WALKING THROUGH ROMANTIC LANDSCAPES:
THE PHILOSOPHIC GEOGRAPHY OF OLMSTED’S DESIGN
“An arbitrary political line may divide the north part from the south part, but there is no such line in nature; there can be none, socially. While water runs downhill, the currents of trade, of love, of consanguinity, and fellowship, will flow north and south”
Olmsted from The Cotton Kingdom, 1871
One could assume, as art critic Fein (1972) does, that Olmsted’s designs were motivated by a desire to level class distinction. Fein argued that “the park [was] a unifying institution” that created “a homogeneous democratic culture” (p. 9). While this analysis may be easily applied to Olmsted’s public parks, including New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s Lincoln and Jackson Parks, Fein’s discussion of Olmsted’s works as a manifestation of homogenous democracy at first glance may lose steam when one takes into consideration his work at Biltmore Estate, a private residence. How could Biltmore, primarily designed for the private enjoyment of George Vanderbilt and his wealthy guests, be construed as homogeneous? In this essay, I will map out the roots of Romantic art and philosophies that influenced Olmsted’s landscape designs and evaluate his work in New York, Chicago and Asheville as expressions of democratic values manifest in nature.
In 1867 while standing on the shores of England’s “Dover Beach,” Romantic poet Matthew Arnold beckoned that he and his love “be true/To one another!” because “the world, which seems/To lie before us like a land of dreams” had proven to be “confused alarms of struggle and flight” (lns. 29-31, 36). Located only 22 miles from France, as Paris burned during the toppling of the Commune, it is said that from Arnold’s vantage point the English could see smoke and flames on the distant horizon. Arnold’s poetic landscape, like all Romantics, had promised to be “So various, so beautiful, so new” (ln. 32). For nearly a century, France had been racked nearly every decade with another war, another riot, another skirmish, and English Romantic poets and philosophers had watched from afar first with hope, then awe, then fear. Arnold’s world, “Where ignorant armies clash by night” was filled with “neither joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain” (lns. 37, 33-4). With his beloved, from the white chalky cliffs, he teetered on the cusp of modernity, fighting the cynicism of confusion as he watched the dreams of overcoming class division which marked aristocratic rule lie shattered before them.
Throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of Revolution, English philosophers, painters, and poets—including Burke and Ruskin; Constable and Gilpin; Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Arnold—watched, as it were, from Dover Beach. All once hopeful of the affects of the Revolution, following the ravages of battle they composed works encouraging a more “natural” approach to reform. Even Edmund Burke, philosopher whose 1757 treatise on “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” provided the vocabulary for all Romantic artists and who served in England’s House of Commons, admitted his support for the French Revolution. At least until he saw the carnage. In 1790, Burke’s response was scathing, and he admonished French National Assembly for their actions, writing “a spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views” (“Reflections on the revolution in France, pa. 567). In his essay, he borrowed the language established by his earlier treatise on the Sublime and Beautiful, and proposed a “philosophical analogy” between “the method of Nature in the conduct of the state” (ibid). Burke added that the English “political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world,” a subtle nod to Enlightenment’s Reason rather than encouraging the passion that had driven French Revolutionaries. According to Burke, England, by contrast, regardless of class or age “together the mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old or middle-aged or young,” was like Nature, “a condition of unchangeable constancy” marked by “decay, fall, renovation, and progression” (ibid). He likened English government to the process of nature, which in due course sees decline and rebirth with progressive governmental change. Revolution, he reminded England, then, simply wasn’t necessary. As a Member of Parliament, Burke’s philosophies were based upon continued rule by the aristocracy, not necessarily expressions of Democratic values.
France’s call for “”Liberté, Egalité, Fratenité,” now stained with the blood of an estimated 40,000 people, became a warning to the English rather than a battle cry. Within a decade, English poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, who had originally travelled to support friends in France at the outset of the Revolution, echoed Burke’s moderate strain. In their Preludes (1800), they remind their reader, as Burke did, that passionate “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” through a naturally “possessed…organic sensibility,” must be tempered by “tranquillity” [sic] (para. 1-2). Likewise, William Blake, composing Songs of Innocence while heady with visions of Egalité, published the darker tomes of Songs of Experience following the bloodshed.  The English didn’t want their white cliffs awash with the red that had run through the gutters of Paris. Artists of all mediums, barely changing the composition of their respective canvases, placed decaying plants and trees in the foreground in the same way skulls served as momento mori in a still life: remember, indulging in passion leads to death. Landscape artists Constable and Gilpin frequently include repoussoirs, dead or dying trees in the foreground that serve as a frame for the middle and background, elements that Olmsted desired in his naturalistic landscapes as well.  As landscape architect, Olmsted relied heavily upon Romantic English sensibilities. Kramer (1979) noted that Olmsted’s three month walking tour of England in 1850 influenced his style throughout his lifetime: “Olmsted’s experience in England was…a fundamental step toward his later work as observer, critic, and planner” (p. 3). Two years after his tour of Europe, Olmsted wrote Walks and Talks in which he echoed Burke’s contemplation of Sublime and Beautiful elements, noting “the neat, firm solid mason-work of the dock” and the “shabby log wharves,” rugged elements that appealed to Romantic sensibility of the Sublime, yet he also noted moments of picturesque beauty in the “delicate, refined and intellectual ladies,” details which Kramer noted were “particularities…basic to Olmsted’s method, and indeed, to his life’s work” (p. 5).
Olmsted’s adherence to English Romantic sensibilities met with opposition while working with Hunt in New York. Olmsted had longed to create a park based entirely upon the English ideal of a picturesque landscape, but Hunt had insisted upon including aristocratic-style facades on the park’s twenty gates he had been commissioned to design (Fein, p. 12).  The insertion of French Neoclassical design rankled Olmsted’s hope for a more naturalistic landscape. His desire to maintain a picturesque landscape eventually had won; Hunt’s proposal was defeated (ibid, p. 13). When he undertook the project at Asheville years later as a seasoned designer, Olmsted believed he would have increased freedom from the stylistic constricts he had experienced both in Central Park and during the Chicago Exposition. Hunt, however, together with the tastes of Vanderbilt, would continue to thwart Olmsted’s project at Asheville as well. In his 1870 retrospective glance at his New York project, he noted the same frustration he encountered throughout his North Carolina project: privatization of what he would have preferred to be public land.
While defending his work in New York, Olmsted had been asked by a wealthy patron, “’Why…should [I] not ask for anything finer in my private grounds for the use of my own family’?” (Olmsted in Parks, p. 61). Olmsted’s response: it would be wiser to plan the design “for the use of two hundred thousand families and their guests, than when designed for the use of one” (ibid). Although this wealthy patron remains unidentified, one can’t help but speculate that it had been a member of the Vanderbilt family. Having supported the community through various projects ranging from the construction of Old Met and Grand Central Station, the descendants of the original “Mouse of the Mountain,” Cornelius Vanderbilt, had snatched up burnt land along Fifth Avenue following the three-day Civil War Draft Riots of 1863 (Patterson, 1989). Hunt, applying Coleridge’s 1835 regard for the “marvellous sublimity and transcendant beauty” of the Gothic expression of imaginable infinity, spread rough-hewn stones along the Boulevard adjoining Olmsted’s Central Park (“Table Talk,” In Norton). 
Olmsted preferred his landscapes to be for all citizens, not just the privileged, but his earlier victory over Hunt’s design for Central Park lost ground when, after donating $145,000 toward the installation of an Ancient Egyptian obelisk in Central Park, Cornelius’ son William Henry insisted that some of the boulevards be converted to horse racing tracks where he and his Seal-Skin Brigade could freely run their horse-drawn carriages (Patterson, 1989).  In his address on Central Park in 1870, Olmsted, resisting William Henry’s proposal for the race tracks, reiterated that his parks were designed for the benefit of the public, noting that the “change both of scene and of air which would be obtained by people engaged for the most part in the necessarily confined interior commercial parts of the town…would be worth a great deal” (Olmsted in Parks, p. 61, my emphasis). Olmsted’s mention of the park’s “worth” to the people would have struck a chord for his wealthy patrons. The workers upon whom these powerful figures had built their capital empires could be refreshed by the purified air of the parks, returning to work after their Sunday strolls with renewed vigor. Olmsted’s arguments fell on deaf ears, however, and the changes Vanderbilt and his Seal-Skin Brigade had requested were instituted, but not without adverse affects. On December 29, 1876 one of the Vanderbilt trains shot off a bridge, killing 83 passengers, further driving William Henry’s popularity into a downward spiral, and the low wages he paid his workers (1.75/day) in part resulted in the July 16, 1877 labor strike. Rather than improving conditions for his workers, however, Vanderbilt’s response was added luxury for his passengers, quicker train rides, and lower ticket prices (Patterson).
Still feeling the sting of the alterations made to Central Park, Olmsted was asked to design the landscape for Chicago’s 1893 Columbia Exposition. His original plan stood in contrast to the more formal elements proposed by Burnham, who envisioned acres of impermanent Neoclassical structures.  He repeatedly had to modify his original plans to suit Burnham’s demands,  but he designed the Wooded Island as an isolated area separated from “all the splendor and glory and noise and human multitudinousness of the great surrounding Babylon” (Olmsted in Hall, 1995, p. 214). In Public Parks, Olmsted established his belief that trees possess healing qualities, stating, “Air is disinfected by sunlight and foliage. Foliage also acts mechanically to purify the air by screening it” (p. 32). Olmsted also noted the spirit of unity in which people gathered in his park in New York, where “you will find a body…coming together, and with an evident glee in the prospect of coming together, all classes largely represented” (p. 40). The reader must note the democratizing affect of the naturalized landscape does not, however, eliminate the various classes. This amalgamation of classes had gathered “with a common purpose…competitive with none, disposing to jealousy and spiritual or intellectual pride toward none, each individual adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of all others, all helping to the greater happiness of each” (ibid). Nature itself drew all people together, and the purifying quality of air as it passed through the foliage was, he believed, as with the Romantic poets and philosophers upon which he sketched his theories, instrumental in enacting this democratizing effect.
As he designed the foliage intended to purify the air of the crowded Exhibition in Chicago, Olmsted had hoped to orchestrate even the “effects of the boats and the water fowl as incidents of movement and life, the bridges with respect to their shadows and reflections, their effect in extending apparent perspectives and in connecting terraces and buildings” (Olmsted in Hall, p. 214). He spoke of the lagoons as his canvas, the water serving to unite the buildings “together and thus creating unity of composition” (ibid).  Burnham acknowledged the artistry with which Olmsted painted his landscape, noting during a banquet in New York celebrating the success of the Exposition that as artist, Olmsted “paints with lakes and wooded slopes, with lawns and bands and forest-covered hills, with mountainsides and ocean views” (Burnham in Hall, p. 216-17). Without Olmsted’s masterful artistry, Burnham conceded, Chicago’s Exposition would not have been counted as a success (ibid). As Olmstead’s sights turned again to Biltmore, he was fully aware that average American citizens were not likely to benefit from the park-like setting he was designing for the young George Vanderbilt.
Olmsted’s overarching design for Biltmore Estate was as finely nuanced, as complexly shaded, and as deeply seated in tradition as the concept of an English landscape painting itself. Biltmore’s sloping hills, naturally constructed forests and vast stretches of lawn reflect Gilpin’s design, who in Forest Scenery explained that a “house is connected with the country through the medium of the park” (p. 254). Gilpin’s painterly reference to a park as “medium” is later reflected in Olmsted’s concept of landscape as canvas. When Gilpin added, “the park should partake of the neatness of the one and of the wilderness of the other,” he drew out the elements of Burke’s 1756 essay “On the Sublime and the Beautiful.” Like Burke, for Olmsted, more than democratic ideology was at stake. Fein pointed out that Olmsted understood the “new center of power with respect to the environment lay with men of industrial wealth and with the designers they employed” (p. 8). Olmsted had learned his lesson from the devastation of Central Park. Powerful men like Vanderbilt were the ones who would shape future landscape and geographical policies.
Olmsted envisioned Biltmore as a means to escape the blight he had observed in his travels in America’s South in the 1850’s. He had noted America’s dependence upon slavery, writing in 1871 that the “character of the whole agriculture of the country depends upon” it (Olmsted in Hall, p. 43). He added that “in every department of industry I see its influence, vitally affecting the question of profit, and I must add that everywhere and constantly, the conviction is forced upon me, to a degree entirely unanticipated, that its effect is universally ruinous” (ibid). In 1870, Olmsted looked nostalgically upon the American farmer, pointing out that it “used to be a matter of pride with the better sort of our country people that they could raise on their own land or manufacture within their own households almost everything needed for domestic consumption” (Public parks, p. 6). He added that “if you leave the rail, at whatever remote station, the very advertisements on its walls will manifest how greatly this is changed,” noting that the “railway time-table hangs with the almanac,” emphasizing how railroad schedules were now as important in America as planting schedules had once been (ibid, p. 6-7). Olmsted predicted that as “railroads are improved, all the important stations will become centers or sub-centers of towns” that would allow for the dissemination of all means of cultural development in the same remote areas that had once been infected with the blight of slavery (ibid, p. 21). In addition to the rail bringing civilization to rural Reconstructionist North Carolina, the 33 year-old grandson of the railroad magnate himself would allow Olmsted the opportunity to launch what was at the time one of the greatest environmental projects in the history of America.
While in England in the 1850’s, Olmsted “had been stung by the comments of Englishmen he met who, he felt, held him responsible for the hateful existence of slavery in America” (Hall, p. 40). Olmsted wrote that slavery created “a hundred times more hard feeling in England towards America…than all [other causes]” (Olmsted in Hall, p. 40). While in the South, Olmsted was critical of slave labor, noting that it was “far less efficient, and more costly, in agricultural production than northern free labor,” (White, p 19) so as Vanderbilt looked toward revitalizing the economy of post-bellum North Carolina, Olmsted would have been interested in the project. He expressed in a letter to John C. Olmsted on March 13, 1894 “I am moved by a desire to get a footing at the South, from Southern men, and willing to pay for it, whatever I may lose” (White, frontispiece, my emphasis). His phraseology replicates nearly exactly yet another English Romantic philosopher John Ruskin in his 1853 essay, “The Nature of the Gothic.” Ruskin believed that the Gothic style with its rough-hewn textures ennobled common English laborers, allowing them to be prized and honored “in their imperfections above the best and most perfect manual skill” (In Industrial design, p. 15). Ruskin added that designers were “to look for the thoughtful part of them, and get that out of them, whatever we lose for it” (ibid, my emphasis). Olmsted, by so nearly repeating Ruskin’s words, subtly indicates he looks forward to working with rural North Carolina laborers, valuing them as Ruskin did specifically because of their potential simplicity.
Olmsted was confronted not just with the economic and social issues facing Vanderbilt’s post-bellum project, but also had to tackle devastating deforestation of the land. In 1870 Olmsted noted that America possessed “a hundred million acres of arable and grazing land, with thousands of outcropping gold veins, with the finest forests in the world” (Parks, p. 5). He recognized the monetary value to be gleaned from America’s natural resources. By the time Olmsted began working on Biltmore, Hall noted the forests that had once spread across the east coast within twenty years had been entirely depleted (p. 202).  Olmsted hired Gifford Pinchot, a recent Yale graduate who had, like Olmsted as a young man, studied in Europe, where he was introduced to European reforestation (Hall, p. 204). Pinchot later noted that Biltmore, with its “terrace and stables” was more like a feudal castle. The 250 room residence with its 34 bedrooms, 43 baths, 65 fireplaces and an indoor pool also featured the newer innovations of elevators, and the three kitchens had walk-in refrigerators (Carley, 1995, p. 9). Biltmore’s opulent design, Pinchot noted, simply was not appropriate for America’s rural nineteenth century South, particularly since it was perched “among the one-room cabins of the Appalachian mountaineers” (Pinchot, in Fein, p. 13).  Pinchot added, “The contrast was a devastating commentary on the injustice of concentrated wealth” (ibid). In spite of his sensitivity to the discrepancy between indigenous North Carolina farmers and Vanderbilt’s wealth, Pinchot was aware of the potential profit to be made in the Pisgah range. His mentor, Sir Dietrich Brandis, had taught him “that forest management will pay” in America under experiments directed by either “State or large individual owner” (Bryan, 1994, p. 90). His mentor’s prophecy came true, and Pinchot remained at Biltmore once the estate’s 100,000 acre forest, 250 acre park, 6 gardens and 30 miles of paved roads had been established, thereby managing the largest and most innovative forestry project to date in American history (Carley, p. 9, 16).
As with any project he undertook, Olmsted brought English Romantic sensibilities to the design table. He compared his work to a painting in which he drew landscapes where “trees, screens, hedges, windbreaks and so on” were planted “with some consideration of unity of foreground, middle ground and background” (Frederick Law Olmsted: landscape architect, p. 62). Early in his education, he had been influenced by “Price on the Pictureseque and Gilpin on Forest Scenery,” putting “them into the hands of my pupils as soon as they come into our office” (ibid, p. 70). Olmsted, almost as an afterthought, added that early in his life, he read Burke’s philosophies as well (ibid, p. 71-2). Burke’s philosophies were, like Olmsted’s landscapes, self-preservationist in nature. Even though he was not a member of aristocracy himself, if the English were to follow French Revolutionary passions, Burke’s head would roll. Although by the time Olmsted received his commission from Vanderbilt, America was a century removed from English aristocratic rule, the wealthy nouveau riche were potentially even more powerful than English aristocracy. Without their money, Olmsted’s business would fail. The riots following the railroad workers strike must have remained fresh in Olmsted’s memory. Like Burke, Olmsted was not necessarily interested in obliterating the separation of classes as Fein suggests. Rather he was interested in working toward slow, natural change. By 1911, many of the vast tracts of land Olmsted and Pinchot had reforested for the Vanderbilt’s pleasure were donated by the Biltmore Estate to form part of the Pisgah National Forest.  Sometimes Revolution, as the English Romantic philosophers, poets and artists observed, is not the most effective track to take toward reform.
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List of Illustrations
Infant joy. (1789). Blake, W. In Songs of Innocence. p. 75.
The sick rose. (1794). Blake, W. In Songs of Experience. p. 103.
Salisbury Cathedral from the meadows. (1831). Constable, W. In Romanticism. Ciseri, I. (2003). New York, NY: Barnes and Noble, 296.
A curtailed trunk, hiding the lower part of a landscape. (1768). Gilpin, W. Gilpin’s Forest Scenery. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, p. 18.
Hunt’s proposed Central Park entrance, the Gate of Peace. (1863). Hunt, R. M. In Biltmore Estate: the most distinguished private place. Bryan, J. M. (1994). New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, p. 26.
Houses and mansions: Vanderbilt mansion, wedding day of Gladys Vanderbilt. (1908). Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004672384/
Fast trotters on Harlem Lane, N/Y. (1870). Currier & Ives. Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resources/pga.00705
Plan of Jackson Park. (1890). Olmsted, F. L. In Olmsted's America: An "unpractical man" and his vision of civilization. Hall, L. (1995). Boston, MA: Little, Brown, p. 211.
Olmsted’s Grand Plaza. (1893). In The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Applebaum, S. (1890). New York: Dover Books, p. 20.
Atwood Palace of Fine Arts Chicago Exposition. (1893). In The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Applebaum, S. (1890). New York: Dover Books, p. 9.
Vanderbilt Palace [in backgrd., Biltmore, N.C.]. (1895). Shartle, H. Library of Congress.
Biltmore, Asheville, Buncombe County, North Carolina. (1938). Johnston, F.B. Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/csas200802230/
Painting Bacchus. (2008). Molyneux-Davis, R. J., Arbogast, C. R.
A homestead, western North Carolina. In Biltmore Estate: the most distinguished private place. Bryan, J. M. (1994). New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, p. 33.
Haunted romantic landscape. (2012). Molyneux-Davis, RJ.
Infant joy. (1789). Blake, W.
The sick rose. (1794). Blake, W.
Salisbury Cathedral from the meadows. (1831). Constable, W.
A curtailed trunk, hiding the lower part of a landscape. (1768). Gilpin, W.
Hunt’s proposed Central Park entrance, the Gate of Peace. (1863). Hunt, R.
Houses and mansions: Vanderbilt mansion, wedding day of Gladys Vanderbilt. (1908).
Fast trotters on Harlem Lane, N/Y. (1870). Currier & Ives.
Plan of Jackson Park. (1890). Olmsted, F. L.
Olmsted’s Grand Plaza. (1893).
Atwood Palace of Fine Arts Chicago Exposition. (1893).
Vanderbilt Palace [in backgrd., Biltmore, N.C.]. (1895). Shartle, H.
Biltmore, Asheville, Buncombe County, North Carolina. (1938). Johnston, F.B.
Painting Bacchus. (2008). Molyneux-Davis, RJ., Arbogast, C. R.
A homestead, western North Carolina. (c. 1890’s)
Haunted romantic landscape. (2012). Molyneux-Davis, RJ.
 For a comparison between Blake’s two works, see Appendices A and B.
 For examples of decay in Constable and Gilpin, see Appendices C and D.
 For an example of Hunt’s proposed Central Park Gates, see Appendix E.
 See Appendix F depicting Hunt’s liberal use of French Gothic and Renaissance architectural style on the Cornelius Vanderbilt Mansion. The photo was taken the day of Gladys Vanderbilt’s marriage to Hungarian Count Laszlo Szecheny.
 The press was highly critical of William Henry. See Appendix G for an 1870 etching depicting the carriages running along Harlem Avenue. The group was notorious for wearing $1500-2000 sealskin suits, which was the average annual salary for a middle-class worker (Patterson, 1989).
 Olmsted’s original plan for Jackson Park, Appendix H, reflects the winding paths of a naturalistic landscape rather than the ridged lines later dictated by Burnham.
 Appendix I depicts the formal lines of the Great Lagoon and fountain that compliment Burnham’s overarching Neoclassical style.
 Appendix J depicts the trees of Olmsted’s Wooded Island, framing the Palace of Fine Arts in the way that repoussoir frame an English Landscape painting.
 Appendix K and L contrast the difference between the arid grounds of the Estate compared with a photo taken four decades later.
 Contrast Biltmore’s extravagance of Biltmore’s Pergola in Appendix M with an Appalachian “one room cabin” in Appendix N.
 For a view of Pisgah National Forest from Asheville, NC, see Appendix 15.