On a gorgeous October day John and I visited the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline.
Frederick Law Olmsted is known as the founder of American landscape architecture (more on that later). In 1883, Olmsted established the world’s first landscape architecture office at his home, which he called “Fairsted.” For nearly 100 years, Olmsted, his sons, and their associates, worked at Fairsted. The National Park Service acquired Fairsted in 1979, including the archives and working records, and restored the grounds to their 1930 appearance. The national historic site offers a guided tour of the Fairsted offices, grounds, archives, drafting rooms, and their vault.
Upon arriving at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site you can tell there is something special about this place. It’s tucked back from the road, surrounded by visual treasures and landscaping works of art. No surprise there, that is what made Olmsted famous.
First, some history.
Frederick Law Olmsted was born in 1822. In 1838 he was just about to enroll at Yale College when sumac poisoning weakened his eyes and he had to give up on his dreams of going to college. Instead, he worked as an apprentice seaman, merchant, and journalist for several years and then purchased a farm on Staten Island in 1848.
In 1850, his career as a journalist began to take off. He traveled around England and published a book on the public gardens there. He then became a correspondent for the New York Times in the mid 1850s and traveled the south extensively to conduct research on the slave economy there. During this time in his career he was a writer, journalist, editor, etc., and was gaining national recognition for his political views and landscaping interests.
In 1858 Olmsted and new colleague, Calvert Vaux, entered a competition to design New York’s Central Park, and won. That began their long partnership in landscape architecture. In 1865 Vaux and Olmsted formed Olmsted, Vaux, & Co.
In 1883, Olmsted moved his family and business to Fairsted. At this point in his career, he was 100% focused on landscape design and the importance of providing green spaces for urban areas, helping to establish the American profession of landscape architecture. Olmsted’s philosophy was that thoughtful and purposeful landscape design should provide restorative public experiences necessary for a healthy society. In the pursuit of this, he created a notable portfolio of designs that influenced the US park system. His body of landscape design work includes: Central Park, the US Capitol Grounds, Biltmore Estates in Asheville, Prospect Park and Seneca Park in NY, Mount Royal Park in Montreal, Acadia National Park in Maine, academic campuses such as Bryn Mawr, Cornell, Colgate, Smith, Stanford, Tufts, UCal Berkeley, Wellesley, Yale, University of Chicago, and notable Boston landmarks such as the Emerald Necklace, Arnold Arboretum, Back Bay Fens, Lynn Woods, and World’s End. A full map of all of his parks can be found here.
To walk through the drafting rooms and engineer’s offices of Fairsted was really cool. They have been restored to what they looked like when the firm was in full swing.
You can really imagine what it was like to work here and truly appreciate the innovative history that was being made within these rooms.
The firm kept meticulous photographic records and plans in a series of drawers in the photographic record room. When the National Park Service acquired the site, they cataloged and conserved the Olmsted collections containing landscape photographs, initial surveys, field sketches, general plans, planting lists, presentation drawings, business records, and scale models. The archives of the Olmsted firm are held here at the Olmsted National Historic Site (more below on this) and at the Library of Congress.
Drafting room with original tables and stools and a first generation light table!
The Printing Room contains sunprint racks and light tables, and the Wagenhorst Electric Blue Printer (circa 1904), a glass cylinder that was one of the firm’s tools for fast reproduction. Basically the first ever copy machine!
The bottom floor of Fairsted contains the archival collections and the vault!
The Olmsted Archives is one of the most widely researched museum collections in the National Park System, containing over 1,000,000 historic documents.
The Archival collections held at the Olmsted National Historic Site date from 1839 to 1980. The collections include an estimated 139,000 landscape architectural plans and drawings, 70,000 sheets of planting lists, 60,000 photographic prints, 30,000 photographic negatives, 12,000 lithographs, financial records, job correspondence, records and reports, and models relating to over 5,000 design projects.
After we toured the inside of the house, we went outside to tour the grounds.
The Welcome Gate stands at the front of the property; the front door is purposely obscured behind trees and plants. Inside the gate is the carriage turn, designed specifically so that visitors could “discover” the house upon first entry.
Standing in the middle of the carriage turn is a massive tree with a Roxbury puddingstone at its foot.
At the front of the property, off the carriage turn in front of the house, is The Hollow. The Hollow is a sunken park; sloping down to a pastoral path surrounded by greenery. The design follows Olmsted’s aesthetic of slowing down to enjoy nature. He very much believed that city life took its toll on people and wanted them to enjoy open spaces that nourished the soul and mind away from pressures and stresses of life in the city. Pretty ahead of his time, I could use a park like this in front of my house!
In the back of the house there is a rock garden with a walking path through it. Again, a way for Olmsted to slow down and be away from complex urban life.
The south lawn in the back of the house opens on to a grand and deep expanse of grass, which is intentional: you are meant to want to run and play in this space.
And finally, the interior of the first floor of the house is an interactive museum that features objects from Olmsted’s firm and exhibits of their work.
The Olmsted National Historic Site is a lesser known NPS landmark but certainly just as important as the rest; a must-visit for anyone from landscape architecture buffs to anyone who loves gardens and parks. It’s truly a treasure to see this home as it was at its peak under Olmsted’s leadership. As always, the site is maintained with care by people truly dedicated to its preservation. It was a treat to tour and visit, and during the National Park Service’s centennial year too!