Few people can claim to know America as deeply as Frederick Law Olmsted did. His intimate knowledge of the American landscape served him superbly in the role for which he is best remembered -- the country's pioneering park maker.
Much attention is given to Olmsted's creations on the Eastern Seaboard, including Central Park in New York City and the Emerald Necklace in Boston. He was drawn to the notion that landscape architecture could serve social engineering purposes, such as providing respite from teeming cities or forcing people of varied backgrounds to mix and mingle. He once described his park work as a "democratic development of the highest significance." Here is a look at some of his work in the Midwest -- lesser-known than his most famous projects, but still life-changing for millions of Americans.
Recognizing that the pomp of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago had the potential to overwhelm visitors, Olmsted was intent on creating a landscape that would act as a soothing naturalistic counterpoint. First, he selected the fair's site, a parcel on the city's South Side. Years earlier, Olmsted and collaborator Calvert Vaux had designed a park for the spot, but little of their plan had been executed.
Working solo, Olmsted created an intricate network of lagoons on the site, so that visitors could travel through the fair on small boats. He also repurposed muck that was dredged to create the lagoons in order to bulk up a lonely little hillock into the 16-acre Wooded Island, which he planted with hemlock and other trees.
During the fair, Teddy Roosevelt thought it was the ideal spot to set up his Boone and Crockett hunting club, but Olmsted said no to the future president and other exhibitors who wanted a piece of his island. He intended it, he wrote in a letter, as "a place of relief from all the splendor and glory and noise and human multitudinousness of the great surrounding Babylon."
The famous White City -- a collection of neo-Classical buildings lined with electric lights, a dazzling new invention at the time -- is mostly long gone. But Olmsted's fairgrounds, now known as Jackson Park, remain. Within its 600 acres, you can still find stretches of the original lagoons. The Wooded Island is still there, too, an oasis of calm smack in the center of hectic Chicago.
Just 9 miles outside Chicago is Riverside, one of America's first true suburbs, designed in 1868 by Olmsted and Vaux. It's full of thoughtful design touches meant to foster a sense of community. Half of the community's 1,176 acres are set aside for commons and other green spaces. All the streets gently curve, an Olmsted signature, meant to promote "leisure, contemplativeness and happy tranquillity."
Over the years, the Riverside design has also provided a canvas for houses designed by notable architects. There are two Frank Lloyd Wright houses, as well as gardener's cottages and other structures. And there are works by modern masters, including a John Vinci-designed house from 1976. To experience fully the neighborhood and its prominent homes, arrange a tour through the Frederick Law Olmsted Society of Riverside (1-708-442-7675; www.olmstedsociety.org).
By 1893, when Olmsted went to Milwaukee he had perfected the concept of a park system, having designed systems in Buffalo, N.Y.; Louisville, and Boston.
For Milwaukee, Olmsted designed a three-park system, made up of Lake, Riverside and Washington Parks. In each park, people were everywhere. Lake Park is the jewel of the bunch, with deep ravines, laced with walking paths that faithfully follow Olmsted's winding courses. At certain points, clumps of trees block the view, a classic Olmsted trick. What's in the distance, you wonder? Soon enough, you encounter an intentional break in the foliage, opening up a vista. It's only then that you realize you're on a tall bluff, Lake Michigan spreading out endlessly before you.
Olmsted also played a crucial role in the preservation of natural places like Yosemite and Niagara Falls. In 1891, he traveled to Marquette in the wilds of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and was shown a beautiful piece of land just three miles outside town. He was asked to draw up a management plan. Instead, he wrote a letter praising the land and cautioning that it "should not be marred by the intrusion of artificial objects." The letter was taken as gospel and to this day Presque Isle remains a slice of unsullied wilderness.
Presque Isle is a mere 323 acres -- a bite-size piece of wilderness, yet endlessly interesting. Within moments of entering the park, I saw a deer, then another and another. Soon I became aware of all kinds of chirps and squawks and trills. The peninsula that juts out into Superior is a major flyway for all kinds of winged creatures, including gnatcatchers, whippoorwills and snowy owls. I remained there all day. The highlight was watching a sunset against a backdrop of Lake Superior, Huron Mountains in the distance and a sprawling sky.
In its final report, the Olmsted firm provided a recommendation for this lovely piece of land: "Preserve it, treasure it, as little altered as may be for all time."