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BLOG: Olmsted Parks in NYC

This past week, I returned from a whirlwind visit to St. Louis, where I had opportunity to do some travel and reading research. Believe me, I cannot WAIT to share some of this experience with my readers. It will serve as "Part II" of my three blogs on research in upcoming weeks.

But this week, I have a delightful guest blogger! They say blood is thicker than water, and perhaps that's why family sagas have always captivated me, because there seems to be such a connection between the author and his/her subject. Gail Ward Olmsted's novel Landscape of a Marriage is the story of a cousin on her husband's side who will soon have a year-long 200th birthday celebration given in his memory! And the beauty he crafted in his lifetime is a legacy now left for others to enjoy. So let's welcome Gail as she shares about Frederick Law Olmsted's legacy of dreamy landscapes.

Olmsted Parks in NYC by Gail Ward Olmsted

Landscape design can “refresh and delight the eye and through the eye, the mind and the spirit.”

~Frederick Law Olmsted~

While public parks have existed for centuries in many parts of the world, their history in the U.S. dates back just over 160 years. New York City’s Central Park is the country’s first urban park accessible to the public. In an attempt to beautify the city, government officials requested proposals from interested parties, resulting in thirty-three entries. Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, British architect Calvert Vaux, submitted the winning design titled ‘Greensward’. Olmsted was perhaps a curious choice for such an ambitious project as he had no previous experience and his professional resume included stints as a merchant sailor, magazine editor, newspaper reporter, writer and gentleman farmer. But Olmsted was passionate about the project and worked tirelessly to bring his vision to life.

Commonly referred to as the father of American landscape architecture, Olmsted (1822-1903) believed that common green spaces provided a multitude of social, health, economic and environmental benefits and should be readily accessible by everyone. Inspired by walking tours of the most beautiful public parks in Europe, in 1858, he set out to transform New York City with an 840 acre plot of land in Manhattan. Rife with pigsties, slaughterhouses and swamps, the rectangular space was nearly 2 ½ miles long and only ½ mile wide and would prove quite a challenge for a project that spanned nearly twenty years.

Newly married to his late brother’s widow Mary, Olmsted reportedly confided to his new bride that he planned to create a ‘beating green heart’ in every urban space. With the support of his family and his frequent collaboration with Vaux, Olmsted and his successors participated in 5500 projects between 1857 and 1950, including urban parks, parkways, planned communities, scenic reservations, academic campuses and more. My historical novel Landscape of a Marriage which will be published on 7/29/21, is the story of Fred and Mary Olmsted’s lives together during 44 years of marriage. The subtitle summarizes his body of work quite succinctly: Central Park was only the beginning.

Olmsted’ first design principle was that an urban public park should complement the city to which it belongs and second, that a park should be faithful to the character of its’ natural terrain. He preferred the utilization of naturally occurring features and vegetation. The beauty of his designs, beginning with Central Park, was a desire to create harmony in keeping with nature. One of his most remarkable technical achievements was to make four major crosstown roadways virtually disappear by sinking them into the ground and camouflaging them with foliage. A combination of rolling expanses and hidden passages created the illusion of privacy and the winding pathways, man-made lakes and minimal use of bridges, buildings and other structures added to the natural beauty, what Olmsted called ‘the genius of the place’. Central Park is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the city, attracting over 40 million visitors annually, a testament to the brilliance and timelessness of the ‘Greensward’ design.

Prospect Park, which opened in 1867, is another of Olmsted’s well-known projects in NYC. It is in the center of Brooklyn and covers 526 acres. The beauty of the Adirondack Mountains inspired Olmsted as he designed the park with graceful walkways and a lake larger than the one in Central Park for boating and skating. At nearly 1 mile in length, the Long Meadow is the longest open green space in any urban park in the U.S. The Ravine, Brooklyn’s only forest, features 150 acres of woods, a creek and waterfalls. Not wanting to duplicate his earlier successes, Prospect Park is unique and offers a welcome respite from city life for residents and tourists alike.

Other Olmsted-designed parks in New York City include:

Morningside Park, a 30 acre park in Upper Manhattan, which features a cliff made of Manhattan schist, many rock outcroppings, a man-made ornamental pond and waterfall; three sculptures; and an arboretum. Construction began in 1876 and they completed the park in 1889.

Riverside Park, which stretches four miles along the Hudson River, is considered Manhattan’s most spectacular waterfront park. The design which began in 1875 includes rocky cliffs, open lawns, and groves of mature elm trees. The manmade shoreline and promenade were constructed between 1937 and 1941.

Herbert Von King Park, formerly Tompkins Park, was one of Brooklyn’s original parks, designed in 1868. It is in the heart of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and its’ town square design offers athletic and cultural amenities.

Fort Greene Park (originally Washington Park) designed in 1867, features rolling hills, shaded walkways, grassy areas and a specially designed crypt for the remains of prison ship martyrs from the Revolutionary War.

While many cities boast public and municipal spaces designed by Olmsted and his successors, New York City is where his illustrious career began.

If you are interested in reading more about Olmsted’s body of work, there are many excellent books and articles available. In writing this article, I consulted The Riverside Park Conservancy, The National Association of Olmsted Parks, The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and

Olmsted’s 200th birthday will be celebrated in 2022 and a year-long celebration is in the works. For more information, visit the National Association of Olmsted Parks at


Landscape of a Marriage

By Gail Ward Olmsted

A marriage of convenience leads to a life of passion and purpose. A shared vision transforms the American landscape forever.

New York, 1858: Mary, a young widow with three children, agrees to marry her brother-in-law Frederick Law Olmsted, who is acting on his late brother’s deathbed plea to "not let Mary suffer”. But she craves more than a marriage of convenience and sets out to win her husband’s love. Beginning with Central Park in New York City, Mary joins Fred on his quest to create a 'beating green heart' in the center of every urban space.

Over the next 40 years, Fred is inspired to create dozens of city parks, private estates and public spaces with Mary at his side. Based upon real people and true events, this is the story of Mary’s journey and personal growth and the challenges inherent in loving a brilliant and ambitious man.

Meet the Author

Gail Ward Olmsted was a marketing executive and a college professor before she began writing fiction on a fulltime basis. A trip to Sedona, AZ inspired her first novel Jeep Tour. Three more novels followed before she began Landscape of a Marriage, a biographical work of fiction featuring landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, a distant cousin of her husband’s, and his wife Mary.

For more information, please visit her on Facebook and at

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