O Little Town of Riverside, by Mary A. Osborne

Frederick Law Olmsted’s village in the woods

Along the banks of a winding river, where the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa once lived, a small village lies still and silent as ancient Bethlehem. Ten miles from Chicago and centuries away, follow a maze of curvilinear roads that bend gently as the waterway and lead, by turns, to wooded groves, grassy glades, and picturesque parks grown lush—nearly wild—with native flora. Meander slowly, follow the whims of the town’s creator, the gentle turnings that lead to serendipitous scenes of nature, so they seem. When at last the sun sets low in the sky, painting streaks of crimson behind an elaborate water tower, the lampposts light the way, shining softly in the gloaming. 

With the roads slightly sunken from the curb, the long commons and choreographed parkways create the illusion, from a distance, of an uninterrupted expanse of green, a rural idyll. Growing up here in the seventies, the daughter of artists, I understood Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) was the visionary who dreamt up our corner of Eden. That he had designed New York’s Central Park, the U.S. Capitol Grounds, and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition too hardly mattered. I was surrounded by his legacy, knew him by the open fields where I played, the Fourth of July parade float bearing his name, and my daily walk to school—the unworried ramble through a grassy park that I would wish for every child. Wherever I went, the holy balm of nature seeped into my skin as naturally and unnoticed as sunlight. 

The first elms fell to blight and the cobblestones disappeared beneath asphalt, but a lamplighter from the old days would find his way. Like the mythical Scottish village Brigadoon, invisible to the outside world and untouched through the centuries, Riverside stands frozen in time by a spell of enchantment. The baroque town hall, stone railroad station, and Gothic Revival church still stand, as do gracious old homes with steep gables and wide porches for passing the time in a summer breeze. The town’s story began in 1868 when the Riverside Improvement Company hired Olmsted along with his partner, architect Calvert Vaux (1824-1895), to transform sixteen hundred acres of land, mostly flat prairie, into residential plots.

Olmsted’s design called for the best of the land—and nearly one third of the town’s total area—to be reserved for public use. With far-reaching vision, he planted the open spaces with abandon, adding “no less than seven thousand evergreens, thirty-two thousand deciduous trees, and forty-seven thousand shrubs.”1 The grand archways of elms were still there in the 1930s when my father was a boy growing up on Olmsted Road. The son of Czechoslovakian immigrants, he lived with his parents and two sisters in a white-stucco bungalow on a lot set thirty feet back from the road, the minimum specified in the village plan. The Chicago suburb that came to resemble a New England-style village beneath a canopy of trees was never intended as exclusive acreage for the exaggerated mansions of the wealthy, but for the modest homes of the middle class, an affordable and healthful alternative to the stresses and strains of life in an industrial city spewing black smoke from coal-fired chimneys.

Look further back, to Olmsted’s youth, to find the seeds that were nurtured and watered over decades, becoming in time a philosophy of landscape art that prioritized service to human needs over aesthetic theory, personal profit, or recognition. As a boy, riding with his father through the gently undulating countryside near the family home in Hartford, Connecticut, Olmsted awoke to the natural wonders around him, a vision of glistening green hills, large leafy trees, white houses with picket fences, church steeples here and there. At the age of twenty-two, he delved deeper into nature’s mysteries when he read Solitude Considered, with Respect to Its Influence Upon the Mind and the Heart, by the eighteenth-century Swiss physician Johann Georg von Zimmermann. 

Separated from home, family, and his beloved mountains of Berne when called upon to treat Frederick the Great, Zimmermann was laid low by profound melancholia. In an era before antidepressant drugs, the physician managed to make a full recovery, which he ascribed to daily walks in a friend’s English-style garden.2 The anecdotal account was noted more than two hundred years ago, but its modern iteration appears as a 2021 study that considered the relationship between urban green space and happiness in developed countries. Using data from high-resolution satellite imagery and the 2018 World Happiness Report, researchers discovered that in wealthy nations, happiness is strongly associated with urban green space scores.

Take seriously the consoling qualities of nature, researchers from the University of Illinois agree. They examined police crime reports for inner-city apartment buildings with varying levels of vegetation and found that buildings with greener surroundings reported lower incidents of crime.4 And there is good news if you live near a wood: forest bathing has been shown to improve cardiovascular function, immunity, and psychological health.5 Science confirms what we’ve always known in our hearts: solace is found in the felicities, abundance, and goodness of Mother Nature. 

Ahead of his time, with pensive blue eyes, wavy hair and mustache, Olmsted came to realize that the planning of parks and towns offered novel means of combining his disparate passions for social reform and landscaping. It would not be until the age of forty-three that he fully committed to his true calling, although at thirty-six he had already designed Central Park—a commission he and Calvert Vaux earned after winning a public competition for their naturalistic “Greensward” plan. His defining role as a landscape architect came later, following a path as circuitous as the roads he liked best.

At the age of sixteen, with tremendous zeal for the out-of-doors, Olmsted trained as a surveyor, acquiring useful skills that he set aside two years later. He went on to work as an apprentice clerk for an importer of French silks, learned accounting and bookkeeping but soon grew restless. At twenty-one, yearning for adventure, he spent a year before the mast as a green hand on the China-bound Ronaldson, became deathly ill with scurvy but discovered a well of inner strength. Possessed of a sincere interest in scientific farming, young Frederick sat in on classes at Yale, where his brother was a student, but he never enrolled due to eye problems from sumac poisoning.

With funds from his endlessly patient father, he purchased a small farm on Staten Island, invested in dwarf European pear trees, enhanced the farmhouse grounds, and added water plants to the barnyard pond. He studied the teachings of eighteenth-century landscape gardeners—Uvedale Price, Humphry Repton, and William Gilpin—and the writings of Andrew Jackson Downing, a celebrated horticulturist of Olmsted’s own time. He wrote books and magazine articles, became a partner in a publishing company, and established himself as a reformist and anti-slavery advocate.

Nearing middle age, Olmsted became recognized for his organizational abilities, unshakable resolve, attention to detail, and scrupulous honesty—skills that led to his appointment as executive secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the precursor to the Red Cross, during the Civil War. In 1863, while employed as manager of California’s largest gold mine, he discovered the sublimity of Yosemite and championed the cause for public accessibility to the wilderness he found so invigorating yet tranquilizing to the mind. A man of letters and diverse talents, bearing the noblest ideals of the Reconstruction era, Olmsted carried his broad expertise and gift of foresight to cities and campuses across the country. And to my sleepy hometown, a village in the woods.

The pleasure of public parks, ubiquitous in Riverside and today’s cities, did not exist in the democratic America of Olmsted’s youth. Vacant land was meant for growing corn and cotton, a formal pleasure garden with a pond for adorning the estates of the elite. In 1850, when Olmsted was twenty-eight, a trip to England provided inspiration for the famous landscapes he would one day design. After summer planting, the young gentleman farmer packed his bag, left the work of his seaside farm to hired men, and promised his father to return in time for harvest. Along with his brother and a friend, he journeyed by sea and was soon meeting with British nurserymen and farmers, studying English drainage systems and rural scenery. He was buying buns at a Liverpool bakery, talking with the baker and comparing the merits of American flour to French flour, when he learned of Birkenhead Park.6

Leaving their knapsacks at the shop, Olmsted and his traveling companions headed off on foot to see the new park for themselves. England’s famous gardener and builder of conservatories, John Paxton, had only recently laid out the park when Olmsted came to visit. One hundred twenty acres of formerly flat farmland had become a garden with ponds, random clumps of trees, rolling meadows, and winding footpaths. The park was a triumph, a destination to be enjoyed by people of all classes, from the most privileged to the humblest laborer.7 Impressed, Olmsted sought out the head gardener, took notes that would become an article, then later a chapter in his book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England. There was nothing comparable to Birkenhead in America, but there would be, even if Olmsted didn’t know it at the time.

Although contrived, Olmsted’s famous landscapes convincingly conjure, through slight of hand, the appearance of unbound vista, mimicking the glorious handiwork of the divine Creator. The art of emulating effortless nature involved painstaking work that required, as much as creative skill, the ability to marshal immense resources, to persuade money-minded businessmen and shortsighted civic leaders. His livelihood was a labor of love for the common good, and particularly for the health and welfare of the downtrodden, the uneducated, the careworn laborer and immigrant. In his report to the commissioners regarding his plans for Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Olmsted wrote of the higher purpose of urban parks and the aim to engender a sense of enlarged freedom.8 For people who live in confined quarters or limiting circumstances, the parks offer an escape hatch of inestimable value. 

When I was a young girl, my artist parents fought fiercely as Titans, their voices raging like tempests through our house and beyond the red brick walls. I could disappear into the refuge of our yard that stretched to infinity with its tall green backdrop, a secret passage to other worlds. I could fly away on my bright yellow Schwinn, ride the labyrinth of winding parkways, soar past historic homes designed by Joseph L. Silsbee and Frank Lloyd Wright, their stately elegance concealing troubling secrets of their own. I was free but protected, held upright by the trees and the town, by the caring watchfulness of the neighbors who knew me.

An aggrieved teenager seeking to rise above through loftiness, I read Walden, found sympathetic companionship in Henry David Thoreau, Olmsted’s contemporary. Thoreau’s reverence for nature and his transcendentalist principles of individualism, self-reliance, and brotherhood cast their subtle influence on Olmsted,9 whose more pragmatic response to societal ills involved horses and manpower, steam engines and stone crushers. In a Midwestern town amid the Vietnam era, so sadly tarnished by disappointments, corruption, and loss, these idealistic voices from the past reassured, insisting on the goodness of nature and the dignity of humankind.

Like Thoreau and his group of writers and philosophers, Olmsted believed scenery held authentic healing power, its bright blooms showering mercies upon us, its abundant greenery easing assorted ills of the body, and of the mind and emotions. The experience of walking through an expansive landscape, if infinite only in appearance, arouses feelings of personal liberty and at the same time restores one’s innate sense of belonging and connection to the natural world. A cabin retreat on Walden Pond and a gentleman’s farm on Staten Island were fancies of the elite, but a park within a short walk from home was and is a possibility. Olmsted grasped the potential for these outdoor spaces to foster connections with neighbors, bringing people of diverse backgrounds together, growing the bonds of community.

There were no strangers among us in Riverside; we were one tribe, a flawed family sharing triumphs and tragedies. Petty grievances arose, casual cruelties endured. Yet on the Fourth of July, everyone lined the roads for the parade and gathered afterwards at the common. There were costume contests and games, the firemen’s water fight, lemonade and brownies in fenceless backyards. The magic is still there by the grove, amid the fields, in the old climbing tree with the low horizontal limb, at the scout cabin on the banks of the Des Plaines River in Indian Gardens—the very place where the town’s ancient past rises up from the mist and stands in wait of clearheaded reconciliation. Former transgressions cannot be undone, but Olmsted knew scenery held the power to transform. The way was not clear, the process was unconscious, he theorized. “Gradually and silently the charm comes over us; we know not exactly where or how.”10

Memories are softened by the haze of nostalgia, the sharpest stones worn smooth by the passing of decades. But when I return to my hometown and follow the slow bends of the river, visit the little school amid a grassy park with the climbing tree, my childhood sorrows and joys are still there, each one bearing its own strange beauty and indelible hue. Benevolent nature never promised to forestall suffering, but the trees stretched their arms out wide, creating a circle of protection, standing close during misfortune and loss. Riverside became the haven our suburbs and towns could have been, what they should strive to be. The words of Andrew Downing speak to us as they once spoke to Olmsted: Plant spacious parks in your cities, and unloose their gates as wide as the gates of the morning to the whole people.11 Then our children will know a glad legacy left to them by their loving fathers and mothers, who in their infinite wisdom looked far into the distance. ◆

1 Rybcznski, Witold, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century. Scribner, New York, 2003, p. 293-295.

2 Beveridge, Charles E. “Olmsted—His Essential Theory: Influence of von Zimmermann and Bushnell.” National Association for Olmsted Parks, www.olmsted.org/the-olmsted-legacy/olmsted-theory-and-design-principles/olmsted-his-essential-theory. Accessed 16 June 2023.  

3 Kwon, OH., Hong, I., Yang, J. et al. Urban green space and happiness in developed countries. EPJ Data Sci. 10, 28 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1140/epjds/s13688-021-00278-7. Accessed 16 June 2023.

4 Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2001). Environment and Crime in the Inner City: Does Vegetation Reduce Crime? Environment and Behavior, 33(3), 343–367. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916501333002. Accessed 16 June 2023.

5 Wen, Y., Yan, Q., Pan, Y. et al. Medical empirical research on forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku): a systematic review. Environ Health Prev Med 24, 70 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12199-019-0822-8. Accessed 16 June 2023.

6 Rybczynski, pp. 84-86.

7 Ibid., p. 93.

8 Olmsted, Frederick Law, and Calvert Vaux, “Preliminary Report to the Commissioners for Laying out a Park in Brooklyn, New York: Being a Consideration of Circumstances of Site and Other Conditions Affecting the Design of Pubic Pleasure Grounds. I. Van Anden’s Print, Brooklyn, 1866, p. 5. Internet Archive archive.org/details/preliminaryrepor1866olms/mode/2up?q=enlarged. Accessed 17 June 2023.

9 Nicholson, Carol J. “Elegance and Grass Roots: The Neglected Philosophy of Frederick Law Olmsted.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, vol. 40, no. 2, 2004, pp. 335–48. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40320995. Accessed 16 June 2023.

10 Beveridge, Charles E. “Olmsted—His Essential Theory: Influence of von Zimmermann and Bushnell.” National Association for Olmsted Parks, www.olmsted.org/the-olmsted-legacy/olmsted-theory-and-design-principles/olmsted-his-essential-theory. Accessed 16 June 2023.

11 Downing A.J., et al. Rural Essays. G.P. Putnam, New York, 1853, p. 152. Google Books, books.google.com/books?id=pTBbtQEACAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=plant%20spacious%20parks&f=false. Accessed 15 June 2023.

This piece is excerpted from the Winter 2023 issue of Parabola, COMFORT & JOY. You can find the full issue on our online store.