How Frederic Church & Frederick Olmsted joined forces to Create the Modern American Park

by William L. Coleman, Ph.D.


Olana visitors often ask, “Was this place designed by Frederick Law Olmsted?”

The pioneering landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted earned widespread recognition for landscape design in the United States and, with his partner Calvert Vaux, created well-loved and iconic green spaces like New York’s Central Park and Prospect Park.

The artist Frederic Church, the primary designer of Olana, was an equally prominent figure in his field, a globe-striding 19th-century creative talent. Church earned rapturous receptions and significant profits on both sides of the Atlantic for his monumental, scientifically rigorous canvases of ambitious, far-flung subjects like The Heart of the Andes, Niagara, and The Icebergs (The North).

“A quiet, retired man—a model of rank and file citizenship—but who in his special calling has earned the respect & regard of the community,”

During the 19th-century, few literate Americans would have been unaware of these figures who dramatically changed the world around them, but Church and Olmsted knew each other and of each other’s work. Together, they helped establish parks and protected areas that were cornerstones for American outdoor recreation and environmental preservation.
The two grew up as distant cousins in Hartford, Connecticut, and then moved in the same Manhattan circles as adults, including mutual membership of the elite art and literary club The Century Association.

The Century might be where Olmsted approached Church, already the most famous artist in America, with the request to show three of his most admired canvases in support of the Union cause at the 1864 New York Sanitary Fair, a major benefit exhibition during the Civil War. This is their first known collaboration: Church’s art combined with Olmsted’s organizational talents to make a landmark exhibition that led directly to the founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of which Church would be a founding trustee and donor of art.

With Church’s established reputation as the model of a civically engaged artist, it is easy to see why Olmsted and Vaux thought to bring on Church as one of four to five Commissioners of the New York City Department of Parks in 1871. It is in this context that Olmsted gave his clearest statement of his respect for Church, writing in explanation of the appointment:
“There is, I think a peculiar propriety and significance in it. A quiet, retired man—a model of rank and file citizenship—but who in his special calling has earned the respect and regard of the community, called at last to serve the public in an office where his special training will be of value, in place of a professional politician . . . We were anxious on a matter of propriety that the art element should be recognized—that the public utility of devotion to art & the study of nature in a public service of this kind should be recognized and Church seemed on the whole the most appropriate and respectable man to express this,” wrote Olmsted to Charles Loring Brace, November 24, 1871.

Church ended up serving as a commissioner for only two years due to his other commitments. Even after he ended his service, Church continued to make lasting contributions to the public art of Central Park. He continued to serve as a member of the Committee on Statues in the Park and co-authored an influential report on April 25, 1873. This document advocated for the preservation of the natural character of the Park by strictly limiting the use of sculptures honoring individuals except in certain contained areas. Through this policy, Church ensured the placement of the Egyptian obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle close to the Metropolitan Museum, where it remains on a base Church helped design.
A few years later, Church and Olmsted combined their efforts to restore and preserve Niagara Falls. Their efforts helped form the Niagara Reservation, now the oldest continuously operating State Park in the United States.

“My attention was first called to the rapidly approaching ruin of its characteristic scenery by Mr. F. E. Church, about ten years ago,” said Olmsted.

Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara Falls, From the American Side, 1867. Oil on canvas, 101 x 89 inches. National Galleries of Scotland, Presented by John S Kennedy 1887, NG 799. Photographer: Antonia Reeve

At the time, the rushing water at Niagara was a tempting power source that was ripe for exploitation. Early conservationists of the era condemned the destructive industrialization of Niagara. Church and Olmsted’s hard work secured its safe future where others had failed.

“Some years since while Mr. F. E. Church was one of our Park Commissioners [1871-2], he showed me in his studio an original sketch of Niagara, and the conversation naturally turned on its present disadvantageous surroundings both on the American and the Canadian side, and on the desirability of securing to the public all that was really essential to a full enjoyment of its beauties. I remember Church’s then mentioning quite incidentally that he was under the impression that a close study of the subject in the future would show that it would be quite feasible and perhaps desirable to improve the artistic effect on the American side…” wrote Calvert Vaux in the New-York Tribune, October 5, 1878.

The two had a collaborative work history together. Yet, in 1889, Olmsted attempted to minimize Church’s part in preserving the falls, claiming the idea was more generally in the ether at the time. However, there is proof that Church was a key figure in launching the project in earnest. There is also intriguing evidence that Church’s involvement in the project did not end with his advocacy to colleagues at the Tenth Street Studio Building or The Century Association.

Church used his gift for networking to advocate for the preservation of Niagara Falls directly to the Governor-General of Canada, Lord Dufferin, which resulted in documented public speeches on the topic by Dufferin and the formation of Queen Victoria Park on the Canadian side.

Thanks to Church and Olmsted, visitors from around the world can enjoy the natural wonder of Niagara Falls as a fully protected natural treasure.

The legacies of these nineteenth-century lives continue to be felt in their publicly accessible works: Olana State Historic Site, Heart of the Andes, Niagara Reservation, Central Park, and more. Through their multiple encounters, mutual inspirations, and collaborations in the second half of the nineteenth century, Frederic Edwin Church and Frederick Law Olmsted combined efforts to change forever how Americans view the aesthetic and social potential of the natural world.