If you’re a fan of historic architecture and green spaces, you’ll love visiting these parks, gardens, and grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), considered America’s first landscape architect. Olmsted is best known for creating the design of New York City’s Central Park and Prospect Park with his business partner, Calvert Vaux (1824-1895). His lush and picturesque aesthetic was meant to relieve the stress caused by urban living, and his modernist approach to urban planning, design, and landscape architecture continues to influence cities today. On the 200th anniversary of his birth, here are a few of Frederick Law Olmsted’s masterpieces.
1. Central Park // New York, New York
New York’s Central Park was one of Olmsted’s first projects. The park was completed in 1859 and, at the time, was the largest urban park in the world. Olmsted’s design philosophy was to create a practical park, rich with native plants and in harmony with the existing landscape, rather than an idealized version of nature. He also wanted to provide a space for leisurely strolls and quiet contemplation, and more active pursuits like sports and games. Today, Central Park is still a busy urban park, but it’s also one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city; visitors come from around the world to stroll its paths.
2. Prospect Park // Brooklyn, New York
Like other Olmsted parks, Prospect Park is famous for its wide, winding paths, quiet waterways, and forests. Completed in 1873, the 2300-acre park was Olmsted’s vision of “a landscape whose beauty, though manufactured, would nurture the mind, the body, and even the fabric of society,” according to the Prospect Park Conservancy. It was intended to be a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city and a source of inspiration for Brooklyn’s residents in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the country.
3. The Biltmore Estate // Asheville, North Carolina
George Washington Vanderbilt II commissioned the Biltmore Estate, a French château-style mansion, which was completed in 1895. This historic house from the Gilded Age is the largest privately-owned residence in the United States and still belongs to Vanderbilt’s descendants. Vanderbilt imagined a serene, park-like setting for his home and hired Olmsted, a family friend, to design the grounds. Olmsted merged a challenging natural environment with an inspired combination of French and English landscape designs. Today, the estate houses the country’s most extensive indoor gardens, and visitors can also climb Biltmore’s 268 steps to the top of the main house for jaw-dropping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
4. Jackson Park // Chicago, Illinois
Jackson Park (originally South Park) is the main park along Lake Michigan on Chicago's South Side, and like many of the Windy City’s green spaces, much of it was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1871. Olmsted redesigned the park and it reopened in 1882; in 1893 it served as the site the World's Columbian Exposition. Several features still exist from the famous fair, including a Japanese garden, the Statue of the Republic, and the Museum of Science and Industry.
5. Parc du Mont-Royal // Montréal, Quebec
Situated high above the city skyline, the 500-acre Parc du Mont-Royal is one of Montréal's largest green spaces. The site lost many of its trees in 1859 when a landowner cut down a forest on his property in the area, and city residents realized formal protections for the mountain were needed. Olmsted was hired to develop the future park, though not all of his final designs were carried out. The park boasts the scenic Kondiaronk Belvedere, a semicircular plaza with a chalet overlooking downtown Montréal. Other features include Beaver Lake, a snow tube and toboggan run, cross-country skiing trails, a sculpture garden, and Smith House, a charming stone farmhouse that serves as a welcome center. The provincial government combined the park, cemeteries, and many adjacent parks and institutions into the Mount Royal Natural and Historical District to safeguard the region's cultural and natural heritage.
6. Emerald Necklace // Boston, Massachusetts
This network of green spaces stretching across the city of Boston includes the Arnold Arboretum, Franklin Park, and Back Bay Fens. The verdant sites—each regarded as one of the necklace's "jewels"—have a distinctive natural landscape, as Olmsted intended. His vision of city parks as sanctuaries from the hectic pace of urban life is evident as you travel the seven miles of leafy meadows, marshlands, and paved roadways.The Emerald Necklace took Olmsted 20 years to complete. Today, the historic park system serves as the beloved backyard for Bostonians and a tourist destination with over a million visitors per year.
7. U.S. Capitol Grounds // Washington, District of Columbia
Perched on a plateau 88 feet above the level of the Potomac River, the U.S. Capitol Building commands a stunning westward view across the National Mall to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. In 1874, Congress commissioned Olmsted to design and oversee landscape improvements to the Capitol grounds. His initial design called for a plan that would connect the grounds of the White House, Capitol, and government agencies to symbolize the nation's unity. However, he had to scale back those plans to encompass only the Capitol grounds’ 50 acres. While this busy seat of democracy wasn’t exactly conducive to a secluded park design, Olmsted implemented a picturesque layout that emphasizes the Capitol Building's architectural beauty and grandeur.
8. Olmsted Linear Park // Atlanta, Georgia
In 1890, entrepreneur Joel Hurt hired Olmsted to develop an area in northeast Atlanta now called the Druid Hills Historic District. Three years later, Olmsted submitted a preliminary plan that mapped out the Linear Park, consisting of six segments: Springdale, Virgilee, Oak Grove, Shadyside, Dellwood, and Deepdene—all connected by scenic pathways. Olmsted carefully devised routes to allow visitors to enjoy the most pleasing vistas, with bends in the paths that repeat the curve of the natural landscape. Olmsted's firm completed the final project in 1905, two years after the designer's death. In the 1980s, the Georgia Department of Transportation proposed building a four-lane highway cutting right through the park, but concerned citizens banded together to defeat the plan, preserving a historic neighborhood and one of Atlanta’s most treasured spaces.
9. Buffalo Olmsted Parks System // Buffalo, New York
In 1868, after touring Buffalo with city officials, Olmsted said that a single park (like New York City's Central Park) would not be sufficient for residents' needs. Olmsted and Vaux then devised the first public park system in the United States, encompassing Cazenovia, Delaware, Front, Martin Luther King, Jr., Riverside, and South parks. Buffalo's Olmsted Parks System is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The first three parks—Delaware, Front, and MLK, Jr.—were followed by the others when Olmsted's firm extended the system farther south into the city's suburbs. Riverside Park, the last park developed, was built to showcase the Niagara riverfront.
10. Stanford University // Palo Alto, California
Founded in 1885, Stanford University was financed by railroad magnate Leland Stanford and his wife, Jena Lathrop Stanford, on 8000 acres of their farms, fields, and ranchlands. Olmsted designed the campus, assisted by Stanford and the architectural firm Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge. But as the university grew throughout the 20th century, many of Olmsted’s original features were lost. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which damaged some of the university’s infrastructure, Stanford established design principles to restore Olmsted's 1886 vision.
11. Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site // Brookline, Massachusetts
Olmsted’s successful design of Central Park led to opportunities in the Boston area, including the Emerald Necklace, Boston’s connected park system. Olmsted moved his family to Brookline, where he established his home and landscape architecture firm in an aging farmhouse on two acres of land. He restored the property and dubbed it “Fairsted.” Now in the care of the National Park Service, the house and grounds have been designated a National Historic Site. It houses the National Landscape Archive, which contains Olmsted’s plans for famous parks and other public spaces.
This story was updated to correct the name of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks System and to clarify the features of Chicago's Jackson Park.