Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) is recognized as the founder of American landscape architecture and the nation's foremost “parkmaker.” Olmsted moved his home to suburban Boston in 1883 and established the world's first full-scale professional office for the practice of landscape design. During the next century, his sons and successors perpetuated Olmsted's design ideals, philosophy, and influence.
Over the course of his career projects he designed, established and contributed to scenic reservations (i.e.: Yosemite Valley 1865, Niagara reservation 1887), major urban parks (i.e.: Central Park 1858, Prospect Park 1866) park systems (i.e.: Buffalo Park system, Boston’s ‘Emerald Necklace’, Rochester and Louisville), residential campuses (Stanford University, Hartford Retreat), government building grounds, parkways and site planning for the World’s Exposition of 1893.
Lesser known and spoken of are the designs of country estates for wealthy clientele, of which Olmsted designed a number of. His greatest private client was the Vanderbilt family and it’s many heirs to the fortune of William Vanderbilt. (Olmsted had actually been a neighbor to William Vanderbilt on Staten Island in th 1840's and was now designing the family mausoleum in that same area.) Olmsted created the Biltmore estate (beginning in 1888) in Asheville North Carolina for George, the youngest of the eight children. Three of George’s sisters had also engaged Frederick Law Olmsted to design their properties.
One of these sisters was Eliza Vanderbilt who married Dr. William Seward Webb, who left the medical profession at the urging of the Vanderbilt family. Webb was propelled into the finance and railroad industries, eventually increasing his fortune as builder of Adirondack Railway Services. The couple lived in New York City and built an ambitious estate in Shelburne, Vermont, which has survived and become notable for its agricultural, technological and architectural achievements. A working farm, at it’s peak in 1902, "Shelburne Farms" included nearly 4,000 acres of farmland with 300 employees to maintained this estate. Between 1886 and 1902, the Webb’s purchased 32 farms on Shelburne point, amassing all this land situated on Lake Champlain in Northern Vermont, framed views of the Green Mountains in the distance, just south of Burlington.
view from house looking east
view from south lawn of house looking west
The architect was Robert H. Robertson, who worked alongside F.L. Olmsted. Shelburne Farms includes four major building on the site – “Shelburne House” (now an inn) the “Coach Barn,” Farm Barn,” “Horse Breeding Barn Sheep and “Dairy Barn” -- dairy cattle, horses, pigs, gaming pheasants and poultry were raised on this farm. As many as 100,000 trees a year were planted to create the sculptural landscape, (Capability Brown would be envious), 20 miles of roads and carriage trails were built.
serpentine road leads through...
with the house perfectly sited on a hill.
Olmsted brought to this site an organizing concept that separated the farm into three types of spaces: farm, forest and parkland. He also brought design principles learned from his early European travels and mastered in parks such as Prospect Park, Brooklyn.
Shelbourne Farm: a (Lancelot "Capability') Brownian landscape via F.L. Olmsted
These design principles, commonly though of as the English naturalistic landscape tradition of the early 18th century – are broad meadows with occasional clumping of shade trees, undulating hills, rich and diverse woodlands that transition into these meadows, looping roads strategically through the landscape to alternately reveal and obscure views and the appreciation of an expanse of water to reflect the sky.
rolling hills + meadows meets lake
(framed views from house)Guests would tour the farm and horse operations, enjoy carriage rides, boating on Lake Champlain, croquet or golfing on the estate’ golf course. Presently, the site is designated a national historic landmark and has evolved into a non-profit (supported by significant donations) with a teaching component (environmental education center) working farm and an inn.
**With exception of F.L.Olmsted public domain portrait, all photos ©Todd Haiman 2010