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Frederick Law Olmsted: 'The foremost advocate for parks for all people'

A painting of Lake Park in Milwaukee, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.
Courtesy of the Museum of Wisconsin Art
Milwaukee Magazine
A painting of Lake Park in Milwaukee, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

Milwaukee has an impressive park system, and that’s thanks in part to Frederick Law Olmsted. He was a pioneering landscape architect who is best known for designing Central Park in New York City, but his imprint is also seen here in Milwaukee.

“Frederick Law Olmsted is pretty widely considered the father of landscape architecture as we know it, and he was probably the foremost advocate for parks for all people,” says independent journalist Virginia Small. She's also a writer and researcher on environmental issues and landscapes, and is featured an article in this month’s issue of Milwaukee Magazine in honor of Olmsted's bicentennial.

The idea of public parks wasn't widespread until Central Park was created by Olmsted and his co-designer Calvert Vaux. During the mid 19th century, most parks or gardens were private, behind gates, and only accessible to the upper class. However, the success of Central Park helped to make way for the idea of public parks to spread throughout the country.

"[Olmsted] absolutely believed that they had to be completely accessible to all people, regardless of background, race, income, everything. ... But one of the things that I think he believed that was important was that people would be able to have a sense of respite. So that they would be in a city, but that they would feel like they were away," explains Small.

Milwaukee's first city park commission was formed by 1890, and there was about 60 acres of public park land accessible at the time, according to Small. However, a majority of the outdoor spaces were still private beer gardens or other private amusement parks at that time.

Frederick Law Olmsted
Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Magazine/public domain
Frederick Law Olmsted is widely considered the father of landscape architecture as we know it. His first major project was designing Central Park in New York City, but did you know he also designed three parks here in Milwaukee?

Olmsted was hired to consult on the selection of a number of parks in Milwaukee, and he personally chose to design Lake, Riverside and Washington parks. The other parks involved in Olmsted's contract were Mitchell, Kosciuszko, Sherman and Humbolt (as they are known today).

"Part of his contribution, even before he visited, was to be discussing those sites in terms of their natural attributes, also their location," notes Small. "The one thing he didn't like was that they had not chosen a site that was really, really central to the city in the way that Central Park was."

Olmsted's Milwaukee parks were geographically distributed, and were envisioned as the beginning of a system of parks — including parkways. Small says that he always incorporated existing natural features into his design to include views alongside recreation.

"He loved the presence of different levels of topography and that there would be this sense that when you were down in the ravine [at Lake Park], you were really, completely away," she notes.

Olmsted even began designing curving pathways in parks. Small says it wasn't only for the sake of a pleasing design element, "it was also to create a little bit of a sense of mystery around the corner ... and he wanted it also to be different from the grid of streets."

"So it was really to have a sense of a place apart, and yet right within the city," she adds.

Small considers Olmsted's parks to have a true timeless quality. She says that his love of nature and the awe he found in the natural world is clear in his landscape design.

"[Olmsted] just wanted things to look, in some ways, as if they had been there and he wanted them to be able to, in some ways, take care of themselves," says Small. "So they would take time to fill in of course, and he knew that. So he was always thinking very far ahead."

Virginia Small will be giving a presentation called, "Olmsted’s Enduring Green Legacies in Milwaukee" at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum on April 20. You can find out more here.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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