Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

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OVERVIEW: About this audio-described brochure

Welcome to the audio-described version of Frederick Law Olmsted's official print brochure. Through text and audio descriptions of photos, illustrations, and maps, this version interprets the two-sided color brochure that Frederick Law Olmsted visitors receive. The brochure explores the history of the park, some of its highlights, and information for planning your visit.

This audio version lasts about 44 minutes and 22 seconds, covering both sides of the original brochure, with each side broken down into smaller sections for your listening enjoyment and time availability.

The front of the brochure introduces Frederick Law Olmsted - his philosophies on landscape artistry and his impact on the American urban greenspace.

The back side of the brochure covers his working life, some of his most influential projects, and how to plan a visit to Frederic Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

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OVERVIEW: Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, located in Brookline, MA, is part of the National Park Service, within the Department of the Interior. This 7 acre park is situated about six miles southwest of Boston. Each year, thousands of visitors come to enjoy the unique experiences that can only be had at Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. Visitors are invited to explore the park's Archival Collections, wander the grounds of America’s foremost park-maker and founder of the profession of American landscape architecture. To find out more about what resources might be available or to contact the park directly, visit the "Accessibility" and "More Information" sections at the end of this audio-described brochure.

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OVERVIEW: Front side of brochure

The front of the brochure is divided into two sections that include quotes, text blocks, photographs, and illustrations about the park’s history.

The top half of the page introduces Frederick Law Olmsted and his contributions to American landscape architecture with four horizontal text boxes and an illustrated wide view of Central Park, one of his most celebrated landscape designs. The text introduces Olmstead’s philosophies about democracy, conservation, and industrialization and how they influenced his landscape planning.

The bottom half of the page is divided into two sections. The first explains the revolutionary way in which Olmsted conceived of shared green spaces and how he wove engineering and artistry into his plans for parks. The second section explains how Olmsted’s education and life experiences brought him to the field of landscape architecture and how he came to know and work with his partner, architect Calvert Vaux. Interspersed in these two sections are photographs and illustrations depicting some of Olmstead’s most celebrated works.

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IMAGE and TEXT: Frederick Law Olmsted

DESCRIPTION: An illustrated panoramic view in muted color tones of New York City Central Park, Olmsted’s most iconic design, featuring the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain in the center is shown across the top of the page. The Belvedere Castle and the Loeb Boathouse are seen to the left of the Bethesda Terrace while the famous Bow Bridge is featured to the right. Central Park Lake is shown in the middle of these iconic architectural features. Artistically designed greenspaces use various types of trees and shrubs along with paths and meadows create space for nature in a dense urban environment. The New York City skyline is seen in the background across the page as it was in 1875.

CAPTION: Olmsted's most celebrated design is Central Park in New York City, shown here in an 1875 view.

CREDIT: Museum of the City of New York


Perhaps more than any other person, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) affected the way America looks. He is best known as the creator of major urban parks, but across the nation—from the green spaces that help define our towns and cities, to suburban life, to protected wilderness areas—he left the imprint of his fertile mind and unbounded energy. Out of his deep love for the land and his social commitment to improve American society, he established the profession of landscape architecture in America.

Olmsted’s unique contributions stemmed in part from the conjunction of strongly felt personal values and the needs of a young nation. America was experiencing unprecedented growth in the mid-1800s, making the transition from a rural to a complex urban society. City life became more stressful as the crowds grew, the pace quickened, and the countryside was pushed into the distance. Olmsted and others saw the need for preserving green and open spaces where people could escape city pressures, places that nourished body and spirit. His intuitive understanding of the historical changes he was living through and his rare combination of idealism, artistry, and practical knowledge equipped him to help soften the shocks of industrialization. Unable to separate his love and respect for the land from his belief in democracy, Olmsted saw parks as bastions of the democratic ideals of community and equality. He confronted a period of rapid mechanization and unabashed materialism with a natural sensibility and the old Jeffersonian virtues of restraint and rural simplicity—values embodied in his parks.

Olmsted was a true Renaissance Man whose many interests and ceaseless flow of ideas led him into experimental farming, writing and publishing, public health administration, preservation, and urban and regional planning. With other reformers he pushed for protection of the Yosemite Valley. His 1865 report on the park was the first systematic justification for public protection of natural areas, emphasizing the duty of a democratic society to ensure that the “body of the people” have access to natural beauty.

In what he created and what he preserved for the future, Olmsted’s legacy is incalculable. The informal natural setting he made popular characterizes the American landscape. Beyond the dozens of city and state parks enjoyed by millions of people, Olmsted and his firm set the standard for hospital and institutional grounds, campuses, zoos, railway stations, parkways, private estates, and suburbs across the country. Olmsted’s principles of democratic expansion and public access still guide and inspire urban planners. From the broadest concepts to the smallest details of his profession, the sign of Olmsted’s hand is everywhere in our lives.

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IMAGE and TEXT: The Olmsted Park


A black and white photo shows a crowded city street lined on one side with bins of produce and on the other with horse-drawn wagons loaded with people and goods.

Between the crowds and horse carts, there is little empty space on the street. Most of the people are men and boys dressed in coats and hats. The few women and girls are in dresses and skirts. Most of the people in the crowd, including a large group of children, are looking up at the camera. A few people at the far rear and sides of the photograph are going about their business in the market or riding on wagons.

CAPTION: New York's Mulberry Street in the mid-1800s.



Before Central Park and Prospect Park no large public space designed solely for recreation existed in any American city. Olmsted and his partner, architect Calvert Vaux, virtually invented the American park. A visionary at ease working with hard urban realities, Olmsted was ideally suited to the task. His mastery of the technological, economic, aesthetic, social, and political implications of each park gave it an enduring place in the life of the city.

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TEXT: Reformer

Like many reformers, Olmsted believed he knew what was best for people. His principles were embodied in his parks, where he translated “democracy into trees and dirt.” Every park Olmsted designed was part of a larger social vision; his opposition to the expansion of slavery and his advocacy of parks both sprang from his commitment to democratic ideals. While he loved cities, he also knew them as places where people “look closely upon one another without sympathy” and as quarters of crime and misery. Taking Birkenhead Park in England as his inspiration, Olmsted believed parks would replace “debasing pursuits and brutalizing pleasure” with “rational enjoyment.” Beyond its restorative powers, beautiful scenery had for Olmsted a moral influence on human behavior, promoting “communicativeness” and a healthy participation in civic life. For him the common good was an article of faith made visible in his parks.

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IMAGE and TEXT: Engineer

Image 1 of 2: Prospect Park


A small black and white illustration shows a natural park scene framed on either side by tufts of tree branches supported by thin, elegant trunks. Seen from a distance, a woman holding a child’s hand and another person cast shadows on a sunny path at the bottom of the image. A wide, calm stream flows through the middle of the scene, beyond the people. Textured shrubs and trees break up the smoothly manicured grounds.The mostly-flat land recedes to the horizon with dark trees lining most of the boundary between land and sky.

CAPTION: Prospect Park in Brooklyn, 1870

CREDIT: New York Historical Society

IMAGE 2 of 2: Central Park water system


A small black and white photograph shows a large-scale excavation and construction project. The ground throughout the scene has been reduced to bare dirt. Five very large pipes lie parallel to each other in a trench with concrete walls on either side. People working on the water system project are visible with equipment in the middle ground, to the right of the trench. They are so small as to be hardly noticed. In comparison, the pipes look to be wider than the people are tall. The trench and pipes curve away from the camera, disappearing behind a slight hillside and dirt road on the left. Nearest the camera, a dirt road spanes the image from left to right, crossing overtop the trench and pipes. Further back in the image, arcs of metal with bracing create a shape that looks like the beginnings of a bridge or top of what might become a tunnel over the entire trench.

CAPTION: Workers install Central Park water system.

CREDIT: George Eastman House


The size and beauty of Olmsted’s parks can make us forget that they are artifacts, massive public works constructed on a scale calling for the direction of a confident man: Swamps were drained, thousands of tons of rock blasted and earth excavated, hills and valleys created, water systems installed, road networks with bridges and overpasses built, and thousands of shrubs and trees planted. Olmsted was also a shrewd and respected administrator, working with hostile politicians and at Central Park winning the trust of thousands of sometimes unruly workers. One of his most remarkable talents was his ability to combine the practical and the beautiful. In reshaping a piece of land to control flooding, he also transformed it into a pastoral landscape.

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IMAGES and TEXT: Artist

IMAGE 1 of 3: The Meadowport Arch, Prospect Park


A small black and white illustration shows two sides of a 4- sided Meadowport Arch. One side of the limestone arch is parallel to the camera, another angles away to the left. Both visible sides of the structure are identical, both having an archway that opens into the interior of the 4 sided structure. The base of the structure is slightly wider than the top, and the walls are robust in size and form. Two people standing near the structure are about half the height of the arch’s entryway.

The archway in the middle of each side is nearly circular - it is more rounded than a half circle, with the bottom edges of the sides approaching each other as they extend towards the ground, If the archway were represented on a clock face, the sides of the arch would extend from 7:30 at the bottom left, around to noon at the top, to 4:30 at the bottom right.

The exterior walls flare out at the bottom where they meet. Traveling up each corner, the building's exterior contour angles slightly in, then scoops in, reflecting the curve of the interior arch. The corner edge becomes verticle near the top, where it runs into a decorative cornice ledge that wraps the structure. Hexagonal domes accent the top of each corner of the structure.

The arch sits atop a mowed lawn with small shrubs growing near its base and in the foreground. A swath of dark trees situated behind the arch and the dark circular shadowy area of the arch’s interior contrast the structure’s light colored stone, giving a feeling of real dimension.

CAPTION: The Meadowport Arch, Prospect Park

CREDIT: Brooklyn Historical Society

IMAGE 2 of 3: Plan for Prospect Park


An illustration of Olmsted’s plans for Prospect Park in Brooklyn New York drawn in greens and tans shows the park divided into three separate areas. The meadow district is shown in light green with large trees in small groups or single rows that create open oblong greenspaces, the hilly district is shown with darker green thicker groves of trees and shrubs and was allowing for meandering paths for shaded walks and panoramic overviews. The lake district with shores and islands is shown in white. Ridgid city blocks drawn in tan surround all four sides of Prospect Park.

CAPTION: Olsted's plan for Prospect Park, Brooklyn


IMAGE 3 of 3: Olmsted signature


An image of Frederic Law Olmsted’s signature is imposed on the brochure near Olmsted’s plan for Prospect Park. The signature, made in black ink, reads Fred. Law Olmsted. It is written in cursive script with all letters connecting, even between names. The letter shapes are simple to the point of being a little bit difficult to distinguish. The thickness of the stroke varies throughout, being thicker wherever the pen was pressed hardest.

Initial letters are capitalized with all others in lower case. The cross mark on the ‘t’ in Olmsted is longer than the ‘t’ is tall and does not intersect the vertical part of the ‘t’, instead, it just misses skimming the top. The signature is underlined with two pen strokes, both beginning with a slight loop. The loop on the first is more pronounced. The strokes align - they do not overlap.


“What artist so noble . . . as he who, with far-reaching conception of beauty and designing power, sketches the outlines, writes the colors, and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed on it for generations, before the work he has arranged for her shall realize his intentions.” -- Frederick Law Olmsted

Olmsted saw a well-made park as a “work of art . . . framed upon a single, noble motive.” Like a sculptor freeing the form he saw within a block of marble, Olmsted worked with earth, water, greenery, light, and stone to set in motion a transformation that would not be fully realized for decades. His design drew on principles of English landscape gardening, which had broken with the highly formal European style. The Pastoral (finished and “beautiful”) and the Picturesque (irregular and “wild”) were subtly married in Olmsted’s work. He sensed the “genius of the place” rooted in the immense time taken to create its forms, and he strove to make his compositions as spontaneous and inevitable as a natural landscape. He insisted his parks were not works of self-expression; they were designed to elicit a specific response in others. His most original concept, the “kinetic” nature of his designs, made the park experience cumulative, as the visitor encountered “passages of scenery” enhanced by memory and anticipation.

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IMAGES and TEXT: Building a profession

IMAGE 1 of 3: Frederick Law Olmsted


A black and white picture shows Frederick Law Olmsted cutaway from the photo background and imposed into the brochure’s layout. He is shown from the waist up, with the rest of his body falling outside the bottom edge of the page. Olmsted’s body is facing slightly to the left with his head turned further from the camera so that his face is nearly in profile. His light colored eyes peer out calmly from beneath heavy-looking eyelids. He has a large mustache, curled up slightly at the ends. His expression is neutral - neither smiling or frowning. His cheekbone casts a shadow from the hollow of his cheek diagonally up towards his ear. His hair is about chin length and neatly swept back from his face into smooth waves. Olmstead is wearing a cap with a flat top, small, downward pointing brim, and thin leather strap fixed into a bow above the hat’s brim.

Olmstead is dressed in a white collared shirt, dark bow tie, black vest and suit jacket with a large overcoat overtop. Both the jacket and overcoat are unbuttoned. The overcoat hangs open and away from his body, widening the shape of his thin frame from the shoulders down. Its long, alternating grey and black herringbone stripes run vertically.

CAPTION: Frederick Law Olmsted, ca. 1857


MAGE 2 of 3: Calvert Vaux


A black and white photograph portrait of Calvert Vaux depicts Vaux from the shoulders up. He has been cutaway from the photo’s background and imposed into the brochure’s composition. His shoulders face the camera but his head is turned to the left so that his face is seen almost in profile. His eyes look straight ahead through small glasses with oval lenses and thin, delicate frames.

Vaux’s neatly kept thick, curly beard is longest at his chin. It tapers in length running up his jaw line towards his ear where it fades entirely away. His mustache obscures his upper lip, but a slight crease in his cheek and at the corner of his eye indicate he is smiling slightly. Dark eyebrows, beard, and hair contrast with his light skin. His hair does not appear to be intentionally styled, though is not unkempt. It is a moderate length all over, reaching down to the middle of his ear.

Vaux is dressed in a white collared shirt, black bow tie, and black suit jacket and vest. Only a small bit of his lapel is in view. It’s edge is trimmed in a satin-like material.

CAPTION: Calvert Vaux was Olmsted's partner and principal architect for Central and Prospect parks.


IMAGE 3 of 3: U.S. Capitol grounds


A black and white illustration shows the 1874 plans for US Capitol Grounds. The Capitol building is drawn in the center of the image in rigid neoclassical design - the grand scale of the building, the simplicity of geometric shapes used such as rectangles and squares, and the dramatic use of columns create an imposing sight. The structure is surrounded by trees, a gentle sloping lawn, and curved walkways to create a park-like setting for the nation’s capitol.

CAPTION: 1874 plan for U.S. Capitol grounds



What Olmsted called his “vagabondish and somewhat poetical” early years prepared him for his life’s work. On trips through the New England countryside he absorbed his father’s reverence for “great simple country.” After less than a year of college, Olmsted embarked on his “voyages of discovery”: apprenticeship to an engineer, time behind a counter as a clerk and before the mast as a seaman, four years as a “scientific farmer.” A published account of his 1850 walking tour of Europe, where he studied parks and estate grounds, led to an assignment for the New York Times to report the effects of slavery on the South’s economy. In 1857, when a superintendent was needed to oversee construction of Central Park, Olmsted’s literary contacts and farm experience won him the job. He and his partner, architect Calvert Vaux, transformed 840 acres of rock, swamp, vegetable gardens, and hog farms into a pleasure ground. For 40 years Olmsted was preeminent in what Vaux called “landscape architecture,” working on projects like the Chicago World’s Fair, the US Capitol grounds, and George Washington Vanderbilt’s North Carolina estate, Biltmore.

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OVERVIEW: Back side of brochure, The Brookline Years

The back of the brochure is broken into 4 sections and is titled The Brookline Years after Olmstead’s home and office located in Brookline, Massacheusets, now known as Frederic Law Olmsted National Historic Site. The top left features Olmsted and Sons with black and white images of Olmsted’s house, his two sons and historic office.

In The Emerald Necklace section located at the top right, a map at the top shows an illustration of Boston Park System. A small inset near the right of the page shows Brookline, the Boston Park System and the Boston Harbor. A series of text blocks to the left of the map discuss how Olmsted’s vision for the uses and linking the greenspaces of the Boston Park System.

The bottom right features The Suburban Dream with a map of the General Plan of Riverside near Chicago with text boxes to the left of the map.

On the bottom left of the page, text and a small map are included to provide information on how to visit Frederic Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

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A black and white image of Olmsted’s home and office, Fairsted. Most of the house is crowded with shrubs trees and vines. The house is two stories wood siding laid horizontally, that features a wooden portico centered on the front and large rectangular windows on either side of it. The main part of the house is a simple rectangle shape with bay windows on the right end of the house on both the upper and lower floors. Two brick chimneys can be seen peeking over the rooftop at either end of the house. The front of the house is covered with vines that creep up a trellis on the portico around the doorway and extend around each window creating a canopy of shade and a veil of privacy to the home. A slender tree stands to the front right of the house with thin leaves allowing a view of the bay windows. More trees can be seen over the rooftop and to the left framing the house.

CAPTION: Fairsted, Olmsted's home and office, ca. 1904

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IMAGES and TEXT: Olmsted and Sons

IMAGE 1 and 2 of 4: Office and vault


Two photographs, tall and thin, are situated next to each other to offer contrasting views. On the left, a small black and white photo looks down the length of a narrow room. In the middle of the room, there is a drafting table and stool. From the left and right, large rolled papers project out into the space from floor to ceiling shelves. The papers leave little room for a person to pass through - it would be difficult to walk from the camera’s viewpoint to the door on the other side of the room without bumping papers off the shelves.

The photo on the right is black and white also, and shows a pristinely organized room with two tall banks of floor to ceiling drawers. The drawers are long and narrow. Two are pulled open revealing the large sheets of flat paper they contain.


Rolled plans from the historic office have been preserved and flattened for storage in the renovated vault.

IMAGE 3 of 4: Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.


A cutout of a black and white photograph of John Charles Olmsted shows Olmsted’s upper body as he is seated and writing. He has a neatly trimmed mustache and beard. His hair is carefully styled, clinging close to his head with not a single wisp out of place. The photograph has been taken as if the photographer were seated beside him at a table. He faces left, with his left hand holding a pen and right arm presumably rested on the table with his right hand holding the paper (the table and paper are not shown because they have been cutaway). Olmsted is dressed in a white collared shirt, neck tie, and suit jacket. His body is leaned over what he is writing and his eyes are cast down towards the paper. He is looking intently at whatever he is writing or drawing.

CAPTION: Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.

IMAGE 4 of 4: John Charles Olmsted


A cutout of a black and white photograph of Frederic Law Olmsted Jr. shows Olmsted’s upper body as he is seated and writing, though the table and whatever he is writing on have been cut away. The photograph is taken from slightly above him, so that the viewer looks down on him somewhat while he is facing slightly to the right. His right arm is resting on the table near his body. His left arm is outstretched with his lower arm and hand resting on the table and writing with a pen or pencil.

Olmsted is looking calmly at whatever he is drawing or writing. His eyes look down through simple glasses with small oval lenses. His lips are closed, and in the corner of his mouth rests a long pipe. Olmsted’s dark hair is neatly trimmed, framing his large forehead. His face is clean shaven.

CAPTION: John Charles Olmsted


In 1883 Olmsted moved his home and office from New York to a farmhouse in the Boston suburb of Brookline, establishing here the world’s first full-scale professional practice of landscape architecture. Olmsted’s personal office became the nucleus of a rambling complex built between 1889 and 1925.

Though often preoccupied and overworked, Olmsted was responsive to the needs of his staff. Following the lead of his friend and collaborator, architect Henry Hobson Richardson, Olmsted instituted an apprentice system combining instruction, reading, and practical experience. Two of his most important pupils were his sons, John Charles (1852–1920) and Frederick, Jr. (1870–1957). Both were trained from an early age to be landscape architects and given a more thorough grounding than their father’s own haphazard education. With his managerial abilities, John Charles gave continuity to the firm after Olmsted retired in 1895. Two years later Frederick, Jr. became a partner.

The Olmsted firm prepared designs for projects in 44 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada. In 1980 the National Park Service acquired the site and began to inventory and conserve the design records. The Olmsted archives represent a rare continuity of work by a single professional office. Thousands of plans and photographs dating from 1860 to 1980 are included, as well as planting lists, lithographs, correspondence, design models, and study collections. Today researchers from across the nation use the collection in planning the restoration and preservation of Olmsted landscapes.

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IMAGES, MAP and TEXT: The Emerald Necklace

IMAGE 1 of 4: The Emerald Necklace overview


An illustration of Boston’s Park System, the five mile, 1,100-acre, eleven section "U"-shape shows a chain of parks linked by parkways and waterways from Boston to Brookline, Massachusetts. HIghlights on this brochure are Franklin Park, shown in almost a star shape land mass with a wide open green lawn and a dense grove of trees to the top right of the park, a blue body of water edges the left border of the park and channels into a more narrow channel. The next link in the chain is Arnold Arboretum, a dense forested area is the second largest "link" in the “necklace” with walking trails through the trees creating an escape into nature. Jamaica Pond is the largest body of freshwater in Boston. Shown here in blue with green lawns and well designed treescapes, is an extremely popular destination for walking, fishing, rowing, and sailing and also links Arnold Arboretum to Olmsted Park. The original the river was dredged into a gentle winding stream with a carriage road built along side it for travel. The Muddy river is a series of brooks and ponds that runs through part of the necklace and connects to the Fens. This

is an ancient spot of saltwater marshland that has been surrounded by dry land, disconnected from the tides of the Atlantic Ocean creating the picturesque park it is today.

IMAGE 2 of 4: The Riverway


A black and white photo of a river flowing into the distance, directly away from the camera which looks down from over the water. The water’s surface is rippled but not turbulent. Two people in a very small boat are floating away from the camera, about mid way down the river. The river banks curve and meander, though the river’s general course is mostly straight. The river banks are sprinkled with an assortment of shrubs and trees of varying textures and sizes. Two flat, slightly curving walking paths flank the river on either side, both disappearing off into distant trees, heading in the same direction as the river. Two people walk side by side on the path to the left, too far from the camera to make out anything more than their dark forms in contrast to the light surface of the walk way. The clear sky fades into the brochure - the photograph has no distinct top margin.

CAPTION: The Riverway, a promenade along Muddy River, was Olmsted's solution to problems caused by severe flooding and polluted waters.

IMAGE 3 of 4: Encroachment on Back Bay Fens


A small color photograph shows a multi-lane highway with lanes separated by guard rails spanning the front of the image from left to right. A car and a truck are traveling the road in different lanes, both going towards the right. In the very near foreground, tree branches draped in green leaves obscure the view of the left side of the image. In the distance, part of an elegantly arched bridge and a small open expanse of flat water peek out between dense swaths of green trees.

CAPTION: Boston roads have encroached on Olmsted's compositions, as shown at the entrance to Back Bay Fens.

IMAGE 4 of 4: Frederick Law Olmsted, ca. 1890


A cutout portrait of Frederic Law Olmsted showing Olmsted from the shoulders up. Olmsted’s body and head are angled slightly to the left. His head is tilted down slightly with his eyes raised, gazing slightly upward and to the left of the camera. His grey beard is a few inches in length. His head angled down, and his beard presses against his chest just a little - this posture might mean he is seated, though from the part of his body that is visible we cannot know for sure.

His head is bald on top with grey hair on the sides combed neatly back away from his face. His eyes are light colored and there is a speck of light glinting in each. His full cheeks and slightly squinted eyes give the impression he has a slight smile, though his mustache obscures his lips almost entirely so it is hard to tell. Olmsted’s clothing appears bulky - perhaps an overcoat atop another jacket. Only a little of what he is wearing is visible in the picture and it is mostly covered in shadow.

CAPTION: Frederick Law Olmsted, ca. 1890

MAP: Boston Park System


A small rectangular inset shows the Boston metropolitan area from Brookline to Boston Harbor with the Emerald Necklace of parks linking the two areas. The outlying suburbs of Cambridge and Quincy are shown as white land areas, Brookline is shown as a brown oblique oval bordering the Emerald Necklace chain of parks shown in green. The greater Boston area is shown in light tan and is connect the suburbs, Brookline and the Boston park system to Boston Harbor shown in blue.

CAPTION: By linking elements of the park system, Olmsted helped define the Boston metropolitan area.

“A grand parkway of picturesque type . . . reaching from the heart of the city into the rural scenery of the suburbs.” -- Frederick Law Olmsted

Among Olmsted’s greatest achievements is the Boston Park System—one of the boldest and most complex undertakings of his career and probably his most influential design. His growing involvement in the project from its inception in the mid-1870s was a major factor in Olmsted’s decision to move to Boston. Completed near the end of the century, the five-mile “emerald necklace” of linked parks, ponds, and parkways was a brilliant combination of comprehensive planning, engineering, and imaginative design.

Olmsted spent his career working out the interdependent relationship he believed should exist between city and country. Many of his cardinal principles of urban planning were realized in the Boston Park System. Varied landscapes were woven into the fabric of the city, from the saltwater marshes of the Back Bay Fens to the sheep meadows of Franklin Park. Olmsted anticipated different uses for parkland, including in this greenbelt large and small spaces, intimate glades along riverbanks, dense wilderness, open water, and a system of trails and drives.

His vision for the landscape is best expressed in an 1881 report to the Boston Park Commission. The Back Bay Fens was a sewage-fouled tidal creek and swamp that periodically flooded. Olmsted’s plan simultaneously solved the drainage and health problems and turned the surrounding area into “scenery of a winding, brackish creek, within wooded banks; gaining interest from the meandering course of the water.” Muddy River would be “a fresh-water course bordered by passages of rushy meadow . . . trees in groups, diversified by thickets and open glades.”

Jamaica Pond, the largest body of water in the system, formed a “natural sheet of water . . . shaded by a fine natural forest growth . . . darkening the water’s edge and favoring great beauty in reflections and flickering half-lights.” The Arboretum offered “Eminences commanding distant prospects, in one direction seaward over the city, in the other across . . . to blue distant hills.” Visitors could seek a “complete escape from town” in Franklin Park. Olmsted envisioned a “lovely dale gently winding between low wooded slopes, giving a broad expanse of unbroken turf, lost in the distance.” It all formed “a grand parkway of picturesque type . . . reaching from the heart of the city into the rural scenery of the suburbs.”

While the essence of his designs remains intact, some of Olmsted’s finest parks have suffered insults and injuries over the years. Highways and parking lots interrupt scenic compositions and unique green passages. Recreational activities stress fragile landscapes, altering historic features and the personality of the parks. High costs often discourage necessary maintenance and restoration. Yet in Boston and elsewhere, the Olmsted landscape survives, a fundamental component of the city’s character and testament to Olmsted’s vision.

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IMAGE and TEXT: The suburban dream

IMAGE 1 of 1: Fairsted


A black and white photo, taller than it is wide, shows a two story house with a lawn, trees, and shrubs. A tree growing in the lawn occupies the middle of the photo. It’s slender trunk divides into upward reaching, sparsely leaved branches which occupy most of the top quarter of the image.

Behind the tree, the house sits at an angle to the camera. It has a smooth roof with one peak running the length of the house’s rectangular footprint. From the peak, the roof angles downward at a moderate slope. The roof is shorter to the right of the peak, and longer on the left, reaching down to about the middle of the 2nd story. The house has 4 rectangular chimneys. The siding appears to be wood and is laid horizontally. The house is a simple shape - the faces are flat, there are no porches or outdoor patios and no complicated or unusual shapes or angles. Much of one side of the home is covered in vines which climb in columns all the way to the roof eaves.

The rectangular structure’s longer side faces to the right. It appears to be the front of the house, though shrubs and vines growing up the walls make it difficult to know if there is a door. There are two uniform rows of tall windows, one on the top story, the other at the bottom, except on the bottom row, the first window on the left is much larger and wider and has a rectangular striped awning above.

The sun is shining directly on this side of the house, and the shutters on this side are closed except their bottom halves, which appear to be on hinges. They are propped open, maybe to allow air flow or let in some light. The shorter side of the house faces slightly left. It has a singular window with it’s shutter propped open at the top near the roof’s peak in what might be an attic. Windows on the first and second floor have shutters fully open or partially lifted. A conical, striped awning covers a large window on the bottom right.

A small pathway hugs the edge of the house and is seen only near the house’s corner, otherwise it is obscured by shrubs. On the left side of the house and also in the near right corner of the image there are large shrubs growing in organically arranged gardens. Behind the house is a swath of trees in the distance that appear to be just a bit taller than the house.

CAPTION: Fairsted, ca. 1900


Olmsted was a prophet of suburbia, believing that “no great town can long exist without great suburbs.” He designed over a dozen suburban communities outside cities like Baltimore and Chicago. They were meant as places where people could express their individuality and practice the art of gardening while retaining convenient access to the commerce and amenities of the city. As in his parks, Olmsted’s ideals were reflected in his vision of the private landscape, which “fosters delicacy of perception and of sentiment, strengthens family ties and feeds the roots of patriotism.”

In moving to the garden suburb of Brookline, Olmsted showed confidence in what he believed to be the city form of the future. His own home grounds were carefully landscaped to help illustrate the “ideal suburban lifestyle.” Many of the design principles for which Olmsted was famous at a larger scale were applied with success to the small estate he named “Fairsted.” The picturesque and pastoral styles that characterize his parks are also found here. Barriers of earth and plantings used along park borders to isolate visitors from the city are seen at his home in the form of massed trees and shrubs. The visitor’s view was directed to a stately American elm on the south lawn. Although spectacular, the tree did not interfere with appreciation of the landscape as a whole, in keeping with Olmsted’s preference for simple rather than “strange or striking” landscape elements.

Praising Olmsted’s landscape for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, a newspaper recognized the common principles informing all his work from the grand public statement to the private dwelling space: “[Olmsted’s] home is as beautiful, as thoroughly in accord with all of nature’s happiest little dreams as the great park in the center of the Nation’s metropolis, to which Mr. Olmsted gave the first great result of his keen susceptibility to the power of nature’s best possibilities.”

Olmsted proposed that every suburban home should have “attractive open-air apartments” like the conservatory he added to the 1810 farmhouse. This glassed-in space eased access to “nature’s best possibilities” by allowing intimate views of the domestic scenery that Olmsted created with such care. Uppermost in his mind was the idea that body and spirit could be healed through close association with nature, a benefit he wanted everyone to enjoy.

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IMAGE and TEXT: Riverside

IMAGE 1 of 1: Riverside general plan


An illustration shows how the General Plan of Riverside, an artistically designed suburb of Chicago, was designed to use the natural landscape of the area to create aesthetically pleasing and tranquil planned community while featuring the Des Plaines River and natural park land.

The community’s block are arranged in a shape that is undulating yet also gridlike.

CAPTION: Olmsted’s most celebrated suburb was Riverside (1869), near Chicago. Connected by rail to the city, the 1,600 acres of rolling hills bordering the Des Plaines River were ideal for Olmsted and Vaux’s first experiment in community planning. The result was a harmonious integration of the natural world and human needs. Rejecting a grid, he used sunken roads, accommodating them to natural contours and obstacles. Irregular clusters of trees created a spontaneous atmosphere. Olmsted protected the river and made it the focus of the community by devoting 700 acres to common parkland along the banks. Riverside remains today a model suburb and an example of what can be achieved with careful planning and imagination.

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MAP and TEXT: About your visit

MAP: Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site area


A map of Brookline, Massachusetts and public transportation routes to Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. The suggested route is to take the subway using the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Green Line to Brookline Hills Subway Station or by MBTA bus and getting off at stop 60 at Warren Street and walking to Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. The park’s visitor hours vary seasonally. For current information, please check or call 617-566-1689. Groups are welcome with advance reservation.

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TEXT: For your safety

Use caution while touring the multi-level rooms and stairways of the house and office complex. Dress comfortably for viewing outside grounds. Visitor parking is limited to a few vehicles; on-street parking may be required.  For firearms regulations, check the park website.

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OVERVIEW: Accessibility

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site can be experienced in a variety of ways with varying levels of accessibility. Please call ahead if possible to speak to a staff member about accommodations that may be needed at 617-566-1689 ext. 221

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OVERVIEW: More information

From the brochure: 

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, 99 Warren Street, Brookline, Massachusetts 02445
617 566 1689


Frederic Law Olmsted is one of over 400 parks in the National Park System. To learn more about parks and National Park Service programs in America's communities visit

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