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Introduction to the Olmsted National Historic Site Archives

| 6 min read

Did you know the Olmsted Archives is one of the most widely researched museum collections in the National Park System? It contains over 1,000,000 historic documents. Park and city planners from across the United States use these records each year to rehabilitate and rebuild many of the nation’s most significant and beloved landscapes to the lasting benefit of millions of people. Historians, students and preservation planners use the collection to document historic areas and to produce exhibits, films and scholarly publications. And YOU can access them online as well.

Let’s consider the wide range of materials here. The National Park Service has cataloged and conserved the collections which include: landscape photographs, initial surveys, field sketches, general plans, planting lists, presentation drawings, business records and scale models. You can see first-hand notations and revisions of Olmsted, Sr.—thinking and decision-making in action— and how the styles of the Olmsted firm’s generations of successors evolved over the years.

There is more material than can be contained at one site. The surviving records of the Olmsted firm are held primarily at the Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, but even while the firm was still active (before the Historic Site existed), many items were recognized as historically valuable and transferred to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and firm members. The continuum of firm correspondence from 1885-1980 in both locations (1885-1950 at Library of Congress, 1950-1980 in Brookline) is a pretty special thing, and makes up one collection, owned by two institutions. Both collections complement each other and are often best studied in tandem.

The Archival collections held in Brookline date from 1839 to 1980 when the successor firm closed. Think about it: Olmsted, Sr. produced nearly 500 designs in his lifetime and the firm worked on thousands more. So, there is a LOT to explore including: an estimated 139,000 landscape architectural plans and drawings, 70,000 sheets of planting lists, 60,000 photographic prints, 30,000 photographic negatives, 12,000 lithographs, financial records, job correspondence, records and reports, and models relating to over 5,000 design projects. The Archives also contain study and reference collections on urban design, landscape architecture and the fine arts in general. But remember there is even more material in D.C. So how to keep track of it all?

With the Olmsted Research Guide Online (ORGO), it is possible to search a single database for records held in Brookline and D.C. ORGO is the most complete research portal around. Based directly on the firm’s Master List of projects, ORGO enables a search for Olmsted projects through a variety of access points: client name, historic job number, project type, city and state. In addition, ORGO includes a database with basic document information such as date and author/draftsman responsibility, as well as specific information to search digitized correspondence at the Library of Congress. Explore ORGO for yourself, anytime, at

And you don’t need prior knowledge about Olmsted job numbers or clients to explore image scans of many items. Folks of all ages can discover the Olmsted firm’s work visually through our Flickr website. While less comprehensive than ORGO, the Flickr site organizes photos, plans and drawings sequentially into browsable “albums” by Olmsted project number and name, or is searchable within the “Photostream” or “Collections” page. The later albums from “Job #673, F.L. Olmsted Estate” (now Olmsted National Historic Site) are fun. You can find the digitized materials here.

And last but not least is our work-in-progress and newest tool, Olmsted Worldview, which locates the Olmsted projects by GIS (geographic information system) mapping software. (This is our flame decals joining the family station wagon that is ORGO.) But seriously, while research is ongoing and we continue to refine it, Olmsted Worldview can also take you places. Many people walk by or through Olmsted-designed sites that are so “natural looking” they would never know the work behind it. Here’s a chance to explore not only by name or image but by actual places in space to connect the dots (with links to the images in Flickr). To kick the tires of our newest tool, visit Olmsted Worldview here.

So, putting it all together, here’s one example of how our tools and the archival materials can be used to understand how historic designs of the past can be traced in our present: what persists, what evolves and what disappears from site:

The Olmsted firm performed a fair amount of landscape design work for corporations, their surroundings and recreational areas. In the 1930s and ’40s, the Olmsteds designed the grounds for the Western Electric “Hawthorne Plant” just west of Chicago (a town now incorporated as Cicero), as well as the employees’ sports fields at locations that are now Cicero’s town offices.

Here is a screenshot of what you’d find in Olmsted Worldview if you click on the red dot in Cicero:

Clicking on “Images” in the Worldview popup will bring you to the Flickr site’s two albums with nearly 160 digital scans related to the project. Here are a few:

Plan #9198-19, “Central Park Area Hawthorne Works Scheme A-D,” Jan. 20, 1940 (photostat on paper) shows the overall scheme of the park space in the middle of the industrial complex.

Compare this to Plan #9198-18-sh2, Untitled, Dec. 15, 1939 (diazo print with color pencil on paper), which shows a more finished plan, closer to “as built.” Notice the tower, labelled as Building “50” at the right (north) of the plan.

Next, two plans show the design for the extensive fountain of this park. Originally installed at the 1933 “Century of Progress International Exposition” in Chicago, Hildreth Meiere’s fountain, titled “Spirits of Communication,” graced the park’s southern end. See the fountain in Plan #9198-31-sh1, “Plan of Pool Floor,” Jan. 17, 1933 (photostat with colored pencil crayon on paper) and Plan #9198-31-sh2 Untitled [Construction of pool as it exists at World’s Fair], n.d., (photostat on paper).

Last, on the current site (as seen on Google maps satellite view), you’ll see no trace of the “Spirits of Communication” fountain remains. The main lot of land is now a movie theater and parking lot. But the tower (Building “50” on our 1939 plan) is still marked as a landmark, all that remains of “Hawthorne Works.”

I hope you’ll visit our tools, and the National Historic Site, soon!

Anthony Reed is an archivist at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site