Born in Hartford, Connecticut. Frederick Law Olmsted was raised as a gentleman. He never fully attended college, but he did become a very learned man. When he was 18, he moved to New York to begin a career as a “scientific” farmer. That career soon failed, so he toured Europe, served as a merchant seaman, and traveled throughout the South as a newspaper correspondent.
Through several New York connections, Olmsted wrangled an appointment in 1857 as Superintendent of the planned Central Park in Manhattan, early in the development of was at that time the northern fringe of New York City. He soon met Calvert Vaux, and their plan, titled Greensward, was ultimately selected as the winning design.
In 1861, Olmsted took a leave from his duties at Central Park to serve as the Executive Secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission, aiding the wounded soldiers of the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1863, he headed west and took a position as manager of the Mariposa Estate in California, a gold mining venture north of San Francisco.
He returned to New York when the project failed, and joined Vaux in designing Prospect Park, Chicago’s Riverside subdivision, Buffalo’s park system, and the Niagara Reservation at Niagara Falls, and he served as the first head of the commission in charge of preserving Yosemite Valley..
In 1883, he relocated to Brookline, Massachusetts where he designed an extensive park system for the City of Boston known as the Emerald Necklace. Between 1872 and 1895 Olmsted’s firm carried out 550 projects. Besides Central and Prospect Parks, and the Emerald Necklace, Olmstead designed the Grounds to the US Capitol, The Biltmore Estate in Asheville NC, Stanford University’s campus, and the grounds to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
In 1895, due to failing health Olmsted turned the firm over to his partners, and senility forced him to be confined in the McLean Hospital at Waverly, Massachusetts, where he must have felt at home – Olmsted had designed the grounds of the institution.
Frederick Law Olmsted died on August 28, 1903. The landscape architecture firm he founded was continued by his sons and their successors until 1980. His home and office were purchased by the National Park Service and opened to the public as museum. His papers are now housed in the Library of Congress, while the Olmsted National Historic site preserves the drawings and plans for much of Olmsted and his firm’s body of work.