Happy Birthday, Frederick Law Olmsted

Each April, we remember Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of the artful landscape surrounding Biltmore House.

Born April 26, 1822, Olmsted is often referred to as the “Father of Landscape Architecture in America,” and is best known as the designer of Central Park in New York City.

John Singer Sargent portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted
Framed portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted by John Singer Sargent in the Second Floor Living Hall of Biltmore House

Olmsted’s early life

Prior to becoming a landscape architect, Olmsted was first a seaman, farmer, then a journalist and founder of The Nation magazine, which still exists today.

During the Civil War, he served as Executive Secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission (a precursor to the American Red Cross). Central Park, which he co-designed with Calvert Vaux, was his first landscape design although ultimately his firm completed more than 500 projects.

Envisioning Biltmore

Olmsted knew William Henry Vanderbilt, George Vanderbilt’s father, when they both lived on Staten Island, and the designer had already worked on several Vanderbilt family projects when George Vanderbilt approached him in 1888 to advise on 2,000 acres of North Carolina property he’d already purchased.

Mountain views at Biltmore
Mountain views from Biltmore House

“Now I have brought you here to examine it and tell me if I have been doing anything very foolish,” he reportedly told Olmsted.

Olmsted gave a frank assessment. He advised Vanderbilt: “The soil seems to be generally poor. The woods are miserable, all the good trees having again and again been culled out and only the runts left. The topography is most unsuitable for anything that can properly be called park scenery. My advice would be to make a small park in which you look from your house, make a small pleasure ground and gardens; farm your river bottoms chiefly and…keep and fatten livestock with a view to manure and…make the rest a forest.”

Collaboration with Richard Morris Hunt

Plans for both the house and landscape changed in 1889 when Vanderbilt and architect Richard Morris Hunt toured France together and the scale of Biltmore House expanded.

Archival photo of workers on the Approach Road to Biltmore House
The Approach Road, which Olmsted designed to achieve a “sensation passing through the remote depths of a deep forest,” only to have “the view of the Residence, with its orderly dependencies, to break suddenly, fully upon one.”

Olmsted wrote that he was nervous, not sure how to “merge stately architectural work with natural or naturalistic landscape work.” But the architect and landscape designer worked together “without a note of discord,” and Olmsted biographer Witold Rybczynki says that the landscape architect achieved something completely original at Biltmore: the first combination of French and English landscape designs.

Designing a masterpiece

Transitions between formal and natural gardens were important, as was the use of native plants, small trees and large shrubs, and color and texture year-round.

View of the Approach Road in spring
Today’s guests enjoy the beauty of the Approach Road that Olmsted designed

Biltmore would prove to be Olmsted’s last design. As he approached the end of his work on the estate, he said “It is a great work of peace we are engaged in and one of these days we will all be proud of our parts in it.”

He said Biltmore was “the most permanently important public work” of his career. More than 120 years after his work, we continue to benefit from his vision.

Experience Biltmore Blooms

To experience Olmsted’s vision at its most breathtaking, visit the estate during Biltmore Blooms, our annual celebration of spring. In 2020, catch our historic gardens at their most breathtaking from April 1–May 21.


Featured image: Portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted by John Singer Sargent