Study Guide

Frederick Law Olmsted in The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

By Erik Larson

Frederick Law Olmsted

Olmsted's kind of a big deal...and by "kind of a big deal," we mean that this is the dude who's known as the Big Daddy of American landscape architecture. Still not impressed? This guy designed NYC's Central Park, San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the layout for UC Berkeley and Stanford, and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Building, to name a few.

Not only does he have a reputation for "brilliance and tireless devotion to his work" (1.4.21), but his consulting fee alone was roughly thirty thousand in today's dollars.

Dubbed the "Wizard of Central Park" (1.4.3) for his contributions to landscape architecture, Olmstead is approached by exposition board member James Ellsworth. Perhaps he'd like to take on the task of designing the fair's landscape? Olmsted declines. He doesn't do fairs. He deems that this kind of project takes decades to plan, not months.

But after some thought, Olmstead sees the exposition as an opportunity to achieve something great.

Throughout his career he had struggled, with little success, to dispel the perception that landscape architecture was simply an ambitious sort of gardening and to have his field recognized instead as a distinct branch of the fine arts, full sister to painting, sculpture, and brick-and-mortar architecture. (1.4.9)

Olmstead comes around and agrees to help. All for the sake of landscape architecture, naturally.

Olmsted likes Burnham right away, and Olmstead sees his new partner as "decisive, blunt, and cordial" (1.4.22). The two know that they'll work together well, and they do. Olmstead helps to create some of the fair's most magnificent landscape features, including the fair's centerpiece, Wooden Island.