The Lasting Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted and His 3 Signature Milwaukee Parks

The pioneering landscape architect who left a lasting imprint on Milwaukee with his ‘Grand Necklace of Parks,’ is finally getting an overdue year in the sun for his bicentennial.


RELATED: 3 Ways Milwaukee is Celebrating Fredrick Law Olmsted’s Legacy

When Michael Carriere first moved to Washington Heights in 2014, he bought a home a few blocks from Washington Park. He would take walks through the park during his time off, while he was finishing the last semester of a Ph.D. in American history with a focus on urban planning at the University of Chicago.

On one such visit, he spotted a young mother sitting on a blanket with her baby. They struck up a conversation, and he asked her why she liked the park. “She said, ‘It feels like what a park should be,’” Carriere says. “Inherently, I knew what she was talking about. It gives you the sense that this is natural. … It feels welcoming.

“Then I asked her, ‘Do you know who Frederick Law Olmsted is?’ She looked at me like I was crazy.”

Frederick Law Olmsted in 1893, the same year he began work on his Milwaukee parks; Photo via public domain

Carriere knew Olmsted well from years of study – in the field of American urban planning, there’s no escaping him. Olmsted was the father of this nation’s public park systems. His idea of parks as free and accessible places for people of all classes to mix shaped the ways they have been designed across the country for over a century since. And in 1893, at the end of his long career, he designed Washington, Lake and Riverside parks in Milwaukee.

His three parks, and the philosophy behind them, left an indelible but often underappreciated mark on the city.


 

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This is partly because Olmsted’s other projects, such as Central Park in New York City or the U.S. Capitol Grounds in Washington, tend to overshadow his three in Milwaukee. For example, in the 2011 Olmsted biography, Genius of Place, author Justin Martin devotes one sentence out of 405 pages to Olmsted’s efforts here: “[Olmsted] also began working on a set of parks in Milwaukee.”

“I think part of why he’s not as well known in Milwaukee is that for whatever reason … Milwaukee just didn’t celebrate the Olmsted legacy as much as other cities,” says Virginia Small, a Milwaukee writer and journalist who has studied Olmsted extensively.

“America was going from an essentially rural society to an urbanized one. Into this dramatic, changing America comes Olmsted.” 

Dede Petri, President of the National Association for Olmsted Parks

Our city’s other foundational designers, like Charles Whitnall, Alfred Boerner or even Christian Wahl, the man who hired Olmsted, have all had parks or landmarks named after them, while Olmsted has no such distinction in the city.

This month, that tide of anonymity has started to shift. April marks the bicentennial of Olmsted’s birth, and with support from the National Association for Olmsted Parks and groups like Lake Park Friends and the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, the city is publicly celebrating Olmsted’s legacy.

Lake Park and Drive, Milwaukee; Photo courtesy of Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum

“To me, it’s a no-brainer,” says Carriere, now a professor of history at Milwaukee School of Engineering and author of The City Creative: The Rise of Urban Placemaking in Contemporary America. “Cities like Louisville, like Buffalo, like Boston have really leveraged the Olmsted spaces in their cities. … The reason I’m really excited about [the bicentennial] is that this could be the chance to have useful, and in some cases uncomfortable, conversations on how public spaces should look and operate in a 21st-century city like Milwaukee.”


IN 1846, Milwaukee was founded with a little under 20,000 residents to call its own. The fur-trading outpost rivaled Chicago for Upper Midwest dominance, and over the next decade a flood of European immigrants began to turn the city into a manufacturing powerhouse. By 1890, the city would grow its population tenfold, reaching 204,468. In response to the increasing need for recreation and entertainment, private gardens opened across Milwaukee, offering refreshments on scenic grounds to those who could afford it. But as more workers flooded in, the demand for public resources grew.

In 1889, the city created the Board of Park Commissioners to build a series of new parks. The board was led by Christian Wahl, a Bavarian immigrant who made a fortune in the glue business in Chicago. Wahl moved to Milwaukee for his retirement and enthusiastically took to the task of creating natural, public spaces in a booming, industrial city. There was little debate about the best designer for the new parks – Wahl immediately turned to the most well-known landscape architect in the country.

“America was going from an essentially rural society to an urbanized one,” says Dede Petri, president of the National Association for Olmsted Parks. “Into this dramatic, changing America comes Olmsted.”

Lake Park; Photo by Natasha Anderson

Frederick Law Olmsted was born in April 1822 in Hartford, Connecticut. As a young man he worked as a sailor, including on a merchant marine vessel to China, before his father helped him buy a farm on Staten Island in 1848. After two years on the farm, Olmsted joined his brother and a friend on a walking tour of England. What was initially conceived of as a rollicking pilgrimage to his ancestral home changed the course of his life.

The three young men walked through Birkenhead Park near Liverpool, a vast space designed with open vistas and meadows. Olmsted was deeply struck by the lack of class distinction – unlike America’s private gardens, Liverpool’s rich and poor walked together along Birkenhead’s paths.

When he returned to Staten Island, he couldn’t shake the sight from his mind – though his career did not immediately follow that inspiration. Instead, he dove into journalism, first writing the book Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England about his experience. Then, from 1852 to 1857, he traveled the American South writing scathing first-person accounts of the slave-holding region.

“What he saw was that the system of slavery led to a privatization not only of bodies, but also of space,” Carriere says. “He sees these glorious plantations that are, aesthetically speaking, really beautiful but, because of the imperatives of slavery, are controlled by a small number of people. … Any space that was shared or public was falling apart. … He saw that as detrimental to a working and functioning democracy.”

In August of 1857, Olmsted met with Charles Elliot, a friend who had just been named a board member on a new project to create a large green space in the center of Manhattan. He told Olmsted that the project was looking for a superintendent. Olmsted’s books on slavery, while critical successes, were financial flops, and so he leapt at this new opportunity. With a lengthy list of impressive references from his journalism career, he got the job.

He set out to craft an oasis of nature, open to all, in the center of one of the world’s great cities. Fifteen years later, he opened Central Park, and along with it invented a new job title: landscape architect. The park’s 843 acres were like nothing urban America had seen before, with carefully designed woodlands, streams, pastoral vistas and lakes, all completely open to public use at no cost.

A concert at Lake Park, 1914; Photo by Joseph Brown; courtesy of Milwaukee County Parks

That bold project began a long career that spanned the nation. Over the next five decades, Olmsted designed 355 spaces in the United States, including the U.S. Capitol Grounds, the Emerald Necklace in Boston and Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

His work was unified by the idea that these natural areas should be free and accessible, regardless of class differences. “He really went to the mat for that,” Small says. “He believed that for people of different backgrounds to be equal that they needed to be able to all gather together freely with no barriers to admission.”


IN 1889, as Wahl’s Park Commission began buying parcels of land in Milwaukee, the 67-year-old Olmsted was working as the chief landscape architect for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition (aka the World’s Fair).

While Olmsted scoured the Wisconsin countryside for native plants to surround the fair’s water features, Wahl successfully recruited him to mastermind Milwaukee’s new parks. Their deal allowed Olmsted to review the proposed sites and choose the ones he liked best, paying him $12.50 for every acre he designed.

Olmsted was immediately bothered by the commission’s choice of potential sites, which ran in a ring around the center of the city. He wrote them a scolding letter, admonishing them for not having any options closer to the heart of Downtown, where they could be most easily accessed by all.

In February of 1893, he picked three locations – Lake Park, a stretch along the shore, River Park, only a mile west of Lake, and West Park, a plot on the edge of the Menomonee River Valley. He chose the sites because of their natural advantages – the lakeshore and ravines at Lake Park, the oak grove and flowing water at River (later named Riverside), and the lagoon at West Park, renamed Washington in 1900. “He liked Milwaukee for its topography,” Small says. “He found it much more interesting than Chicago, which is very flat.”

Work began on what Olmsted referred to as Milwaukee’s “Grand Necklace of Parks.” He aimed for a design that didn’t overshadow the landscape but accentuated it. By building winding paths, which are seen in all three of his local parks, Olmsted tried to maintain a meandering, naturalistic feel. And befitting his democratic ideals and similar designs in New York, he included many wide-open, pastoral spaces – literally placing everyone on the same level.

“[Moving through an Olmsted design] is an orchestrated experience with what he called ‘sequences of scenery,’” Small says. “An Olmsted park is meant to be strolled through. … He wanted it to feel like a journey.”

Lake Park exemplifies this, beginning with footbridges and an open field, passing Ravine Road, turning toward the unexpected waterfall, and culminating at Lake Michigan and the long promenade along the shore.

Lake Park General Plan; Photo courtesy of Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum

“You pass from the pleasure of the woods to a sense of the sublime opening in front of you,” says Patrick Mullins, a history professor at Marquette University and member of the Milwaukee Area Cultural Landscape Alliance. “I think the public would appreciate these parks on a different level if we thought of them as works of art.”

Olmsted and Wahl had hopes for creating a system of parks that traversed the entire city, each one linked to the next by scenic boulevards, but the Common Council chose not to designate multiple boulevards, and so only Newberry was built, in 1898. The parkway runs one mile connecting Lake Park to Riverside so a parkgoer can go from one to the other without ever entirely leaving Olmsted’s design.

In 1895, Olmsted started suffering from dementia and retired, leaving his designs in the care of his sons, John and Frederick Jr., who completed work on the three Milwaukee parks by 1900, formed the Olmsted Brothers firm, and went on to design green spaces across Wisconsin, most prominently in Kohler and Lake Geneva. In 1903, Olmsted died while living in a hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.

Although his direct impact on Milwaukee is measured in three parks and a boulevard, his larger impact can be extended to almost the entire county parks system. In 1923, Charles Whitnall, an urban planner, designed the county parks that circle Milwaukee to this day. The Oak Leaf Trail connects multiple parks in a unified system that owes its inspiration to Olmsted.

“There’s no question that the concept of a park system did not exist before Olmsted,” Small says. “American parks themselves were not even a concept.”

Beyond the philosophical debt, many of Whitnall’s parks were designed with a clear nod to Olmsted. Mullins points to Grant Park, with its meadows and winding path through the woods, which opens up to a vista of Lake Michigan. “That’s a classic Olmsted design,” Mullins says. “Whitnall made an amazing contribution by creating the Milwaukee County Parks system, but it was an expansion of and continuation of Olmsted’s city park system. We remember Whitnall’s name. … It would be nice if Olmsted got a bit more credit.”


IN THE CENTURY since Olmsted’s death, park design has continued to evolve.

“Parks have become a source of stimuli, vs. places that were meant to be more of a respite,” says Carriere. That means basketball courts, playgrounds and other features meant to draw people to the park for an activity, as opposed to an escape into nature.

Olmsted’s Milwaukee parks have reflected those 12 decades of change. Lake Park, the most intact of his three designs, saw the addition of multiple recreation areas – a golf course in 1903, a playground in 1906, tennis courts in 1909 and lawn bowling in 1919, among others. Today, a slice of Riverside Park has been replaced by Riverside High School’s athletic fields, and both Riverside and Washington parks house locations of the Urban Ecology Center, a much-lauded educational nonprofit promoting environmental conservation.

Washington Park postcard; Photo courtesy of Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum

So considering the changing role of public parks, where exactly is the line between preserving historical value and maintaining vital public use? “I think it’s dangerous to suggest an either/or, and that’s often the way these conversations unfold,” Carriere says. “That it’s either you keep it in a certain way forever or you change it irrevocably to make it, quote unquote, ‘speak to a new audience.’ I think that’s part of the problem in terms of figuring out how these parks are to evolve.”

Small doesn’t categorize all additions and alterations as either negative or positive. On the negative end, a portion of Washington Park’s western boundary was razed in 1948 to build a freeway. “That is in some ways a wound that has never really been healed,” she says. But on the other end, the lawn bowling greens or musical pavilion don’t necessarily detract from Lake Park’s historical value. Instead, they can help keep the park vital in the spirit of its creator.

Bandshell; Photo courtesy of Washington Park Wednesdays supported by Washington Park Neighbors

“The design doesn’t have to remain exactly as it was on a plan,” Small says. “It’s more that there are certain defining characteristics. … The best process whenever a change is made is to identify those characteristics and retain them as much as possible. … It’s about attempting to honor the legacy, not erase it.”

The crucial defining characteristic of an Olmsted design, Carriere emphasizes, is that it remains as widely accessible and multipurpose as possible. “When you start to prescribe certain uses, at least for the Olmstedian spaces, you start to get into the issue of compromising what really made this site valuable for so many years.”

Mullins believes strongly in the importance of maintaining Olmsted’s wide-open spaces.

“There should be publicly accessible places where people can play football, tennis, basketball, or other forms of exercise,” he says. “In Milwaukee County alone, there are over a hundred parks which serve such uses. There are, however, only three Milwaukee parks designed by Olmsted himself and crafted for the purpose of being lovely and tranquil. … As vital parts of Milwaukee’s cultural heritage, they ought to be protected from destruction, maintained for present-day enjoyment, and preserved for the benefit of future generations.”

“[Moving through an Olmsted design] is an orchestrated experience with what he called ‘sequences of scenery.’ An Olmsted park is meant to be strolled through. He wanted it to feel like a journey.” 

Virginia Small, writer and journalist

Lake Park remains the most closely preserved of all Olmsted’s design, due in part to consistent support from the nonprofit Lake Park Friends. Ravine Road bridge, an elevated footbridge in the park, was closed to pedestrians in 2014 due to worries about structural damage. In 2016, Milwaukee County received an anonymous $1 million donation to repair the bridge, but only under the condition that the road be permanently closed to vehicle traffic.

“That’s not consistent with Olmsted’s ideas,” says Anne Hamilton, a member of the Lake Park Friends board who is overseeing the group’s bicentennial programming. “Lake Park Friends’ position is accessibility whenever possible. It’s not supposed to be an elite park only for people who live here. It’s supposed to be for everybody.”

A wooded ravine at Lake Park; Photo by Rochelle Weiner Carr, MKEbeautiful.com

The county, with a push from Lake Park Friends, turned down the donation, and in 2021, the County Board allocated $1 million toward Lake Park Friends’ Ravine Road restoration efforts, which are ongoing.

Washington and Riverside parks have not received that level of consistent fundraising and strong support, in part, Carriere says, because of their locations in less affluent neighborhoods. As a member of the Milwaukee Area Cultural Landscape Alliance, Mullins would like to see the parks added to the National Register of Historic Places, as Lake and Newberry Boulevard were in 1993. He’d also like more widespread financial support for the parks. He points to Louisville, Buffalo and Boston, all of which have private conservancies dedicated to raising money for their Olmsted parks without having to rely on taxpayer dollars. In Milwaukee, this would look roughly the same as Lake Park Friends, just on a bigger scale.

Riverside Park Postcard; Photo courtesy of Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum

“My hope is that the bicentennial … will allow for a rethinking and a revisiting of the value of these histories,” Carriere says. “It’s not just preservation for preservation’s sake. It’s not simply uplifting Olmsted because he was this tremendous American. It’s the fact that his ideas still have relevance for new audiences in the 21st century.”

The key to bringing Olmsted out of the shadows, Carriere believes, is to emphasize how those ideas informed his designs, how public space made in the public spirit contributes to a healthy and united republic, and how his philosophy still matters to, for instance, that young mother lounging in his public park a century after his death – even if she doesn’t know his name.  


Managing Editor Archer Parquette wrote the Charlie Berens profile in the January issue.


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s April issue.

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Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.