During the 19th century, Frederick Law Olmsted became the godfather of American landscape architecture through a combination of rigorous planning, thorough research and strict attention to detail. This year, two students at Franklin & Marshall College are using a similar approach to help tell the story of Olmsted's iconic career.
F&M students Jeff Schlossberg '14 and Jill Schwartz '13 became Olmsted detectives over the summer, exploring numerous personal and professional letters written by the landscape architect who designed New York City's Central Park, The Chicago World's Fair, and hundreds of other parks and properties around the United States. Their research supported The Frederick Law Olmsted Papers Project, an initiative launched in 1972 by the National Association for Olmsted Parks. The project's goal is to present Olmsted's writings in a series of published books.
David Schuyler, Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of Humanities and American Studies at F&M and chair of the editorial board of the Olmsted Papers Project, invited Schlossberg and Schwartz to join his research team last spring. The students worked closely with Schuyler and Gregory Kaliss, associate editor of the Olmsted Papers Project, to incorporate Olmsted's writings into the project's final chronological book -- volume nine, titled "The Last Great Projects, 1890-1895," which is on track to be published in 2014.
"Jill and Jeff are our collaborators on Team Olmsted. We wouldn't be where we are today without their work," said Schuyler, who has worked on the Olmsted project in various capacities since 1975. "In lots of ways they've helped the organizational structure and research we do on a daily basis. We've seen enormous growth in both of them as researchers."
The summer collaboration was part of F&M's Hackman Scholars program in which students conduct challenging, high-level projects to support research by faculty members. During the summer of 2012, 66 Hackman Scholars conducted research under the supervision of 41 F&M professors. The Hackman Scholars Program was established through an endowment by the late William M. and Lucille M. Hackman.
Schlossberg, a history major, focused on Olmsted's vision for suburban living, while Schwartz, an American studies major, explored the designer's influence on private estates and homesteads. They will present posters at F&M's Autumn Research Fair Oct. 19 in the Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy Building.
The Research Fair provides a forum for students to showcase work they have completed in collaboration with F&M faculty members. These collaborations began at F&M in the 1950s in the natural sciences, and now encompass the College's entire academic spectrum, including the arts and humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.
Under Schuyler's supervision, Schlossberg and Schwartz spent hours looking through microfilm and examining handwritten documents in their attempt to understand more about Olmsted and put his words into a larger document. Their research included trips to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and several libraries, although they spent the bulk of their time in the Olmsted Papers office on College Avenue near F&M—home to numerous Olmsted resources.
"We often played the handwriting game, trying to figure out which notes were written by Olmsted, which ones were dictated and which ones were signed by him," Schwartz said. "It was a big mystery."
"Olmsted had a distinctive writing style," Schlossberg said. "The writings helped me understand that he was an extremely passionate man. He became angry when his vision was challenged because he cared so much about his work. When he sat down to design a park, he did it with a clear vision in mind."
Schuyler and Kaliss helped the students develop their research skills over the summer, encouraging them to become more tenacious researchers.
"Research is searching, and searching again," Schuyler said. "Jill and Jeff have learned strategies for effective research and conceptualization."
Kaliss said the students brought different approaches to their work, although they shared several qualities, including strong organizational skills.
"They're both really well organized, and they've both learned the challenge of writing concisely" Kaliss said. "Jill focused on the text of the writings and asked questions like, 'What's he saying? What can we draw from this?' Jeff is more visually oriented. His first inclination is to look something up on Google maps."
The students said they were excited to contribute to a project that began four decades ago, and to help preserve the legacy of Olmsted and his work.
"We've learned about this icon through his writing," Schwartz said. "We want our work to measure up to, and mesh with, the legacy of Olmsted scholarship while still feeling that we have contributed in a way that is reflective of our own interests and abilities."