He invented a label for the work he did: “landscape architect,” and went on to pioneer radical egalitarian ideals into his designs. He worked as an abolitionist, a farmer, a journalist and a Civil War-time sanitary commissioner. He travelled throughout the U.S. as well as Europe and China, and developed and executed plans for “parkways” and “greenways” that served to beautify American cities during a period of intense growth and industrialization. He’s Frederick Law Olmsted, and perhaps his most remarkable achievement was his design for the Biltmore Estate, although he made a career of sculpting public rather than private spaces.
Wandering pathways and informal groupings of trees are staples of the Olmsted aesthetic, which is based on English garden styles, which themselves draw inspiration from European landscape painters like Poussin. Urban parks all over the United States bear Olmsted’s marks, including in Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, and of course Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. He also landscaped university and college campuses, among them Stanford, Yale and Bryn Mawr.
The Biltmore Estate outside Asheville, NC was the final piece in a famous career. In the 1880s, George Vanderbilt’s grandiose idea of his country estate was a duplication of a Loire Valley chateau, complete with a self-supporting farms and forestry science programs. Olmsted had a 250 acre canvas on which to paint a masterpiece. From the opulent Shrub Garden to the harmonious Italian Garden, Olmsted’s designs endure to this day and inspire visitors. What was once a private three-mile rail track built to transport construction materials is now a road that wends its way through scenic forest. A striking feature of the grounds around the estate (the largest private home in the U.S.) is the restraint of the designer. Much of the splendor of the Biltmore Estate is owed to the untouched Blue Ridge Mountains forests that surround it. Olmsted’s design took the wilderness into account and produced an estate that is a marriage between scrupulously cultivated gardens and untamed rugged vistas stretching across the horizon.
Vanderbilt spent much of his fortune on upkeep for the tremendous estate, and when he died, many of the palatial home’s rooms had not even been furnished. But in part due to the Biltmore Estate’s status as a National Historic Landmark (as of 1973), the grounds continue to dazzle visitors to this day. It is an enduring work from an American genius.