Widely considered to be the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted was also a social critic who rose to prominence for designing many well-known urban parks with his partner Calvert Vaux, including Prospect Park and Central Park in New York City. He was heavily involved in the planning and preservation of state and national parks and created the master plan for the 1983 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Olmsted and his firm designed dozens of college campuses including the master plans for Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley.
His successor firm, the Olmsted Brothers, carried on the legacy, adding to some of their father’s initial projects, as well as designing many new ones, including plans for the young University of Idaho campus. In March of 1906, the Administration Building, the university’s landmark and major structure, was destroyed by fire, casting the university’s 202 students out into the windy Palouse. University President James McLean chose John E. Tourtellotte, architect of Idaho’s Capitol, to design a new Administration Building. Thinking of the university’s future, McLean contacted America’s premier landscape architecture firm, the Olmsted Brothers.
The University’s grounds were relatively sparse and open in the early twentieth century compared to our campus today. The ‘new’ Administration building dominated the skyline with juvenile trees in the lawn to the east. Students now play tennis where there were once gardens for agricultural classes.
John C. Olmsted’s plan for the University of Idaho – a sketch and 25 page report were sent to President McLean in 1908. “The greater part of the land proposed to be added east…should be improved…so that the main group of University buildings would forever have a handsome, dignified frontage, and so it would be kept open to view from the railroad and the city.” Olmsted wrote:
“The University as a whole, both grounds and buildings, without a suggestion of lavishness or over decoration, ought to exhibit clearly, in all its outward appearance, the fact that it is the place of work and of residence of cultivated and careful people.”An interpretive panel marking Olmsted's 1908 Master Plan is located east of the Administration Lawn in the North Maple Grove. This site is the original main approach to the Administration Building, which featured a curving drive flanked by maples. John C. Olmsted objected to this design as it divided the grounds into two parts, noting that the trees lining it were “very markedly stiff and formal, and so entirely out of harmony with the naturalistic style.” He wrote in his report that the drive should be removed. By 1920, the road was gone and planted over, but you can still see the trees which mark the course of the old drive through the center of the green. The central campus has been further enhanced by the closure of several interior roads, a development which the pedestrian-favoring Olmsted would heartily endorse.
Today, the enduring legacy of the Olmsteds lives on as the University of Idaho Landscape Architecture program draws students from around the world to study in one of the most diverse bioregions in the nation. Our program prepares professional landscape architects to design and create innovative outdoor spaces that solve complex problems to improve lifestyles, communities and the environment.