Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Location: Brookline, Massachusetts

Webpage: National Park

General Description: Best known for his design of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted is considered to be the father of modern Landscape Architecture and the foremost parkmaker of the 19th century.  As a journalist, he traveled to England in 1850 to view public gardens from which he published Walks and Tales of an American Farmer in England.  This led to other work traveling the deep south and Texas from 1852-1857.  His dispatches to the New York Times were published in three volumes that provided first hand descriptions of southern plantations and the plight of the slaves prior to the Civil War.  Winning a design contest along with architect Clavert Vaux in 1858, they began the construction of Central Park in New York City where he continued as the Director for Central Park after its completion.  Taking leave from being the Director, he served as the Executive Secretary of the US Sanitary Commission to tend to the wounded during the Civil War designing many of the hospital complexes during the war.  Since the Civil War, Olmsted led many projects including New York’s Prospect Park, Chicago’s Riverside Parks, the park system for Buffalo and Milwaukee, and the Niagara Reservation.  In 1883, Frederick Law Olmsted bought the Clark homestead, an 1810 Federal style home, in Brookline, Massachusetts to be near his frequent collaborator, H. H. Richardson.  Thus he established Fairsted, the world’s first full-scale professional office for the practice of landscape design.  Olmsted and his son, John Charles renovated the house, landscaped the property and in 1903 added an extensive office wing to the west end of the house.  From here Olmsted, along with his sons produced many of the works the family is known for over the years.  When the National Park Service acquired the property in 1980 they also acquired over 1,000,000 original design records which they are still restoring and working to preserve.  The NPS has also restored the grounds to the 1930s appearance as detailed by Olmsted’s own designs and photographs.



1) The Visitor Center is housed in the office area of Fairsted, from which you can obtain the free tickets for the tour of the offices.


2) The bottom level of the home is now a museum about Frederick Law Olmsted and his many accomplishments over the years.  I especially liked the tribute given by the NPS, for which his political influence and work as a conservationist was a major force in the creation of our National Park System.

3) The tour of the offices is fantastic.  You begin the tour in the drafting room where there are multiple drafting tables along with the tools used to turn their ideas and concepts into workable plans.


4) Once the plans were approved they had to be copied as the original plans never left the office.  This coping was done by tracing the plans onto a blueprint that was made on light sensitive paper that would turn blue in the sunlight, except where the marks blocked the light.  This was done by putting the blueprint, after the design was traced on it, on large platforms extending from the side of the house, out into the sun.  The prints then had to be treated to remove the light sensitive material and dried on large tables in yet another room.  The completed prints would then be rolled up into tubes and shipped to the client.


5) The original plans were stored in a fireproof vault which you can look into today.


6) Finally, there are the offices themselves for the managers to meet with clients and conduct the other business necessary to run the office.  In total, it is an impressive layout of office space for the time consuming work of taking their ideas and concepts and putting them on plans that can be followed by local contractors.  It should be noted that this firm only produced the plans, they did not participate in the actual construction.  Therefore, even though the plans were conceived by the Olmsted firm, they were often not completed or subsequently modified on the ground.  In many cases, the firm was done with the job once plans were approved and had no further input into the project itself.

7) The tour ends with a walk through the landscape yard in front and behind the house.  It has now been restored according to the original plans for the property they found in the vault.


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