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Although captivated throughout his career by large, rural parks, during his later years Frederick Law Olmsted became intrigued by the social possibilities created by small urban spaces. Small neighborhood parks, playgrounds and squares might provide opportunities for respite from the congestion and noise of urban life.
Frederick Law Olmsted
When Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to design a park system for Louisville he was already the acknowledged father of American landscape design, famous for his work on Central Park in New York City, the U.S. Capitol Grounds, and the Biltmore Estate grounds. Olmsted’s greatest achievement, however, was his concept of creating a system of parks connected to tree-lined parkways, instead of freestanding parks as was the common practice of his day. His concept was most fully realized in Louisville, the ultimate and last park system of his career, and one of only four such Olmsted systems in the world.
It was quite a revolutionary idea for the turn of the century. Olmsted was invited to Louisville in 1891 by a group of prominent citizens to survey the land they had acquired for parks. The group was so impressed following his presentation they immediately contracted with his firm for development of a master plan for three large multi-purpose parks. Olmsted’s designs for Cherokee, Iroquois and Shawnee Parks took advantage of the topographical elements unique to each sector of the city and provided for a system of interconnecting parkways to link them.
The major parks and parkways brought access and neighborhoods began to spring up on surrounding lands. As Louisville continued to grow, the city’s leaders recognized the need for small, inner-city parks and playgrounds and looked to the Frederick Law Olmsted’s firm for guidance. In all, Olmsted and his successor firm developed plans for 18 parks and 6 parkways that today comprise Louisville’s historic park system.
These parks achieve Frederick Law Olmsted’s social vision. As the source of healthful inspiration – through mental, physical and social recreation – the parks provide a respite to the stresses of modern city life. They provide spaces where people can come together to create a stronger community. Our parks exhibit all the classic physical elements of an Olmsted park: graceful topography and alignments; ease and accessibility; balance of uses; expression of native character and use of native materials; separation of traffic modes; and subjugation of built elements to nature.
The Frederick Law Olmsted Parks are a magnificent work of art that must be preserved to continue their enormous contribution to the quality of life in Louisville. They are an incomparable gift from a remarkable civic partnership that, a century ago, championed planning, raised substantial money, and summoned the goodwill and resources of the community at large. The landscapes in and around the parks remain a crucial resource for serving the cultural and recreational needs of the public.