‘The Olmsted Legacy’ takes edge off winter, but tells a tragic story
A documentary looks at the father of American urban parks.
As the holidays end, Christmas lightsdarkenandthe city settles in for the frigid winter months, an inconspicuous and intriguing documentary makes its television debut and reminds us of the simple joy of sitting outside in the sunshine.
Never mind that just stepping outdoors will be fairly intolerable for many weeks. It’s still possible to appreciate “ The Olmsted Legacy: America’sUrban Parks,” which explores the life and philosophy of landscape architect Frederick LawOlmsted. The premiere airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on Washington public television station WHUT (Channel 32).
The hour-long film, written and co-produced by writer and firsttime filmmaker RebeccaMessner, and screened around the country, expertly weaves facts about Olmsted’s (frankly, depressing) personal life in with a timeline of how he used his tragedies and eccentricities to became an influential figure in American history.
Known as one of the inventors of landscape architecture and a legendary urban planner from the 19th century, Olmsted is most famous for helping design and create Manhattan’s Central Park, cited many times in the film as the crown jewel of America’s urban parks, along with hundreds of other parks, academic institutions and public and private buildings across the country.
His accomplishments include famous sites in the District. Credit Olmsted for the aesthetics of Rock Creek Park, the National Zoo, American University and Gallaudet University. The documentary, however, doesn’t spend much time on his projects in the nation’s capital, squeezing a fewsentences between longer segments about his designs in BostonandChicago.
The film does note that one of Olmsted’s most recognized works is the grounds of the Capitol, for whichhesubmittedadesign in the mid-1870s. “Olmsted found a way of subordinating his landscape to the architecture,” the narrator says.
Olmsted’s philosophy on parks — simply put, that they should be glorious, wide-open spaces where anyone, rich or poor, can escape the stress of everyday life— can be traced back to his childhood. Born inHartford, Conn., in 1822, he had few memories of his mother, who died when he was young; one of them included her sewing under a tree whileheplayed nearby. Idyllic memories of nature shaped the rest of his life, as he traded in academics to gallivant around the world and bask in the great outdoors.
“At the time my schoolmates were entering college I was ... given over to a decently restrained vagabond life,” Olmsted says, his soft-spoken words voiced by KevinKline. Olmsted’s adventures, including a stint as a deckhand on a boat to China that nearly killed him, helped him identify with the commonman. He realized that the beautiful green landscapes of public parks could uplift even the poorest citizens, most trapped in extremely unsanitary conditions in cities.
“Whathe stressesaboutparksis that you got away from the city to receive the psychological calm that you needed,” says Sara Cedar Miller of the Central Park Conservancy, one of the many historians called in for the project. “ That ‘mental refreshment’ is what he called it, and that’s what he was really searching for and assumed everybody else was searching for.”
Messner wisely taps into a very relatablepartofOlmsted’s personality: being a workaholic. As more sadness struck — illness, injury, the death of his brother and the loss of a newborn son to cholera— Olmsted made his career his only passion.
“He was troubled. He had a sad life,” Miller says. “He understood and needed the calm and the quiet and the peacefulness.”
Sadly, the film’s narrator explains, as Olmsted tried to bring a sense of peace to others with his projects, it was his intensity about work that led to his deteriorating health. As he suffered from insomnia, fatigue and headaches, doctors could only conclude that he worked himself sick. He died in 1903 at 81, after being placed in a hospital in Massachusetts that he had helped design (and becoming infuriated when he found out they hadn’t stuck to his plan for the grounds).
Smoothly narrated by Kerry Washington, the film focuses mainlyonthe yearsOlmstedspent creating the landscape of Central Park, along with his design partner Calvert Vaux, and their work on Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Thrown in are the fun facts typical of documentaries: Before parks, people had picnics in cemeteries; in today’s money, the Central Park projectatonepointwas$6million over budget; a colleague of Olmsted’s accused him of breakfasting on strong coffee and pickles.
But it’s the idea of calm and quiet, and everyone’s secret urge tothrowthe BlackBerry into a lake and play in the park all day, that moves the film along when the myriad historical factsandsketches of landscapes start to blend together. The shots of people on bikes, walking dogs, resting on picnic blankets and reading books are delightful, and they remind us that that type of peacefulness and springtime warmth are just around the corner.
URBAN OASIS: Many see Central Park as the jewel of Frederick Law Olmsted’s accomplishments.
THE ARCHITECT: Olmsted also designed the grounds of the Capitol and Rock Creek Park.