Your guide to Frederick Law Olmsted landscapes in Chicago

The famed landscape architect, born 200 years ago, is to thank for the design of everything from Chicago’s Jackson’s Park to New York’s Central Park.

Jackson Park
Chicago's Jackson Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, where the cherry blossoms have been in full bloom recently. Robert Karr Jr. / Garden of the Phoenix Foundation
Jackson Park
Chicago's Jackson Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, where the cherry blossoms have been in full bloom recently. Robert Karr Jr. / Garden of the Phoenix Foundation

Your guide to Frederick Law Olmsted landscapes in Chicago

The famed landscape architect, born 200 years ago, is to thank for the design of everything from Chicago’s Jackson’s Park to New York’s Central Park.

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If you’ve ever taken a stroll through Jackson Park, biked along the curving streets of suburban Riverside or played a pick-up soccer game on the Midway Plaisance, you’ve seen Frederick Law Olmsted’s work up close.

Often lauded as the father of landscape architecture, Olmsted was born in Connecticut 200 years ago this week. He’s perhaps best known as the co-designer of New York’s Central Park, but his lengthy resume includes parks, neighborhoods and college campuses across the country from the grounds of the U.S. Capitol to Yosemite National Park.

In honor of the bicentennial, the Cultural Landscape Foundation has launched a coast-to-coast digital guide to all things Olmsted — including eight sites in the Chicago area.

“The impact of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., on the nation’s identity and the profession of landscape architecture is inestimable,” said Charles Birnbaum, the landscape foundation’s president and CEO.

Here in the Chicago area, Jackson Park is perhaps Olmsted’s most notable work. He originally designed the South Side park in the 19th century with Calvert Vaux, his frequent collaborator on projects including Central Park.

But there’s also Riverside, imagined as an idealized landscape of people living surrounded by nature, the Midway, the boulevard system, Fuller Park, Sherman Park, Washington Park and the University of Chicago campus.

In this May 6, 2021, file photo, University of Chicago men’s rugby team players practice on the Midway Plaisance, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.
In this May 6, 2021, file photo, University of Chicago men’s rugby team players practice on the Midway Plaisance, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Shafkat Anowar / Associated Press

Not all of Olmsted’s Chicago influence is visible today. In 1893, he helped design the “White City” for the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was removed when the fair concluded.

Olmsted and his son later returned to Chicago to help reimagine Jackson Park into what we know today. Some Olmsted fans fear his legacy is being further eroded by the Obama Presidential Center, which broke ground in Jackson Park last September.

“So much of what Frederick Law Olmsted achieved in Chicago might now be lost because of a lack of value for historic context and comprehensive planning — and all while invoking his name,” Birnbaum, of the landscape foundation, wrote in 2018.

Obama Foundation CEO David Simas told Chicago Magazine in 2018 that the center is aligned with the park’s original purpose by bringing the community together in “in a real Olmstedian way.”

“One of the leading drivers was the purpose of having a place where people could come together in a democratic fashion,” Simas told the magazine. “It’s our perspective that what we are proposing is consistent with the vision of parks as democratizing.”

As part of the bicentennial celebrations, Birnbaum will visit Chicago on May 12 to discuss Olmsted’s influence on the city. The event, The Olmsted in All of Us, will be held at the Chicago Architecture Center and will “chart the rise of the Olmsted renaissance.”

Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.