Documentary Tells Story Of Landscape Design Pioneer Olmsted

Jun 9, 2014

Nineteenth-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed some of America’s most well-known green spaces, including Central Park in New York City.

A new documentary, “Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America,” which premieres on PBS stations around the country on June 20, shows how Olmsted not only designed the city parks, but influenced the way America looked at landscape design.

Filmmaker Lawrence Hott joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss the documentary.


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This is HERE AND NOW. Frederick Law Olmsted is the pioneering, 19th-century landscape architect who was best known and loved for the urban green spaces he designed. Just a few examples, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., Central Park in New York City and the Emerald Necklace in Boston.

But a new documentary about this singular man says that Olmsted didn't just design city parks. He was instrumental in designing America. Lawrence Hott is the Emmy award-winning filmmaker and director of "Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America." It premieres on PBS later this month.

And Larry Hott was recently in our studios. And I asked him what he meant about that subtitle - "Designing America."

LAWRENCE HOTT: Olmsted was everywhere. The way a park in America looks has a lot to do with Olmsted's design sensibilities. When you walk through a park and you see a water feature or a serpentine path or some woods that open up into a broad meadow and then close up again, and then you come across some kind of surprise, that's an Olmstedian design. But he didn't only design parks, he designed college campuses and suburbs and cemeteries. And in his lifetime he worked on 3,000 projects.

CHAKRABARTI: Did he ever articulate what his philosophy was for park design?

HOTT: Oh, did he ever. What a lot of people don't know about Olmsted is that he was a reformer first before he was a landscape architect. In fact, he didn't declare himself a landscape architect until he was 42 years old.


HOTT: And before that, he had been a sailor and a surveyor and a writer. He was part of - one of the transcendentalists. So everything Olmsted did, he did with an eye to how he could improve American society. And make it more democratic.

CHAKRABARTI: I feel like you can see the threads of all of this previous experience that you were talking about coming together in what becomes his, you know, his urban green space masterpieces. I mean, for example, a couple of years ago we talked to Justin Martin, who's the author of an Olmsted biography called "Genius Of Place," and he said that he thinks that Olmsted deserves his due as a pioneering environmentalist in the United States even before he became a park designer. Would you agree with that?

HOTT: Oh, absolutely. And Olmsted is credited with beginning or helping to begin the preservation movement in the United States. What Olmsted did in Niagara Falls particularly, is set up the idea that the state could come in and set aside land and say that this land is sacred.

Now, we don't often think of Niagara Falls as that kind of sacred place, but it wasn't a wilderness symbol in the United States, and by the time Olmsted saw it, it had been almost completely destroyed by these factories that had ruined the view. And not only that, you had to pay to see the falls.

HOTT: And Olmsted fought a 10 to 15 year battle to set aside Goat Island in the middle of Niagara Falls and call it the New York Reservation - Niagara Falls Reservation - the idea that a place could be set aside in 1885. That led to the Forever Wild Clause in the New York State Constitution, which is how parts of the Adirondacks got preserved. And that of course eventually led to the formation of the National Park Service and eventually, in 1964, the Wilderness Act.

CHAKRABARTI: And also the idea you mentioned earlier about social reform and parks. I mean, he had experience, again, before he even designed his first landscape. What was it traveling to the south on behalf of the newly born New York Times?

HOTT: Yeah. The New York Times said we need somebody to go down south almost as a foreign correspondent because the South was a foreign country to most Northerners. And when Olmsted was touring, he was finding out about the economy of slavery. He went to the south as kind of a reluctant abolitionist.

He thought that the slaves weren't ready yet for freedom. After a couple of years of touring the South, Olmsted started the shipping howitzers and guerilla war manuals out to the Free Kansas movement. This was sort of suspect activity for him.

CHAKRABARTI: You spoke to Margaret Dyson who's director of historic parks for the city of Boston. And she kind of gives us a glimpse into how that social reform plays into even something simple as little doorways in places like Franklin Park.

MARGARET DYSON: Olmsted was a genius at making spaces feel bigger than they might be - feel smaller than they might be using sightlines to shape your experience of the space, going through Ellicott Arch in Franklin Park. You're going through a small contained a space and opening it up into this field. The sense of being out of the city in a heartbeat is just extraordinary.

HOTT: I have to tell you that when I first started this project, Margaret met me in the garden and we hopped into a little golf cart. And we did a tour of the entire Emerald Necklace, ending up in Franklin Park. And that's where she said, this is my neighborhood. This is where I grew up. This is where my grandparents were. And they were in those triple-deckers that were full of Irish immigrants who came here and were filling the cities.

And Olmsted, when he was designing these parks, he really was keeping in mind this kind of cauldron, this crucible that was happening in American cities where we had so many people flooding in with no place to go. And he thought of the parks as an escape valve. And he thought that these people deserved to have it.

And it was more than that. He felt that they would democratized. They would understand democracy better - that the contact with nature would change them. He wanted people to have the privilege that the upper crust white people had. And if you're in Central Park, for example, and you're up in the ravine on the Upper East Side, it's meant to look like the Adirondacks, which was the playground of the wealthy.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. So this is one of the things that I love most about what you explore in the documentary about who Olmsted was because, you know, as you're talking about it, he really felt this sense of social mission in designing these urban spaces. Is this one of Olmsted's most lasting legacies in terms of people's personal experiences of the spaces he designed - that you don't really even feel like you're in the designed environment?

HOTT: Yes, it is. And in fact, at the end of the film we have somebody who talks about how as a child she goes to Central Park, and how important it was for her. She didn't know who Olmsted was. But the idea that there was a special, magical place - that very same person also talks about how Olmsted is very much like Disney.

And some people bridal at that, you know, to combine those two names is blasphemy in some way. But Olmsted understood what people needed out of their recreation experience. They needed something to calm them but also something to entertain them, something that had a variety. And a Disney landscape is completely engineered. The difference is that although Olmsted landscapes are completely engineered also, they take into account with the natural land looked like, and he uses the natural land to perfection.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, finally, I just wanted to explore with you a little bit more about really what is Frederick Law Olmsted's legacy because you - in the documentary, you interviewed the writer Adam Gopnik. And we've got a clip of that here because he argues that Olmsted actually has a double legacy.


ADAM GOPNIK: On the one hand, he's a super pragmatist. He's a problem solver. At the same time, he's a dreamer. What his parks are all about is finding immensely practical solutions to the problem of building a dream in the middle of a city.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Larry, the problem of building a dream in the middle of the city, why is that a problem?

HOTT: Olmsted really wanted to flip the paradigm of people thinking, OK, you put a park into the city and that's the relief valve. But he really was the opposite. He wants people to feel like the whole area is a park and the city is within it.

Olmsted had this idea that he would tell all the city planners that you must go outside the city limits and buy land when it's cheap and hold onto it. And then people will build houses around those parks and that will create a reserve of tax dollars from the property values so you can pay for the parks. Unfortunately, Olmsted did not anticipate just how expensive it would be to maintain a park.

And now you see park conservancies all over the United States, that are public-private cooperatives and they have to have both private money and public money because there's not enough of either to maintain a park on its own. So the positive thing is that we have these parks and there's more of them and the problem is there's enough money to maintain them.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Lawrence Hott is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker and director of the new documentary "Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America." Larry Hott, what a pleasure it's been to talk to you. Thank you so much.

HOTT: It's been a pleasure talking with you, too. Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: And that documentary "Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America" is scheduled to premiere on PBS stations on June 20. We've got more information at HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.