Regarded as the founder of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) is best known for designing the grounds of New York City's Central Park, the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina and the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Frederick Law Olmsted was born in 1822 in Hartford, Connecticut, and at age eight was sent by his father to receive his schooling from clergymen living in the surrounding countryside. After sickness prevented Olmsted from entering Yale College in 1837, he spent the next two decades traveling and working variously as a successful farmer, writer, journalist and businessman.

Olmsted's career in landscape architecture began in 1857 when he and Calvert Vaux won a competition for the design of New York City's Central Park, of which he had previously been named superintendent. During the next several years he served as architect-in-chief of the park; he also briefly held positions as director of the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War and as manager of a large California gold mine.

In 1873, Congress commissioned Olmsted to design the enlarged grounds of the U.S. Capitol. After careful study, in June 1874 he presented a plan for a sophisticated landscape that highlighted the building it surrounded. His symmetrical design incorporated park-like edging, low walls, lamps, careful placement of trees and simple shrubs, and a series of curved walkways that afforded attractive views of the Capitol. Olmsted later added a brick summerhouse to his design to provide visitors with a drinking fountain and a cool place to rest.

The most ambitious aspect of the plan was a new marble terrace that wrapped around the north, south and west facades. Judging the current earthen terrace unacceptable, Olmsted's new design provided a strong visual foundation for the building and additional space for committee rooms and storage. Due to controversy surrounding a proposed expansion of the Library of Congress, which was at that time still located inside the West front of the Capitol, construction of the terrace was delayed for several years.

Finally, in 1886 a new library building was authorized, and after the design was altered to incorporate more windows for the committee rooms, construction of the terrace was approved. An octagonal fountain in the Romanesque style was added between the grand stairs in 1889, and the terrace was completed by 1892.

Olmsted retired in 1895. During his 38-year career he completed numerous projects, including residential suburbs, city squares, park systems, scenic reservations and university campuses. Following Olmsted's death in 1903, his sons, landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., and John Charles Olmsted, continued their father's work as the Olmsted Brothers.

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Olmsted's Influence

This important figure had an impact in these spaces on Capitol Hill.

Capitol Grounds

The grounds immediately surrounding the U.S. Capitol are bordered by a stone wall and cover an area of 58.8 acres. Its boundaries are Independence Avenue on the south, Constitution Avenue on the north, First Street NE/SE on the east, and First Street NW/SW on the west.

Olmsted Terrace

In 1874, Frederick Law Olmsted was charged with devising a comprehensive landscape scheme for the U.S. Capitol. Olmsted's major concern was the visual presentation of the Capitol Building and the support of its daily functions.

Summerhouse

Construction on the Summerhouse began in 1879 and was completed in late 1880 or early 1881 by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Recent News

Noteworthy Updates

History & Discoveries

Olmsted's Never-Built Retreat

Before it was cut from the budget, Olmsted had begun designing a south summerhouse; his sketches for it have been rediscovered.
Public Notice

Volume 20 of Tholos Magazine Now Available

The latest edition of the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) employee magazine, Tholos, is now available. Articles include a feature on Frederick Law Olmsted’s never-built retreat, an employee highlight on interning during COVID, a spotlight on the agency's sustainability efforts and more.
History & Discoveries

The Architect of the Capitol Sweeps Up the Past

When Jim Kaufmann, Capitol Grounds and Arboretum Director, happened across an 1891 street-sweeping map while going through cultural landscape reports, he had no idea how simple an old map could make caring for the U.S. Capitol Grounds.