More than a century after his death, Frederick Law Olmsted ignites passion in an F&M professor and a team of student researchers
For F&M students, there’s a lot to admire about Frederick Law Olmsted. A renaissance man who embraced the ideals of a liberal arts education, he tried his hand at numerous enterprises before defining the ideals of what has come to be known as American landscape architecture.
New York City’s Central Park, the World’s Columbian Exposition, Niagara Falls State Park, the Biltmore Estate, and hundreds of other parks and properties across the nation are both a testament to his vision for urban greenspaces and a devotion to curating nature as a means to nourish the human soul.
It’s a legacy that has intrigued David Schuyler, F&M’s Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of the Humanities and American Studies, for four decades. It has inspired Schuyler’s numerous scholarly works and courses, which in turn have served as inspiration for generations of F&M students—most recently, the seven who have worked with the professor for the past four years to complete the final volume of The Olmsted Papers.
Schuyler not only has authored a number of books on the history of urban landscapes, but he has an abiding interest in Olmsted’s legacy.
“Olmsted is the most interesting cultural figure in America,” Schuyler says, explaining his lifelong fascination. As the chair of The Olmsted Papers Project advisory board—an initiative launched in 1972 to present the most significant of Olmsted’s writings in a letterpress edition of 12 volumes—Schuyler has served as co-editor of Vols. 2, 3, 6, and now 9 of the seminal Olmsted Papers.
Schuyler says Vol. 9, “The Last Great Projects, 1890-1895,” was served well by the collaborative energy of the F&M student researchers and proofreaders who worked to collect, fact-check, edit, and index the most instructive and illuminating correspondence from Olmsted’s final years. Published in January, the 1,104-page volume is a “doorstop of a book,” Schuyler says.
The tome is the product of Team Olmsted, which Schuyler calls the group of student researchers who worked on the project with him and co-editor Gregory Kaliss. They worked in an office on College Avenue, fueled not only by the wonder in the ways Olmsted's vision has shaped the American public landscape, but also by the copious amounts of candy that served as a reward after long stretches of taxing, eye-straining proofreading.
Jeff Schlossberg ’14, whose contribution to the project as a Hackman Research Scholar at F&M was so significant that he is recognized on the title page as the assistant editor, says the research started with 140 of Olmsted's most significant transcribed letters.
“We would check them against microfilm reels of the originals from the Library of Congress, and in doing so would come across plenty of new materials that hadn’t been seen before, adding 100 more [letters],” Schlossberg says. “We needed to understand the broader context so we could decide which of the thousands of letters should go into the book—what was most important, what painted the best picture from that time frame, what’s ripe for other academic papers, which of the dozens of good letters from a project is the most substantial.”
“I was so impressed with the spirit of our team under such tedious work,” says Shannon Ricchetti ’16, who will continue research on Olmsted as a Marshall Scholar this summer. “We learned a ton about research, scholarship and editing, and we made it fun.”
Immersed in the Natural World
The project provided the students a window to Olmsted’s work ethic and thought processes. Leah Brenner ’15 was impressed to discover how Olmsted was “working behind the scenes on a lot of things and influencing a lot of people.” As she was proofreading and indexing the book, she’d think, “Wow, he knew that person, or he’s having a casual conversation with Thomas Edison. He really did a good job of documenting his life in letters.”
The students’ meticulous, detailed work mirrored the detail-oriented nature of Olmsted himself.
“He was a big-picture guy, planning for a future he wouldn’t live to see, but he also micromanaged everything,” says Ricchetti, who appreciates Olmsted’s imperative that humans have a deep need to be immersed in the natural world even if, and perhaps especially if, they live in an urban setting. “I first learned about Olmsted during my first year at F&M when I wrote about the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the need for people to be near water—a very Olmstedian idea. It’s how I get away—just walking through Buchanan Park. The ability for reflection and contemplation in nature is so important, and it’s something he recognized.”
For Brenner, Olmsted’s steadfast devotion to every detail of his work made an impression. “He was such a visionary in the way that he cared about everything. He was so sure he was going to help the future of this country, even though he didn’t get to see people enjoying his parks. From him I learned hope and perseverance. Even if you’re not going to see the end result, just stick to your guns and persevere.”
As students worked on the project, they began to realize that Olmsted shaped the landscape of their childhoods, no matter where they grew up.
“He is everywhere, his work is behind everything,” says Brenner, who became an Olmsted fan after researching Yosemite and realizing Olmsted’s significant role in preserving the park as an unspoiled destination for future generations. “Now I’m clued in to the things he did, so that when I vacation or visit a park, I know Olmsted had a hand in it.”
Enlivened and Inspired
Now an alumnus, Jeff Schlossberg was thrilled to discover Olmsted’s influence throughout his stomping grounds in the D.C. area. As an urban planner with the Alexandria, Va., firm Rhodeside & Harwell, he has a sense of the struggles Olmsted had with his own firm’s projects.
“Now that I work in a landscape architecture planning office, I think of Olmsted creating parks and estates and subdivisions and laying out streets with a vision before there was even the idea of a planning profession,” Schlossberg says. “I see a lot of parallels between problems he faced and those we face, even though we’re separated by more than 100 years. The benefit of going to a school like F&M is that like Olmsted, I can think holistically, in a big-picture way, so that I can help with broad master planning and articulate a vision—even though I’m not a structural engineer.”
As students at a liberal arts college—some of whom arrived without clear plans for a course of study, and only a desire to learn—these Hackman Scholars were enlivened and inspired by Olmsted’s own circuitous path in life.
“I didn’t know what kind of a major I would have, I just knew I liked thinking about how things fit together spatially in the world,” Schlossberg says. “I didn’t put a name on what my passion was, but then again, there wasn’t a name for it when Olmsted started, either. I can't say enough about the Hackman Scholars program. It had a huge impact on me and was an amazing resource to focus my broad interests.”
The students credit Schuyler’s passion for Olmsted’s work as igniting their own devotion to the field.
“He’s so inspiring,” says Ricchetti. “We learn to analyze, write well, put together a fully formed argument.”
The admiration goes both ways, as Schuyler beams as he thinks about the accomplishments of his students and their growth as researchers.
“The research opens their eyes in ways they never anticipated,” says Schuyler. “They learn hands-on how to do things and produce great work, work that you would expect of graduate students.”
His love of teaching is self-evident, and like Olmsted, he takes the long view. At the end of the spring semester, Schuyler asked his students in a seminar titled “Olmsted’s America” to reflect on a passage in Olmsted’s letters in which he questions whether he has “been selling being for doing” by laboring to create places of tranquility that he himself never stopped to enjoy.
It is a question Schuyler considers for himself as well, wondering if, like Olmsted, he “sacrificed the living of life for the doing, working so hard so others can do the being.”
The visions of both men—the proponent of public parks and the acclaimed scholar and teacher—continue to bear fruit.
In addition to Schlossberg, Brenner and Ricchetti, student researchers on the Olmsted project included Erin Moyer ’16, Jill Schwartz ’13, Molly Winik ’14 and Micah Wood ’14.