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Primary Sources: An Outsider's View: Frederick Law Olmsted and Chicago

Frederick Law Olmsted led a wide-ranging life. An early organic farmer, a correspondent for the New York Times, and a travel book publisher, Olmsted is best known for having virtually invented the occupation of landscape architect. Olmsted's gift was the ability to see the potential of a site and imagine a future suited for the residents of a given place. On his visits to Chicago, he made notes about the city which are unusually insightful.

Olmsted was asked to design the Riverside suburb, near Chicago. His plan broke the grid and used winding streets to force the businessman to slow down and admire his surroundings as he returned home. In a report to Riverside's developers dated September 1, 1868, he was critical of the Chicago landscape.

We find that the surface of the country over which a drive must be taken to reach your property... is like the country generally about Chicago, not merely uninteresting, but, during much of the year, positively dreary.

A few years later, Olmsted was back in town to design a park system for Chicago to rival his own Central Park in New York. The ideal was to create a healthy, relaxed atmosphere for Chicago which could be appreciated by the "intensely wide-awake character of its people." But what would the salient features of the new park be?

There is but one object of scenery near Chicago of special grandeur or sublimity, and that, the lake, can be made by artificial means no more grand or sublime.... The lake, may, indeed, be accepted as fully compensating for the absence of sublime or picturesque elevations of land.

In a letter dated April 11, 1871, Olmsted describes his friend Ezra McCagg and his family. His observations reflect a Yankee's perception of Midwesterners at that time. The children:

Having all migrated to the West while young & lived for a while on the very frontier & in the midst of the maddest whirl of speculation ever known you might expect them to be -- very different from what they are.

In fact, the children were clever and well-bred. Their parents were among Chicago's philanthropic elite.

They are rather sensitive about the West & Chicago lest anyone should think that people are not likely to be as well informed & cultivated there as anywhere....

[McCagg] always is looking out to help some of the thousands of poor devils who are always drifting to Chicago from all parts of the world thinking to find easy fortune there.

Although Olmsted was well into his career as a landscape architect, a month after the Great Fire of 1871, The Nation asked Olmsted to visit Chicago and report on the state of the city.

Besides the extent of the ruins, what is most remarkable is the completeness with which the fire did its work, as shown by the... extraordinary absence of smoke-stains... and... debris, except stone, brick and iron, bleached to an ashy pallor. The distinguishing smell of the ruins is that of charred earth. In not more than a dozen cases have the four walls of any of the great blocks, or of any buildings, been left standing together. It is the exception to find even a single corner... holding together to a height of more than twenty feet.

In the middle of downtown Chicago, he had the unobstructed view of another man three miles away. Olmsted spoke to survivors and heard their stories.

It often happened that husbands and wives, parents and children, even mothers and infants, were forced apart and lost to each other.... The people... appear to have manifested a greater degree of self-possession and of considerable thoughtfulness one for another... than can be easily believed. Almost everyone holds the remembrance of some instance of quiet heroism....

An active rearguard of cool-headed Christians entered and searched houses to which they were strangers, dragging out their inmates, sometimes by main force, and often when some, caught unawares, were bewildered, fainting, or suffocating....

Children... [were] almost invariably taken up, tenderly cared for, and advertised by strangers.

Although the fire had delayed implementation of his city park scheme, Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance were still unoccupied when Olmsted was asked to create a landscape for the World's Columbian Exposition. The gathering of the fair's architects was a treat for him.

The general comradeship and fervor of the artists was delightful to witness & more delightful to fall into.

Like Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, Olmsted had misgivings over the overwhelming Neo-Classicism of the Exposition buildings.

I question if [they] are not going to look too assuming of architectural stateliness and to be overbonded with sculptural and other efforts for grandeur and grandiloquent pomp.

Olmsted's last major project was the World's Columbian Exposition. With the landscaping of Jackson Park, he finally made a lasting impression on the second largest city in the nation.

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