Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. (1822-1903), the father of American landscape architecture, enjoys a singular artistic legacy– each day, more people surely experience his works than those of any other American artist in any medium in any time.
Spanning the nation, his 500-plus lifetime commissions and other engagements include the scenic preservation of giant sequoias in California’s Yosemite Valley; design of the U.S. Capitol grounds and terraces in Washington, D.C.; and his swan song, the 120,000-acre Biltmore Estate near Asheville, N.C.
Then there’s New York, the seat of Connecticut-born Olmsted’s outdoor empire.
In 1858, Olmsted and London-born architect Calvert Vaux won a state-appointed competition to transform 750-plus acres in Manhattan into America’s first major landscaped public park.
Expanded to 843 acres and completed in 1873, Central Park today is America’s most-frequented urban park, attracting some 42 million visitors annually.
Influential in his own right, Vaux parted ways with Olmsted in 1872 (they briefly reunited later), while Olmsted continued shaping the American landscape from coast to coast. With 6,000-plus total projects in his name via successor firms lasting until 1979, his total impact is hard to calculate, but easy to comprehend.
Many other talented artists, as well as nature itself, have contributed to New York’s diverse collection of designed and curated outdoor spaces. From botanical gardens and sculpture parks to glacier-carved cascades, here are some pleasing paths to a happy New York state of mind.
Created in ancient times for studying medicinal plants and herbs, and later, for pure pleasure, botanical gardens offer effortless inspiration and rewards for tours, events and educational programs. New York has at least 30 statewide, including several group-capable gems in the New York City area.
Inspired by London’s UNESCO-listed Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the national landmark New York Botanical Garden, opened in 1891, is a global leader in plant research, conservation and education.
Laid out by Vaux with later development by Olmsted’s firm, this 250-acre Bronx treasure includes 50 acres of old-growth forest. Versatile spaces include the rustic, newly refurbished Stone Mill and 1,000-capacity Victorian-style Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, comprising 11 interconnected glasshouse galleries around two elegant pools. Wave Hill, also in The Bronx, is an 1843 clifftop estate overlooking the Hudson River with lovely gardens.
Opened in 1911, the exquisite Brooklyn Botanic Garden (original site work by Olmsted’s firm) comprises 15 gardens, five conservatories and more on 52 acres. Hosting events for 130 people, the LEED Gold–certified Steinberg Visitor Center features geothermal heating and a living roof planted with native grasses and wildflowers. Groups of 275 can also gather at the Victorian-era Palm House.
The gardens sit between the event-capable Brooklyn Museum and another Olmsted-Vaux national landmark, Prospect Park, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Attracting some 10 million annual visitors, “Brooklyn’s Backyard” hosts events in its 1905 Beaux Arts Boathouse and historic Picnic House, overlooking 90-acre Long Meadow.
Staten Island, the “Borough of Parks,” is home to the national landmark Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden. Set on an 83-acre campus created in 1833 as a haven for retired sailors, the gardens, opened in 1977, include the Ming Dynasty-inspired New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden, one of only two in the nation, and Tuscan Garden, both available for events.
At the Queens Botanical Garden, groups meeting at the LEED Platinum-certified Visitor & Administration Building also have 39 acres of lush landscapes and specialty gardens for break-out sessions and teambuilding activities.
Westchester County’s collection of Gilded-Age estates includes event-capable Lyndhurst (1838). Considered a paragon of Gothic Revival architecture, the tour-capable mansion is set on 67 acres overlooking the Hudson River. Landscaping highlights include the event-capable Great Lawn; framework of the nation’s first steel-framed conservatory; Rose Garden; and weeping beeches—step inside for a cathedral-like communion with nature.
Long Island’s heirlooms include the former Coe Estate, now Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park. Featuring a historic mansion and conference-capable venues, this 409-acre escape’s horticultural charms include magnificent greenhouses and a new Sensory Garden.
Surrounded by 40,000 acres of protected, pristine forest, the fairytale Mohonk Mountain House, with 85-plus miles of hiking trails and unique features like the Labyrinth rock scramble and its legendary Lemon Squeeze vertical ladder climb, offers outdoor pursuits on a grand scale.
True to its 1869 founding as a place of peaceful retreat, this 600-room National Historic Landmark Victorian castle-resort in New Paltz, N.Y., some 90 miles north of NYC, also presents more intimate connections with nature, such as tours of its Victorian Show Garden. Led by the property’s master gardeners and horticulturists, this guided experience reveals the greenhouses and gardens, where each year, more than 300 flower and plant species are incorporated in a themed showcase.