Just one year ago on April 22, 2016, The North Carolina Arboretum unveiled the first-ever standing sculpture of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture. Olmsted’s career, vision and influence has touched many – in fact, his vision of building the largest research arboretum on George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate served as an impetus to create The North Carolina Arboretum. While his life may have ended more than 100 years ago, Olmsted’s legacy continues today. This can be seen in the PBS documentary, “Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America,” a co-production of WNED Buffalo/Toronto and Florentine Films/Hott Productions, Inc., which highlights Olmsted’s work and how his projects and ideology have become an essential part of American life.

In honor of Olmsted’s birthday today, principal researcher and consulting producer of the film, Lauren Cotton, shares with us his thoughts on the documentary, his career as a historian and of course, Olmsted.

1.) Your career and professional background is quite extensive. What made you decide to focus on historical documentaries? 

Between writing, filmmaking, public speaking and serving as a guest presenter, I am also a full-time practicing historian – and that has been the case for more than a decade. Though I do cover many subjects, my primary orientation is as an intellectual and environmental historian. As soon as I moved to Portland 22 years ago, I became deeply involved in the Lewis & Clark legacy and ended up becoming one of the planners for the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial, 2003-2006. My first true historical documentary was “C.E.S. Wood” for the Oregon Experience series, which was produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). As a writer, storyteller and someone working in the medium of public television documentaries, I am particularly attracted to complex characters that have led public lives, yet whose stories have not been well documented, or at least not in film.

2.) What led you to produce “Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America?”

I was raised with Frederick Law Olmsted in my backyard – I lived in the suburbs 20 miles west of Boston. When I was young, my maternal grandparents lived near Boston’s Franklin Park, the ostensible “Central Park” for Boston, which is at the end of Olmsted’s famed Emerald Necklace. As a student, I would walk along the Back Bay Fens on my way to visit Boston’s famed museums. I would jog around Jamaica Pond. I learned to botanize at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum. All of those parks integrated into Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace. But like most young people and many local residents, I took all that for granted. I had also visited Central Park in New York City and thought it was nice, but it wasn’t until I walked through the Endale Arch and sighted the Long Meadow at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park that my eyes were really opened. In fact, tears welled up as I was overwhelmed by the meadow’s beauty and the utter perfection of the landscape.

When I moved to Portland, I learned that another Olmsted, stepson John Charles Olmsted, master-planned not only the park system of Portland but also Seattle and Spokane, Washington. I subsequently learned that John Charles Olmsted also designed many of the most beautiful, historic university and college campuses in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. At the same time I picked up the book, “The Devil in the White City,” by Eric Larson, and grew increasingly intrigued by the life story of Frederick Law Olmsted. Then I read Witold Rybczynski’s masterful biography, “A Clearing in the Distance,” and about 1,000 light bulbs went off. I then decided if no one else had yet to produce a full length PBS documentary about this man, then it was high time for it. It was at that point that I approached an old friend back in Massachusetts, Lawrence Hott of Florentine Films/Hott Productions. The rest is history.

3.) How much research and work was involved in the production of the film? 

The entire length of time, from idea to actual broadcast, was around eight years. The time of industrious work on the actual production was around two years. The pre-production research effort that occupied part of my time (and the time of additional members of our production team) was around a three- or four-year period. I originated the film, carried out much of the original research and in the end, served as the consulting producer from start to finish. The film was directed by Lawrence Hott and produced by Larry Hott and his partner Diane Garey, who assembled a very accomplished production team. Working with our executive producers at WNED Buffalo/Toronto, we finally delivered a completed film, and everyone as pleased. With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and other funding sources, we were able to commission original music and hire professional voices for the key roles of the narrator and the voice of Frederick Law Olmsted.

4.) Without giving away too much, was there anything in particular that you found interesting about Frederick Law Olmsted and his legacy after producing the film?

I have certainly not visited every single Olmsted park site. After all, between Olmsted, Sr., his two sons and the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm that was still active in Brookline, Mass. until the late 1970s, there are more than 700 parks across the U.S. and Canada and thousands of additional private commissions, such as the Biltmore Estate, open to the public. The imprint across the U.S. and Canada is far more significant than most people realize. Additionally, as a biographer who works in a visual medium, the life of this amazing man is astounding. His wandering as a young man (geographically, intellectually and career-wise), his engagement with the leading issues of his time, his erudite knowledge and writing on so many topics, and the professional and life challenges that he faced, all make for a remarkable story about a man who survived and offered an astounding legacy for all of us.

As viewers will see, Frederick Law Olmsted was a singular man who engaged fully with the ideas (and certainly some of the controversies) of his time, including social philosophy, aesthetic philosophy, art, literature, conservation and the preservation of natural landscapes, public health, the quality of life in our cities, and slavery. Arguably, Olmsted was one of the key contributors to intellectual and cultural life of America during the second half of the 19th century. Sure, to one degree or another, people know about the masterful parks, but unless they have read the biographies or seen our film, they cannot fully appreciate the other contributions that Olmsted made to our nation.

5.) What are the three most important things that you hope viewers gain from the film? 

It has very hard to reduce this to three takeaways!

  • First, Olmsted’s huge, lasting landscape legacy and imprint of protected spaces across America.
  • Secondly, the “Renaissance Man” quality of his entire career. An outgrowth of Olmsted’s philosophy and his actual park creations set the mold for everything that would follow. Plus, Olmsted had a particular focus on the public health benefits of spending time in nature; not just in our spectacular settings such as our national parks but also the crucial need for accessible green spaces in all our cities.
  • Finally, Olmsted was such a systematic thinker about cities and our urban environments that you could arguably label him one of America’s first urban planners, well before the modern field of urban planning came into existence.

6.) Today is Frederick Law Olmsted’s birthday. If you could give him a present or say something to him, what would you do?

Frederick Law Olmsted was always worried about the future of his parks and their integrity over time. Unfortunately during the 20th century, there were many intrusions into his beautiful spaces and many compromises were made. Other parks were not well looked after, and as neighborhoods changed, urban infrastructures deteriorated, and municipal and county budget shortfalls played out, many parks lost some luster for maintenance and upkeep. Towards the end of the 20th century and into this new century, cities, parks departments, landscape historians and civic leaders have taken notice. Now, thanks to informed, passionate public and private sector leaders and countless Olmsted park conservancies, most of the parks (large and small) are in wonderful shape. Just in the past few months, there has been considerable media attention to such efforts in Boston, Buffalo, Baltimore and Detroit, among other places. I wish I could tell “Papa Olmsted” that.

Additionally, I think Olmsted was a fairly lonely man. Though he did have a loving family and some good friends, nonetheless his earnestness, bouts of dark depression (well documented and self-confessed), personal tragedies and professional struggles, and finally late in life, physical afflictions, all paint a picture of a somewhat lonely man. As a student of the life of Meriwether Lewis, I know something about the afflictions of a man who is highly self-critical and who is so brilliant and single-minded that conflict is not infrequently set up with peers, colleagues and particularly with superiors. After all these years, I myself feel like I have a son/father relationship with Papa Olmsted. I don’t think he was the type of man to indulge in a man hug (nor in the late Victorian age was this typical behavior), but I wish I could reach back in time to give him a reassuring hug or at least a very fond handshake. To let him know that his parks have stood the test in time and that his park and green space legacy and his personal contributions are more powerfully appreciated than ever.

Laurence Cotton will speak more about Olmsted and his film “Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America” during a special viewing on Thursday, May 11, at The North Carolina Arboretum. The event is sold out; however, copies of the film are available for purchase at the Arboretum’s Connections Gallery gift shop.