Heritage Lecture features Olmsted’s WNY influence, seminal landscapes

Provided photo
Frederick Law Olmsted’s influence kept Goat Island in Niagara Falls undeveloped.

Frederick Law Olmsted came along at the right time, a time when U.S. cities were growing quickly, but with little thought to their design, especially for what is now familiar to a generation as “green space.”

Olmsted was among “the first to regard landscape architecture as a profession and a fine art,” according to the PBS website for Olmsted. “With Calvert Vaux, he virtually created that profession.”

As part of the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series, at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ, David Rotterman, WNED vice president of television production, will screen the documentary “Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America.” He will answer questions after the screening.

Rotterman said that Olmsted had a tremendous impact on the country, “as to how we look at public spaces and how they can be an integral part of our communities.”

The landscape architect had an especially big influence in Western New York, Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

“Olmsted was also, far and away, the most eminent and successful person ever to practice [landscape architecture] in this country,” according to the PBS website. “He was co-designer of Central Park, head of the first Yosemite commission [and] leader of the campaign to protect Niagara Falls.”

The integrated park system in Buffalo that Olmsted designed is the oldest integrated system in America.

Olmsted championed the Free Niagara Movement, Rotterman said, an effort that removed some of the industry that had developed along the otherwise picturesque river and falls. The natural setting of Goat Island is attributable to Olmsted. Without him, the landscape might have been further developed.

The area now known as Central Park in New York City was something of an eyesore before Olmsted made his vision of it. Now, the natural roll and turn of the land is more the result of Olmsted’s engineering than of things inherently of nature.

“Today we have zoning, but back then, cities grew as they grew,” Rotterman said. “Little thought was given to how they were designed.”

Especially limited was thinking about public space.

“Olmsted brought to cities some ideas about planning,” Rotterman said.

Making the documentary on the Olmsted’s great work presented a couple of challenges Rotterman. One was that it couldn’t be just a series of postcards, even if the postcard views are most compelling.

“One big challenge was how to make a landscape active,” he said. “Landscapes themselves are not engaging. We tried to make them more engaging with activities and some of the controversy that goes with parks.”

The documentary also makes use of maps, animation and archival photos.

This program is part of Buffalo Day at Chautauqua, in conjunction with the Center for the Study of Art, Architecture, History and Nature. Founded in 2009, C-SAAHN is “a unique digital enterprise and network designed to help link volunteers and lifelong learning communities as part of the ‘Buffalo-Chautauqua Idea: Exploring American Legacy,’ ” according to the C-SAAHN website.