Frederick Law Olmsted's Garden State Legacy

10/05/2022 1:25 PM | Kathleen Avitt (Administrator)

Frederick Law Olmsted’s Garden State legacy

Observing the father of American landscape architecture's 200th birthday by exploring F.L. Olmsted's lasting influence in New Jersey.

Cedar Court, panoramic view of house, ca. 1900


 North Jersey History and Genealogy Center


 October 5, 2022 


Jeffrey V. Moy, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center

The Garden State is home to nearly 40 parks designed by the Olmsted Firm, the first landscape architecture company in the United States.

Founded by business partners Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the Olmsted Firm remained active from 1857 until the 1960s, with most of its New Jersey projects in the counties of Essex, Union, and Passaic; and a few significant ones in Morris Township and Morristown.

General view of Central Park, Harper’s Weekly, August 27, 1864. North Jersey History & Genealogy Center collections (NJHGC).

Nature Perfected

Best known for designing New York’s Central Park with partner Calvert Vaux in 1865, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. preferred working in the Pastoral Style, as characterized by a meticulously planned and yet naturalistic built environment.

In this setting, Olmsted crafted flowing hills out of rocky outcrops, deposited tree lines and berms to hide nearby roads and buildings, and strategically placed babbling streams and groupings of boulders and shrubbery, all crafted to appear as if they had existed in tranquility for hundreds of years.

Ellicotdale viewed from Ellicot Arch, Franklin Park, Boston. The Olmsted Firm designed the public park systems of Boston and Buffalo, among other cities of this era. Olmsted Papers Project photograph.

In addition to Central Park, Olmsted created the park systems of the cities of Boston and Buffalo. Historian Jeanne Kolva describes Olmsted’s philosophy on public parks as a combination of artistic endeavor and social experimentation, intended to encourage commonality between the Gilded Age’s super rich and the majority of America’s working and middle classes.

In an era where comfort and wealth were enjoyed by a select few, parks supporters sought to provide natural and orderly public spaces to improve social order.

John Olmsted, father of Frederick L. Olmsted, Sr., n.d. Olmsted Archives photograph.

Frederick Law Olmsted was born in 1822 to Charlotte Law Olmsted and her husband John, a successful Connecticut merchant. Fred’s mother died when he was only 4 years old, leaving his father to raise him and his brother, John Jr., alone.

Fred left at age 16 to attend Phillips Academy, and upon graduating moved to New York City where he found work as a merchant and journalist before purchasing land in Staten Island at age 26 to try his hand at farming.

Frederick Law Olmsted in 1850, approximately two years after moving to Staten Island. University of California Libraries collection

While experimenting with various farming techniques on Staten Island, Olmsted developed an affinity for horticulture and landscape design. In 1859, Frederick married his departed brother John’s widow, Mary Cleveland Perkins, and adopted her three children, John Charles, Owen, and Charlotte. The couple later had three children of their own: Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., John Theodore and Marion.

By the time Frederick Olmsted Sr. and Calvert Vaux won the design contest for Central Park in 1865, Frederick was 43 years old. His children and step-children became involved in the firm during the 1880s, with Olmsted eventually retiring in 1895 at age 73.

John Charles Olmsted, n.d. F.L. Olmsted National Historic Site photograph.

John Charles Olmsted graduated from Yale University’s Sheffield Scientific School and was active in the family’s firm from 1884 until his death in 1920. John instituted modern office management techniques within the business while convincing municipal planners across the country that comprehensive park systems were indispensable components of 20th century American cities.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Junior, ca.1890. National Park Service photograph.

Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. was born on Staten Island and educated at Harvard University, where he graduated in 1894. Like his brother John, Fred Jr. joined the family firm in 1897, and during his 50-year tenure worked on thousands of projects.

F.L. Olmsted Jr.’s advocacy for a national chain of parks was instrumental in formulating the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act, whose purpose he stated was, “To conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects, and the wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

National Parks Organic Act of 1916. National Archives and Records Administration.

Guided Growth

John Charles and Frederick Jr. worked together to complete statewide surveys aimed at identifying potential parklands. Building up the company to a staff of 60 employees, the Olmsteds championed the City Beautiful movement. This Progressive reform philosophy stressed that aesthetically pleasing built-environments led to positive social change, particularly among the those residing in America’s crowded urban centers.

Plan for Maplewood Memorial Park, October 11, 1926. Brinley & Holbrook collection, NJHGC.

The City Beautiful model called for adopting urban master plans that included small neighborhood parks, larger city parks, and suburban nature reserves, in addition to public art and the banning of billboards and other offensive nuisances.

Park-goers enjoyed fresh air and natural surroundings while socializing with neighbors and learning to become civic-minded individuals in a supervised public space. To Progressives, this was a much-improved alternative to other 19th century forms of entertainment: The saloon, dance hall, and any number of venues where youth and vice roamed free.

“Sketch of proposed Maplewood athletic field”, South Orange Record, April 2, 1920. Brinley & Holbrook collection, NJHGC.

The corollary to the City Beautiful Movement was the City Efficient Movement, which encouraged the creation of new zoning laws and subdivision regulations to guide city planning in the United States, particularly as wealthy and middle-class residents flooded into new suburban subdivisions after the First and Second World Wars.

Branch Brook Park: the first county park

Lake in Branch Brook Park – Newark Souvenir Folder, 1937. Historic postcard collection, NJHGC.

Branch Brook Park holds the distinction of being the first public county park ever constructed in the United States, and it remains one of New Jersey’s most majestic. It was built during the late 1800s in the working-class neighborhood of northern Newark, and anchored to the south by Barringer High School and the Cathedral of the Sacred Basilica.

Branch Brook Park, Newark, winter scene, ca1900. Historic postcard collection, NJHGC.

This 359-acre oasis runs four miles north to south and is approximately a quarter-mile wide, featuring meadowlands, lakes, woods, and open fields. A meandering parkway guides pedestrians, bicyclists, and automobiles along its central corridor, which has, since the 1920s, been lined with thousands of cherry trees donated by Caroline Bamberger Fuld, a prominent Newark philanthropist and sister to department store magnate Louis Bamberger.

Military Park, ca.1910. Prior to the City Beautiful Movement, many of America’s public parks originated as militia training grounds or town commons where livestock grazed. Newark’s citizen soldiers trained at military park from 1667 until after the Revolutionary War, when it was converted into a public park. Historic postcard collection, NJHGC.

Branch Brook Park began with a much more modest history. The former Civil War Army training ground was previously known as Old Blue Jay Swamp, the site of a private water reservoir to the South and tenement housing on its northern end. Its life as a park began in 1895 when the city transferred the first 60 acres of land to the Essex County Park Commission.

Branch Brook Park, Newark, Park Avenue Bridge, ca1910. Historic postcard collection, NJHGC.

The Commission initially hired landscape designers John Bogart and Nathan Barrett, who presented a geometrical Romantic series of gardens, but supporters disapproved and hired the Olmsted firm to create a more naturalistic interpretation that featured native species situated among four distinct sections.

Branch Brook Park, Newark, North park, ca1900. Historic postcard collection, NJHGC.

By the 1920s, Newark’s most affluent families had begun to move from their city residences to larger estates in nearby suburban territories. This offered city leaders an opportunity to increase Branch Brook Park’s footprint. From 1924 to 1929, 50 additional acres of land were acquired, primarily from the Ballantine and Heller families, and the transaction was commemorated by the Ballantine Gateway on the park’s east side.

Branch Brook Park, Newark, east side park, ca1900. Olmsted made careful use of trees, shrubbery, and earthen berms to obscure large portions of the surrounding city from parkgoers. Historic postcard collection, NJHGC.

Both John Charles Olmsted and F.L. Olmsted Jr. worked directly on Branch Brook Park’s layout and left ample notes on proposed landscaping plans. Among their design flourishes was the use of an artificial berm along the perimeter to disguise neighboring properties. This provided the illusion that the park’s outer borders fronted onto woodland and shrubs – at least as long as the viewer’s gaze avoided any tall buildings in the distance.

“A Chain of Beautiful Parks”, New York Times, April 6,1902. Morristown & Morris Township Library collections.

A June 1901 article in the New York Times noted that despite the park’s still incomplete state, it had become a busy destination for city residents, including a recent cricket match between the Newark Cricket Club and the Kings Country Club of Brooklyn.

During the 1920s, Harmon Hendricks donated 20 acres of his estate to the Parks Commission, which extended Branch Brook Park’s territory all the way to the neighboring town of Bellville’s southern border. Today, this tract includes a large concentration of the park’s blossoming cherry trees, whose number far exceeds those along the Tidal Basin in Washington D.C.

Eagle Rock Reservation

Eagle Rock in winter from Mountain Ave, 1915. NJHGC collections.

Spanning over 400 acres, Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange rests atop the Watchung Mountains with views overlooking Montclair, the Oranges, and New York City’s skyline. Acquisition of the land began in 1895, with the Olmsted firm providing a more nuanced landscape plan. The ensuing layout maintained the existing maple and red oak woodlands, while supplanting some existing species with pine and hemlock.

Hiking path in Eagle Rock from postcard, ca.1898. NJHGC collections.

Regrading work at Eagle Rock followed Olmsted Firm directions, as did construction of the main entrance, shelter house, community fireplace, pavilion, and an open-air event space known as “the Casino” that today serves as Highlawn Pavilion restaurant. Other improvements included construction of bridle paths, hiking trails, picnic areas, and a baseball diamond.

The Hundred Steps at right with horse and buggy alongside trolley tracks approaching Mountain Ave, ca1905. NJHGC collections.

An 1894 extension of the Orange trolley line brought visitors up the steep hill via Washington Street, while early automobile owners drove all the way to the main entrance from Eagle Rock Avenue. Adventurous hikers climbed the 100 steps to Eagle Rock’s pristine cliffside views of northeastern New Jersey towards Manhattan.

The manicured grounds and gardens of Morris County

Cedar Court, panoramic view of house, ca. 1900. Historic photograph collections, NJHGC.

The architecture firm of Carrere & Hastings built Otto Kahn’s estate in Morris Township. However, topographic records held at the Olmsted Archives note the Olmsted firm conducted the initial land surveys that guided overall work on the grounds.

Cedar Court, entrance from Columbia turnpike, ca. 1910. Historic photograph collections, NJHGC.

Situated on the corner of Park Avenue and Columbia Turnpike in Morris Township, Cedar Court served as the country estate of New York financier Otto H. Kahn from 1897 to 1920. Twin Italianate mansions crowned the expansive 260-acre property. Morristown landscaping firm Brinley and Holbrook designed specific elements within the grounds, including stables, tennis courts, and an 18-hole golf course.

Normandy Heights, Residence of Mr. Otto Kahn, 1911. Historic photograph collections, NJHGC.

With homes in London and New York City, Otto and his wife Adelaide Wolff moved their country home to the north shore of Long Island in 1920, in keeping with the wave of wealthy residents relocating to the newly fashionable destination. The subsequent sale of Cedar Court resulted in demolition of the Twin Italianate mansions in 1937. Allied Chemical Company purchased the land for use as its headquarters before itself being acquired by Honeywell. Today, the estate’s rolling hills continue to offer a romantic glimpse into Morris Township’s past.

“The Grove”, n.d. NJHGC collections.

In Morristown, Frederick Law Olmsted designed the grounds of “the Grove,” a private residence located at 71 Macculloch Ave. Built in 1865 and purchased in 1901 by Mr. and Mrs. C. Wicliffe Throckmorton, the Second Empire-style house, complete with its trendy mansard roof, reflected the type of architecture that was popular in Morristown during the mid-19th century.

Twombly Estate, Florham, ca 1910, Madison, NJ. Historic postcard collection, NJHGC.

In 1897, heiress Florence Vanderbilt and her husband, financier Hamilton McKown Twombly, built their country estate “Florham” in Madison, NJ. They hired the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White to design the mansion, farms and dairy, with the Olmsted Firm completing the landscape design. The estate sat amidst well-tended gardens and specimen plantings. In 1958 the property was acquired by Fairleigh Dickinson University, and is known today as the College at Florham.

For the public good and private enjoyment

Main entrance to Cadwalader Park, n.d. Trenton Public Library photograph.

During the late 1880s, Trenton entrepreneur and resident Edmund C. Hill proposed a grand public park befitting his city’s status as a major manufacturing center, while also encouraging construction of upscale suburban housing for Trenton’s affluent residents. The resulting development of Cadwalader Heights remains New Jersey’s only residential neighborhood designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

Edmund Hill, Dorothy Hill, and Elbridge Weir at Cadwalader Mansion. Trenton Public Library photograph.

Edmund Hill made Cadwalader Park the centerpiece of his tenure on the Trenton Common Council, a position he held for three terms. Hill championed an 1888 ordinance authorizing $60,000 to acquire 80-acres from the George Farlee estate near Ewing Township.

Later that year the council purchased an additional 75 acres from Thomas Cadwalader. Local residents found the existing grounds so attractive that they began frequenting the site before construction of the formal parklands even began.

Preliminary plan for Cadwalader Park by FL Olmsted and Co, September 17, 1891. Trenton Public Library collections.

Trenton hired the Olmsted firm in 1890 to create a unified landscape design for the two properties. By 1890, F.L. Olmsted was already preoccupied with work on the grounds of Stanford University’s new campus, as well as the 6,000-acre Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Nevertheless, the firm completed its plans for Cadwalader Park by September 1891.

Trentonians’ pride on Cadwalader Park is evident from its inclusion in the Pictorial History of Trenton, reprinted from The Trenton Times Newspapers, 1929. NJHGC collections.

The park was immensely popular among Trenton’s 60,000 residents. Within a week of its opening, 5,000 people visited, and by the next weekend another 10,000 followed suit to picnic, play ball, and enjoy the natural surroundings. Working-class families and tradesmen — used to living in cramped city apartments — all made good use of their time at Cadwalader Park alongside the city’s affluent and middle-class.

Ivy Court ad in the Sunday Times Advertiser, March 3,1920. Trenton Public Library collections.

The surrounding neighborhood of Cadwalader Heights was established in 1907, and featured homes built in the Craftsmen, Colonial Revival, Tudor, and English Manor styles. Olmsted proposed that well-planned communities set amidst natural beauty would create a more unified and harmonious citizenry. This was a half-century before suburban “Levittown’s” sought to aid the assimilation of America’s post-World War II families.

Several residential plots in Cadwalader Heights border the park in the upper right corner of this map, and follows the naturalistic winding roadways that Olmsted preferred over the gridiron pattern used in older portions of the city at left. 1930 Real Estate Book of the City of Trenton and Borough of Princeton, Mercer County, NJ. Rutgers University Libraries collection.

Unlike nearby residential developments, Olmsted’s layout avoided the rigid gridiron patterns in favor of meandering tree-lined roads set aside manicured parkland. By the 1920s, Cadwalader Heights population included prominent entrepreneurs, business leaders, and a variety of professionals ranging from commerce to the arts. Over the past century, the Trenton enclave developed into a solidly middle-class tight knit neighborhood of proud homeowners.

Two centuries have elapsed since Frederick Law Olmsted was born to a small Connecticut family, and throughout his life he established a monumental legacy of creating natural beauty amidst some of the nation’s most densely populated spaces.

The Parks Beautiful movement held grand designs for greater social cohesion and uplift that may have proved far too lofty. Yet the work of individuals like Olmsted and Vaux  nevertheless has resulted in immeasurable enjoyment by millions of Americans.


·       Glenn Modica, Cadwalader Heights: The History of an Olmsted Neighborhood, Bucks Digital Printing, 2007

·       Jeanne Kolva, Olmsted Parks in New Jersey, Schiffer Publishing; Atglen, PA, 2011

·       Dennis N. Bertland, Historic Sites Survey of the Town of Morristown, New Jersey; Morristown & Morris Township Library, 1981

·       Pat Fiaschetti, “Olmsted’s Idealistic Enclave in Cadwalader Heights,” New Jersey Monthly, Sept 8, 2015

·       Barbara Hoskins, Morris Township, NJ: a Glimpse into the Past, Joint Free Public Library of Morristown and Morris Township, NJ, 1987

·       Historic Newspaper Collections, North Jersey History & Genealogy Center (NJHGC)

·       Historic Postcard Collection, NJHGC

·       Vertical Files, NJHGC

·       Olmsted Online.

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