UCLA Spotlight

Don Marquardt brings Frederick Law Olmsted to life

  • By Meg Sullivan
  • Published Feb 11, 2008 8:00 AM

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Southern California Chapter, American Society of Landscape Architects

UCLA Extension Landscape Architecture Program

If you think your chance of occupying the same room as the father of landscape architecture died with Frederick Law Olmsted in 1903, you haven't met Don Marquardt. The veteran landscape architect and instructor in UCLA Extension's landscape architecture program has made a second career of impersonating the driving force behind Manhattan's Central Park, Brooklyn's Prospect Park and Boston's Franklin Park.


Don Marquardt in costume

Marquardt has donned a bowler hat, fake beard and cane to deliver "Frederick Law Olmsted in Person" some 15 times, including three performances at national conventions for the American Society of Landscape Architecture, the field’s leading professional organization.

"The more I perform, the more everybody wants to know who he was," he says.

Now ASLA’s Southern California Chapter has bankrolled a 37-minute cinematic version of Marquardt’s one-man show. In "Frederick Law Olmsted: The Father of Landscape Architecture," Marquardt portrays the 72-year-old Olmsted looking back over the first 41 years of his life. That period includes his role in transforming 843 acres of rocky, swampy Manhattan terrain into the world’s first truly public park, as well as saving a dramatic valley called Yosemite from the ravages of hydraulic gold mining.

"This is probably the most important period of his life," Marquardt says. "After this he’s just building more parks."

Woody Schlom, a reality-TV veteran, Bruin alumnus and former UCLA staffer, set up, shot and edited Marquardt’s performance. Schlom also negotiated rights to the 219 vintage photographs and illustrations featured in the DVD. The chapter hopes the one-man show will become a fixture in landscape architecture courses across the country and maybe eventually air on public television.

Marquardt couldn’t be happier. Originally trained as a mechanical engineer, he spent an unsatisfying decade in the manned space program. When he returned to school, he discovered Olmsted. Surrounded by undergraduates 10 years his junior, Marquardt felt he had found a kindred spirit in the former journalist who came late in life to landscape architecture.

As Marquardt moved through field, he winced every time a colleague's face went blank when Olmsted’s name came up. But actively spreading the Olmsted gospel never occurred to him until he attended a party in the early 1980s with two fellow UCLA Extension instructors. On a whim, they decided to give impersonations of their favorite landscape architects. Shortly afterward, Marquardt saw a performance of Hal Holbrook’s Tony Award-winning one-man show “Mark Twain Tonight!”

"I thought, 'Wow, I could do that with Frederick Law Olmsted'," he recalls.

To build his character, Marquardt pored over Olmsted’s collected letters, read numerous histories and visited his home in Brookline, Mass. Initially self-trained, he eventually started taking acting classes. To this day, he practices his lines while walking for exercise in the morning.

"I’m a weird guy out there, walking and talking to myself."