The State We're In

Parks for all: Celebrating Frederick Law Olmsted’s 200th

Apr 7, 2022

By Jay Watson, Co-Executive Director

New York’s world-famous Central Park is a place of tranquil beauty, 843 acres of rolling terrain, winding paths, scenic woodlands, sweeping lawns, wide lakes, meandering streams and areas set aside for active recreation.

It would be easy for visitors to assume that this pastoral landscape came courtesy of Mother Nature, with a few man-made amenities thrown in. In reality, nearly every inch of Central Park was intentionally laid out to provide a soothing respite from the stresses of city living.

Central Park was the first urban masterpiece designed by Frederick Law Olmsted – heralded as “the father of landscape architecture” – and his original partner Calvert Vaux.

Olmsted, and later his two sons, would go on to create thousands of landscape projects across the United States, including many in New Jersey.

April 26 marks the 200th anniversary of Olmsted’s birth, and his legacy of designing parks for all people is being celebrated around the country.

Olmsted was born in 1822 in Hartford, Conn., and raised to appreciate the outdoors and the beauty of nature. He traveled extensively, touring parks and estates in Europe and writing travel books. He also worked as a farmer, merchant seaman and newspaper correspondent, including a stint documenting slavery in the South. In his writings, he argued for abolition.

By the time Olmsted began his career in landscape design, he embraced a vision of parks as public open spaces that should be accessible to all. That vision was in part influenced by his visit to Birkenhead Park in Liverpool, England, believed to be the world’s first publicly-funded park for all to enjoy.

In 1858, Olmsted and Vaux won a competition to design the grounds of Central Park. Olmsted believed that time spent in parks would improve the public’s physical and mental health – a view confirmed by modern studies. And long before science proved the ability of trees to help air quality, Olmsted called Central Park “the lungs of New York.”

Olmsted designed urban parks in many other cities, including Boston, Buffalo, Louisville, Detroit, Rochester, Milwaukee and San Francisco, as well as the U.S. Capitol. His most notable New Jersey project was Cadwalader Park in the capital city of Trenton.

“Cadwalader Park is the only park in New Jersey that was designed by the old man himself, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.,” noted Randy Baum, a member of the Cadwalader Park Alliance. “He and his firm had a long relationship with the City of Trenton.”

At nearly 110 acres, Cadwalader is the largest park in Trenton. In the city’s heyday it was a lively place where families went for concerts, picnics and pony rides. The park’s former animal paddock, located in the western ravine, was home to English Fallow Deer as well as a continually morphing menagerie of donkeys, peacocks and geese. The historic D&R Canal runs through the upper and lower portions of the park, separating the active recreation from the pastoral setting.

According to Baum, Cadwalader Park was built mostly true to Olmsted’s original design, with rolling landscapes, open lawns and a high point with a sweeping view. While many Olmsted parks have been significantly changed over the years, Baum said Cadwalader has retained its historical design – largely due to inaction and lack of funding for landscape-altering capital projects.

Unfortunately, age, disease and insect pests are taking a toll on its trees, requiring that many of the older specimens be removed and replaced with young trees.

Olmsted also designed the Cadwalader Heights neighborhood adjacent to the park, an enclave of beautiful homes situated on a rise. In addition, Olmstead proposed a greenway beginning at Cadwalader Park and making its way south along the Delaware River to the confluence of the Assunpink Creek, turning and following the course of the creek to the city border. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this greenway vision was never realized.

Cadwalader Park is considered Olmsted’s last great park, designed in 1891 toward the end of his career. By then, Olmsted’s two sons, John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., were partners in the family business, sharing their father’s philosophy.

Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. retired in 1897; the firm kept going strong and renamed itself Olmsted Brothers. It received many commissions in New Jersey, especially in Essex County, which has 20 Olmsted parks.

New Jersey’s Olmsted parks include:

Branch Brook Park, Newark – Built between 1898 and 1911, 360-acre Branch Brook is the oldest of Essex County’s parks. The original design included a reservoir, lake and formal gardens in the south end, ball fields and recreation spaces in the middle section, and gardens and smaller bodies of water in the north. One thing that can’t be credited to the Olmsted firm is the park’s famed cherry trees, whose pink froth of blossoms draw thousands of visitors each spring. They were a gift from several wealthy families in 1927, and are now an iconic feature of the park.

Warinanco Park, Roselle, Union County – Dedicated in 1924, this 204-acre park includes many of Olmsted’s signature features, including rolling landscapes, curving pathways and a lake. The park also features the Henry Summers Chatfield Garden, an octagonal flower garden with impressive spring displays.

Weequahic Park, Newark – This 311-acre park offers a wide variety of activities, including playgrounds, trails, an 80-acre lake, basketball courts, tennis courts, ball fields, picnic areas, and space for outdoor concerts and festivals. The park also contains New Jersey’s first public golf course.

Rahway River Parkway, Union County – Unlike “parkways” meant for motor traffic, this Olmsted-designed parkway is a system of parks connected by woodlands along the Rahway River. The Friends of the Rahway River Parkway will celebrate Olmsted’s legacy with a talk on Tuesday, April 26, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Cranford Community Center, 220 Walnut Ave., Cranford.

This year, celebrate Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of parks for the people! To learn more about Olmsted’s life, career and legacy, go to https://olmsted200.org/. For information about Cadwalader Park, go to http://cadwaladerparkalliance.org. To learn about Olmsted parks in Essex County, go to www.essexcountyparks.org/parks and search “Olmsted.” For information about Olmsted parks in Union County, go to https://ucnj.org/parks-recreation/history-of-the-union-county-park-system-beta/.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.