National Geographic : 2005 Mar
IHELONGVIEW Biltmore listate .Aslhrille, North (Caroililn years. The archival abundance here can over whelm you, unless you have already dropped by the Library of Congress, where the architect's paper legacy occupies shelf space the linear equivalent of a football field. Olmsted had moved from New York to Bos ton's most distinguished suburb in 1881 and later purchased the farmhouse he called Fair sted. It served as both office for his busy firm and home base for his extended family-wife Mary, their two children, and her own three from a previous marriage to John Hull Olmsted, Fred erick's brother and dearest friend who had died, age 32, while Frederick was starting to tackle the challenge of Central Park. Two of the chil dren-John Charles and Frederick Law Jr. would come of age as full partners in the firm and carry its work well into the 20th century. By the 1880s Olmsted's accumulating ailments were beginning to take their toll. He suffered from chronic insomnia. A twice-injured leg had forced him to take up a cane. Periodic bouts of depression plagued him. At the same time, according to his most definitive biographer, Laura Wood Roper, he was carrying "a heavy burden of professional works, some of stagger ing complexity.... There was a curious dispar ity between his passion for the contemplative enjoyment of scenery and his compulsion to work to his utmost limit." Two works in particular challenged Olmsted in the final decade of his life-George Washing ton Vanderbilt's great estate, Biltmore, near Ashe ville, North Carolina, and a design for the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. For Olmsted, the grounds of the Columbian Exposition were familiar territory. With Vaux, some 20 years earlier, he had drafted a plan for a thousand-acre pleasuring ground in Chicago -Jackson Park on the lakeshore, Washington Park on prairie land to the west, and, connect ing them, a broad greenway called the Midway Plaisance. The Chicago fire of 1871 had delayed that scheme, but now Jackson Park, with its inner lagoon and lake views, and part of the Midway were up and running as the site of the fair. Olmsted's vision for the fair was by far his most daring and exotic. To offset the overpowering, 50 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MARCH 2005 The Biltmore Estate was one of Olmsted's finest landscapes and included a six-acre lagoon that re flects the majestic house. Here, frail and nearing 70, he wrote a friend: "I have raised my calling from the rank of a trade... [to] an Art, an Art of design." almost blinding, effect of the exposition's mas sive white buildings (newspapers referred to the fairgrounds as the "White City"), he insist ed on dense displays of luxuriant foliage; 75 rail road flatcars were needed just to deliver his order for aquatic plants. And to give the lagoon eye catching cachet, he called for a fleet of birchbark canoes with Native American paddlers, in deer skins, darting among flotillas of Chinese sam pans and "Esquimaux kiacks." But his time was winding down. He was get ting forgetful. He was obliged to leave the im portant work to others. He wrote to a friend that he feared he might be institutionalized in an asy lum, and it wasn't long before he was. Frederick Law Olmsted died at the McLean Hospital at two o'clock in the morning of August 28, 1903. He was 81.