Ask Benny: Olmsted Jr. and the Morris Arboretum


Dear Benny,

I have heard the Morris Arboretum was designed by the son and stepson of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Is this true?

— All About Olmsted

Dear landscape lover,

Well, not exactly. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of Olmsted Sr., was hired in 1932 to draw up plans for the Arboretum, though his impact was not a huge one. His half brother, John Charles Olmsted, had died in 1920.

The Olmsted Brothers firm, which did design work at the White House, U.S. Capital and, locally, at Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges, was hired by the Arboretum at a time of change. Founded by the wealthy brother and sister pair of John and Lydia Morris in 1887, the gardens did not officially become part of Penn until 1932, the same year Olmsted was brought in. The Morrises had spent years molding their former family summer home into a garden showcase, and many of the garden’s most famous features—the Fernery (1899), the Log Cabin (1908) and the Loggia (1913), among others—were built long before Olmsted showed up.

Bob Gutowski, director of public programs at the Arboretum, explains Olmsted’s firm prepared some maps and plans as well as a “preliminary report on the purpose of the Arboretum.” “To call it a “collaboration’ would overstate it,” Gutowski says of Olmsted’s involvement. “But [the plans] did inform the early thinking of the Arboretum. If you look today at where the parking lot is, that’s where Olmsted placed it. So certain elements did carry through.”

For more information about the Morris Arboretum, visit


Originally published on March 30, 2006