural landscape.  The Olmsted style became the preeminent model for American urban parks in the nineteenth century, and thanks to the work of his sons, it powerfully shaped the American urban landscape for a century, at least until the retirement of Olmsted, Jr., in 1949.

The Son

Olmsted had two sons, John (1852-1920) and Frederick Law, Jr., and after the retirement of their father in the late 1890s, they created the firm of Olmsted Brothers, based in Brookline, Massachusetts, that carried on the work of their father.  John was an accomplished landscape architect, but it was Olmsted, Jr., his father’s namesake, who made the biggest impact.

Olmsted, Jr., devised or played a leading role in designing the landscape for the White House, the National Cathedral, the Jefferson Memorial, and the National Mall.  He served on two federal commissions for the better part of two decades that reshaped the part of central Washington, D.C., known as the “Federal Triangle.”  He also made significant contributions to a number of national parks, including Everglades, Acadia, and Yosemite (a promontory in the latter park is named in his honor).  He helped to preserve California’s giant redwood forests (a grove of these redwoods is named in his honor) and was a driving force behind the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.  He taught the first courses in landscape design at Harvard and was a founder of that university’s landscape design program, the world’s oldest and most renowned program of its sort. 

Olmsted, Jr., and Urban Planning

Olmsted also carried out urban design studies for a number of cities, including Detroit, Boulder, Pittsburgh, New Haven, Rochester, and Newport.  He produced one such study for Utica in 1908 that envisioned ringing much of the city with green space; Utica’s park and parkway system represents a significant realization of that plan, but other aspects of the plan, including an envisioned riverfront park not dissimilar to another of his father’s creations, the Fens in Boston.

Even while working on Utica’s extensive park and parkway system—which covers an area nearly 70% the size of New York’s Central Park—Olmsted took on a series of commissions to lay out a new, suburban-style neighborhoods in Utica:  Brookside and Sherman Gardens in upper East Utica, and Proctor Boulevard, Ridgewood, and Talcott Road in South Utica. 

Throughout all of these projects, Olmsted relied heavily on later Olmsted Brothers partner Edward C. Whiting (1881-1962).  Nevertheless, Olmsted himself came to Utica innumerable times to consult and oversee the work being carried out, and his correspondence with Thomas R. Proctor and City officials in relation to these projects was extensive.  Together, these neighborhoods and Utica’s park and parkway system constitute an unusually large Olmsted heritage for such a small city.