We recently found in the CFA library a folder containing 44 black-and-white photographs dating from 1900 to 1930 that are attributed to landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (1870–1957). The photos depict areas of central Washington—among them the Mall, the Washington Monument Grounds, the Tidal Basin—that were redeveloped following Olmsted’s plans.
Olmsted enjoyed a national reputation from a young age. The son of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., who founded the profession of landscape architecture in America and designed New York’s Central Park, Olmsted Jr. assisted on numerous projects and, after his father’s retirement in 1897, took over the Olmsted firm, which remained the country’s most prominent landscape architecture practice for decades.
Olmsted Jr. had an enormous influence on the design of Washington. As a young man, he was a member of the Senate Park (McMillan) Commission of 1901; he was a founding member of the Commission of Fine Arts, serving from 1910 to 1918, and a member of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, serving from 1926 to 1932. Olmsted helped shape a vision of Washington as a city threaded by naturalistic stream valley parks and with monumental public buildings framed by informal yet symmetrical plantings. He and his firm were responsible for the landscape designs for many Washington landmarks, from the Federal Triangle to the National Cathedral. His redesign of the National Mall in the mid-1930s transformed it from a leafy, densely planted Victorian park into a formal arrangement of lawn panels lined with ranks of American elms, emphasizing the primacy of the reciprocal view between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument.
The provenance of these photographs is not known, but their attribution to Olmsted, their location, and their probable date are written on the back of each print. Most have the informal, occasionally unfocused quality of snapshots, but they provide a telling indication of conditions in Washington’s monumental core at the time—and may point to Olmsted’s concerns as he explored the city and imagined its future.
Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are in the collection of the Commission and are available for use and publication by researchers.