Olmsted documentary airs Friday night on PBS

Jun 20, 2014

The WNED production of "Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America" premieres Friday at 9 p.m.  nationally on PBS.  The documentary focuses on the man who is enjoying renewed acclaim for his many landscape designs, including many of Buffalo's parks.

The hour-long documentary will air Friday night at 9 across on PBS, including in Buffalo on WNED-TV.

"As I did more 19th century history films, I began to appreciate how profound his (Olmsted's) influence was in American society," said Lawrence Hott, the film's director.

"I brought the idea to WNED in Buffalo and they said, 'We've been thinking about him for thirty years,too.' So I said, 'Let's collaborate on this.' I had already done two major films with WNED, one on Niagara Falls and one on the War of 1812. So, this is a natural extension of that."

The partnership may have produced its best effort yet. The film moves easily through Olmsted's many accomplishments from first designing New York's Central Park to influencing nearly every major urban park for the next century. Using exquisite landscape shots and the peerless narration of Stockard Channing, the absorbing documentary provides the details of Olmsted's fascinating life.

Like many visionaries, Olmsted's expertise is less a product of inspiration and more a sum of life's experiences. He didn't proclaim himself a professional "landscape architect" until he was 42.

"He had failed at five or six professions by the time he got to Central Park, but all those professions led him to the landscape architect he became," Hott explained.

"Some of the other professions were farmer, surveyor, sailor, most importantly, reformer and writer. He was actually famous, for awhile, as the writer of a series of over 50 articles about the economics of slavery in the South.  I just want to leap ahead a century. Malcolm X credits some of his radicalization with having read Olmsted while he was in prison. Olmsted, his tentacles reached far and wide."

But his brilliance is best associated with his urban parks; the film describes them as "Theaters of Life." His work starts with Central Park, where he needed to knock down shanties, drain swamps and persevere beyond a myopic boss who didn't share Olmsted's passion for creating pathways, woods and meadows.

The success of Central Park evolved into a design for Brooklyn's Prospect Park and then onto Buffalo where the first system of parkways was installed.

Olmsted's impact was just beginning.

"He works for ten years intensely to save Niagara Falls. He creates Goat Island," Hott explained.

"The Niagara Falls Reservation, which becomes one of the first places to (be) set aside in the United States, which leads directly to the 'Forever Wild' clause in the New York State Constitution which leads directly to the formation of the National Parks Service which leads to the Forest Service which then leads to the Wilderness Act in 1964."

Using animation throughout the film, Hott says he wanted to bring to life the brilliant intricacies of Olmsted's designs.

"Olmsted really believed that a park should not be static. That when you go through a park it reveals something and that it's full of surprises. There are certain classic elements in an Olmsted park that you recognize right away. When you see a serpentine path that goes into.... a bit of woods, and then opens into another area and then an archway that opens into a sort of surprise vista, that's 'Olmstedian.'"

Visitors to Buffalo's parks would understand that description, though they might not use the term "Olmstedian." At least, not yet.

The premiere of the WNED production of "Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America" is tonight at nine across the country on PBS.