TV review

A well-timed look at architect of American parks

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2011

As the holidays end, Christmas lights darken and the city settles in for the frigid winter months, an inconspicuous and intriguing documentary makes its television debut and reminds us of the simple joy of sitting outside in the sunshine.

Never mind that just stepping outdoors will be fairly intolerable for many weeks. It's still possible to appreciate "The Olmsted Legacy: America's Urban Parks," which explores the life and philosophy of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The premiere airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on Washington public television station WHUT (Channel 32).

The hour-long film, written and co-produced by writer and first-time filmmaker Rebecca Messner, and screened around the country, expertly weaves facts about Olmsted's (frankly, depressing) personal life in with a timeline of how he used his tragedies and eccentricities to became an influential figure in American history.

Known as one of the inventors of landscape architecture and a legendary urban planner from the 19th century, Olmsted is most famous for helping design and create Manhattan's Central Park, cited many times in the film as the crown jewel of America's urban parks, along with hundreds of other parks, academic institutions and public and private buildings across the country.

His accomplishments include famous sites in the District. Credit Olmsted for the aesthetics of Rock Creek Park, the National Zoo, American University and Gallaudet University. The documentary, however, doesn't spend much time on his projects in the nation's capital, squeezing a few sentences between longer segments about his designs in Boston and Chicago.

The film does note that one of Olmsted's most recognized works is the grounds of the Capitol, for which he submitted a design in the mid-1870s. "Olmsted found a way of subordinating his landscape to the architecture," the narrator says.

Olmsted's philosophy on parks - simply put, that they should be glorious, wide-open spaces where anyone, rich or poor, can escape the stress of everyday life - can be traced back to his childhood. Born in Hartford, Conn., in 1822, he had few memories of his mother, who died when he was young; one of them included her sewing under a tree while he played nearby. Idyllic memories of nature shaped the rest of his life, as he traded in academics to gallivant around the world and bask in the great outdoors.

"At the time my schoolmates were entering college I was . . . given over to a decently restrained vagabond life," Olmsted says, his soft-spoken words voiced by Kevin Kline. Olmsted's adventures, including a stint as a deckhand on a boat to China that nearly killed him, helped him identify with the common man. He realized that the beautiful green landscapes of public parks could uplift even the poorest citizens, most trapped in extremely unsanitary conditions in cities.

"What he stresses about parks is that you got away from the city to receive the psychological calm that you needed," says Sara Cedar Miller of the Central Park Conservancy, one of the many historians called in for the project. "That 'mental refreshment' is what he called it, and that's what he was really searching for and assumed everybody else was searching for."

Messner wisely taps into a very relatable part of Olmsted's personality: being a workaholic. As more sadness struck - illness, injury, the death of his brother and the loss of a newborn son to cholera - Olmsted made his career his only passion.

"He was troubled. He had a sad life," Miller says. "He understood and needed the calm and the quiet and the peacefulness."

Sadly, the film's narrator explains, as Olmsted tried to bring a sense of peace to others with his projects, it was his intensity about work that led to his deteriorating health. As he suffered from insomnia, fatigue and headaches, doctors could only conclude that he worked himself sick. He died in 1903 at 81, after being placed in a hospital in Massachusetts that he had helped design (and becoming infuriated when he found out they hadn't stuck to his plan for the grounds).

Smoothly narrated by Kerry Washington, the film focuses mainly on the years Olmsted spent creating the landscape of Central Park, along with his design partner Calvert Vaux, and their work on Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Thrown in are the fun facts typical of documentaries: Before parks, people had picnics in cemeteries; in today's money, the Central Park project at one point was $6 million over budget; a colleague of Olmsted's accused him of breakfasting on strong coffee and pickles.

But it's the idea of calm and quiet, and everyone's secret urge to throw the BlackBerry into a lake and play in the park all day, that moves the film along when the myriad historical facts and sketches of landscapes start to blend together. The shots of people on bikes, walking dogs, resting on picnic blankets and reading books are delightful, and they remind us that that type of peacefulness and springtime warmth are just around the corner.

The Olmsted Legacy: America's Urban Parks (one hour) premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on WHUT.

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