TOMORROW IS the 192nd anniversary of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect — and journalist, conservationist, and public servant — who gave us Manhattan’s Central Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the Niagara Reservation, and many other American places rich with meaning and beauty. If leaving the world in better condition than you found it is a measure of greatness, Olmsted deserves to rank high on our list of great Americans. Working in the second half of the 19th century, a time of disorientingly rapid industrialization and urbanization, he did more than anyone else to make our cities livable, humane, and inspiring.
I’ve spent much of my life in and near landscapes shaped by Olmsted and his firm: Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago, Prospect Park and Central Park in New York City, the campuses of the University of Chicago and Yale, green and ungridded Boston and environs.
We even ended up living in the same town. “This is a civilized community; I’m going to live here,” Olmsted said to the architect H.H. Richardson while visiting him in Brookline in 1881. Olmsted’s remark was prompted by fresh snow blanketing the wooded vista outside the window — and by the snowplow already at work clearing the street. The scene embodied his ideal blend of citified convenience and natural beauty.
My reasons for settling in Brookline — the public schools, the Green Line, the pleasing combination of urban density and unstraight lines — aren’t the same as his, but I share his appreciation of a landscape that bears the marks of both the architect’s hand and the forces of nature. I live just a few blocks away from Fairsted, the house by the reservoir off Boylston Street where Olmsted lived and worked for the last dozen years of his career, and where his sons and his firm carried on that work well into the 20th century. The house is now the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. Recently renovated and featuring new exhibits, it’s well worth a visit. (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of Friends of Fairsted.)
Two of the qualities I most admire in Olmsted’s designs are their practicality and resilience. For well over a century we have used, reused, and misused his landscapes with inventive vigor, and they not only stand up to the beating but continue to fulfill their intended purposes even in drastically changed circumstances.
When I was a kid, there was an anti-ballistic-missile base in Jackson Park, part of a defensive ring around Chicago. Following the Cold War logic that deemed a cascade of friendly fallout preferable to multiple direct nuclear hits, the idea was to detonate our own warheads high above the city to wipe out incoming waves of missiles and bombers. Among other assets to protect, there was a strategically vital concentration of steel mills south and east of the park, the kind of heavy industrial cityscape Olmsted set out to counter with his parks and greenswards. I attended day camp in Jackson Park, and foul balls and end runs in Capture the Flag brought me right up to the barbed-wire perimeter of the base. I retain a vivid memory from childhood of the missiles on their launchers raised up above the treetops during a readiness drill.
But even with this nuclear adder concealed in its green bosom, and even with the spike in crime and troublemaking that gave Jackson Park a bad reputation in the 1970s, it still offered sanctuary for city dwellers. It wasn’t an escape from the city or a denial of it. Rather, the park was one special part of the city that encouraged citizens to explore and run free, to get off the grid and take a reflective break from business as usual. Back in the day I got all my best brooding done in Jackson Park, a long-dead visionary’s gift to a child of the city. I don’t have a birthday present to offer Olmsted in return, other than my heartfelt gratitude.Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’