By Alan Pergament
Near the end of the latest national WNED-TV co-production, "Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America," landscape architect Faye Harwell summarizes what it meant to her as a child in New York City visiting one of his parks.
"I had no clue I was in an Olmsted park," said Harwell. "I just knew I was in a place I really loved."
Harwell, who is on the Board of Trustees of the National Association for Olmsted Parks, added the Olmsted parks really had a "huge impact on human experience in America."
I'm pretty sure that many Western New Yorkers can relate. When they are in Delaware Park, Front Park or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park, they probably don't think much about the impact of the 19th century landscape architect who designed them, as well as Central Park in New York City and scores of parks around the country.
A viewer should think of this beautifully-designed hour program -- which airs locally and nationally at 9 tonight and repeats locally at 8 p.m. Sunday -- in the same way they might think about what they plan to do when visiting one of Olmsted's parks.
It is beautiful to look at and admire, takes some interesting detours and reminds you that it is wise to find time to pause to contemplate -- in this case about one man's impact on our community and the nation.
Told in the style of Ken Burns' documentaries, the film is narrated by actress Stockard Channing -- who has been most recently in "The Good Wife" but has had a film career that includes the 1978 movie "Grease." It also includes letters from Olmsted read by veteran actor Campbell Scott (2012's ("The Amazing Spider-Man").
Biographers, landscape artists and historians tell the story of Olmsted's successful professional life and the multiple tragedies in his personal life.
It paints a portrait of a man who had several professional failures and success as a reporter at the New York Times before eventually almost accidentally finding his true calling and designing his masterpiece -- NYC's Central Park -- with his professional partner, Calvert Vaux.
The beauty of the parks that Olmsted designed across the nation stood in contrast to the dark side of Olmsted's life. The documentary concludes that Olmsted wasn't exactly the easiest person to work with and he carried the pain around with him of losing several family members.
It takes about 30 minutes before Olmsted's work in Buffalo is mentioned and Thomas Herrera-Mishler and Florence Johnson of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservatory are interviewed.
The film notes that in 1868 when Olmsted came here, Buffalo was one of the largest cities in America and was booming.
Olmsted admired the city.
"The city of Buffalo is the best planned city as to its streets, public places and grounds in the United States, if not the world," according to one letter read by Scott.
Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, noted that "nothing has ever been achieved on this scale that was achieved in Buffalo."
About 10 minutes later, the film is off to Niagara Falls, where Olmsted is credited with leading the cause of preserving the areas around the Falls, emphasizing the rapids in his park design and making Goat Island a special place.
I imagine anyone watching this national program before visiting one of Olmsted's parks in Buffalo, Niagara Falls, New York City or several other cities in the nation this weekend or this summer might take a moment to reflect and see the parks -- and their designer -- in a new light.
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