Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Now part of the U.S. National Park Service, the home and office of landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted is a pilgrimage for architects and gardeners alike. Fortunately for me, its location in Brookline, MA is just over an hour’s drive from where I live. Olmsted’s home, called Fairstead, has been transformed into a museum with exhibits about his life, work, and legacy. The experience is likewise divided into three parts. Visitors can freely visit the exhibits and grounds on a self-guided tour, take a Design Office Tour inside the house with a park ranger, and take a Landscape Tour with another park ranger. The park is open Thursday through Sunday and is fee-free, so all activities are available for no charge.

Front entrance of Fairstead at Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site; a red wooden house with green trim, a front door bump out, and a pair of red brick chimneys.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
Fairstead viewed from the garden; A three-quarters view of a red wooden house with green trim, flanked by trimmed trees.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett

Fairstead was constructed as a farmhouse in 1810 and purchased by Olmsted to serve as both living quarters and an office. Exhibits detail the life of Olmsted, his family, his business, and his designs. A video screen in what was once a design office displays images of Olmsted’s landscape designs from across the United States, including the Emerald Necklace in Boston. The exhibits inside Fairstead are open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The building underwent renovation leading up to Olmsted 200 and has been declared by NPS to be “fully accessible to those people with mobility issues”.

Park rangers lead tours of the Olmsted design office, which start in the atrium of Fairstead. The ranger unlocks a door separating the main living area of the house from the office space. These rooms contain thousands of paper artifacts created by Olmsted’s landscape design company while researching for clients. The company used multiple techniques for organizing their information, including drawers built to the exact size of a portfolio folder and labeled with a number representing the physical location of the landscape. Olmsted’s company made use of modern technology, including typewriters and printers. The Printing Department room is dedicated to a large “Wagenhorst” automatic electric blue printer, which created blue-and-white copies of the architects’ works for clients to review. This is why modern drawings of buildings are still called blueprints.

Floor-to-ceiling wooden drawers with numbered labels, an analog research repository
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
Typewriter in the Olmsted Repository Room; The typewriter is connected to a long table, designed to allow long pieces of paper to fit into the machine.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
Blueprint preparing space with several long tables put together in an L shape
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett

Despite Olmsted’s labeling system, the office archives are messy. One member of the staff, jokingly called “The General” by junior employees, was in charge of making sure all designs, material, and models were returned to their proper place after use. Although Olmsted employed only men as architects and designers, several women worked in the firm to manage the archives and correspondence with clients. Even with this attempted organization, the archives are unwieldy, and researchers still struggle to locate artifacts.

A black Remington typewriter on a wooden desk against a wooden wall.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
Basement Archive at Fairsted; a room full of wooden mobile shelving units. 
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett

Design Office Tours take place on the half hour from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with tours lasting up to 45 minutes. This portion of the house is accessible only by a pair of steep stairs and is therefore inaccessible to those using a wheelchair or with other mobility issues. A video tour is available upon request.

While Olmsted was the leading landscape architect of his time and is well-remembered today, the grounds around Fairstead are not super exciting. I suppose that once he was done with work, he did not want to be bothered with a fancy yard. Landscape Tours take place on the hour from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., with tours lasting around 30 minutes. The “Hollow”, a sunken garden, is not accessible for those using a wheelchair. However, a fellow guest using a cane was able to navigate the stairs with some assistance.

As noted previously in this post, Frederick Law Olmsted NHS has a higher level of accessibility and accommodations than most other house tours. While visiting the entirety of the site may not be possible for everyone, NPS makes a concerted effort to provide an enriching historical experience regardless of ability or age. The Junior Ranger book is a fun activity for children with families, or those like me who are young at heart and a bit obsessed with Junior Ranger badges and cute certificates. On the day I visited, the park provided high quality paper and watercolor pencils for a plein-air session on the lawn.

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Abigail Epplett

Abigail Epplett leads a dual life as a freelance digital marketing consultant for small humanities-focused organizations and as a customer experience design creative specialist at lab equipment manufacturer Waters Corporation. She holds an MA in Museum Education from Tufts University, where she researched the history of New England from Plymouth to the Civil War. To learn more about her adventures with museums, visit her current blog at abbyeppletthistorian.blogspot.com.