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A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century Hardcover – June 8, 1999

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A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century + Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted (A Merloyd Lawrence Book) + Frederick Law Olmsted: Essential Texts
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) is best remembered today as a landscape designer, well known for his plans for New York's Central Park and Prospect Park, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., and the campus of Stanford University, among other noteworthy sites.

But, writes urban studies professor and accomplished author Witold Rybczynski, Olmsted was an American original, a 19th-century success story who packed many careers and wide learning and travel into a long life. He spent time in China and Europe, managed a California gold mine, edited The Nation, commanded a medical unit in the Civil War, and crisscrossed the United States many times over, writing long reports and articles all the while. (One series of reports urged, for instance, that the then-remote Yosemite region of California be made a national park.) Olmsted, Rybczynski suggests, changed the face of America: he had a vision of the American landscape as a reflection of the national character, with its broad vistas and open skies, and he was concerned to make America's urban spaces livable, bringing "trees and greenery into the congested grid of streets." At Olmsted's urging, many American and Canadian cities adopted his system of parks, broad avenues, and greenways, which encouraged the appreciation and preservation of nature; his influence is felt today in the so-called urban ecology movement, and in dozens of public spaces across the continent.

Rybczynski's fine and illuminating biography of Olmsted shows him to have been a man of many parts, an important historical figure whose legacy remains strong nearly a century after his death. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

In 1893, at a banquet at Madison Square Garden in New York, a Chicago architect delivered an impromptu encomium to Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape designer responsible for the grounds of the recently opened Columbia Exposition at the Chicago World's Fair: "An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views." The designer of many of America's first public parksAManhattan's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park, the Fens in Boston and others in Buffalo, Louisville and ChicagoAOlmstead (1822-1903) blazed through several careers. He studied scientific farming; traveled the English countryside and the antebellum South, speaking out against slavery while writing for the New York Times; ran the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War; and oversaw a gold mine in the Sierra Nevadas. Olmstead's 1858 plan of Central Park established a new American pastoral aesthetic, uniting English picturesque elements, such as large, winding areas of grass, water and woods, within a harmonious but sharply circumscribed urban space. Rybczynski (City Life) depicts Olmstead as a zealous humanist who saw municipal parks as a civilizing force for a rapidly growing urban population that had little access to natural scenery. This richly anecdotal chronicle of the forces and the characters who transformed the American landscape in the 19th century rarely comes alive as a biography, however. Its laborious, reconstructed dialogue and set pieces, set off in italics, are in sharp contrast to Rybczynski's elegant musings on architectural and natural space. But in the final chapter, when Olmstead succumbs to dementia at McClean's asylum in Waverly, Mass., surrounded by grounds that he himself has designed, it's hard not to be stirred by the loss of a true American visionary. Photos. Author tour. (June)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; Second printing edition (June 8, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684824639
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684824635
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #631,687 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Witold Rybczynski has written about architecture and urbanism for The New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. He is the author of the critically-acclaimed book Home and the award-winning A Clearing in the Distance. His latest book is The Biography of a Building. The recipient of the National Building Museum's 2007 Vincent Scully Prize, he lives with his wife in Philadelphia, where he is emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.
Read his blog at http://www.witoldrybczynski.com.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Orrin C. Judd VINE VOICE on October 1, 2000
Format: Hardcover
If I told you that I've just read an excellent biographical memoir about an American original where the author is a looming presence and sections of the book, which masquerade as primary resource material, are actually fabricated by the biographer, you would probably assume that I'd broken down and bought the Edmund Morris book, Dutch. In fact, Witold Rybczynski's biography of the great American landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), includes imagined thoughts and dialogue that the author himself crafted. As he told Brian Lamb on Booknotes, he doesn't much like docudramas but found the technique could be valuable. Indeed, the author is a character in the book, sharing his opinions and walking through Olmsted's parks, sharing his observations.
I mention this, not because it takes away from the book, but because they are fairly typical techniques. Actually, the biographer is a presence in virtually every biography, starting with the choice of whom to write about, but then continuing with the editorial judgments about how to play incidents and what to put in and leave out. If authors like Morris and Rybczynski are more open about it than most, more power to them.
Meanwhile, Rybczynski's subject here, in addition to designing and building Central Park, Prospect Park, etc., was also a sailor, farmer, journalist, founder of The Nation, author of several still pertinent books on the functioning of slavery in the South, and remained throughout his life an honest and honorable public servant. The author tells his story well and offers one important theme of Olmsted's work that retains its relevance. Olmsted, whom we perceive as a naturalist and environmentalist, believed that wilderness, open spaces and nature itself should serve humans.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By William Chaisson on May 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Witold Rybczynski has made Frederick Law Olmsted's life look a little easier than it must have been. This is largely caused by the laminar flow of Rybczynski's prose. We are swept through the 19th century so smoothly that even the Civil War seems like a mere rock in the stream. I have not read any of the author's other books, but his prose style here seemed to be imitating the sweeping lines in an Olmsted design. In terse introductory paragraphs the broader events of a given historical period are sketched out and then Olmsteds trajectory through them is presented in more, but not great, detail. The result of this approach is to make the reader feel both informed and curious to know more. As other reviewers have remarked and the author points out in his closing chapter, much is available. Olmsted was a pack rat who saved all his correspondence and his legacy was carried on into the middle 20th century by his son Rick, who only retired from practice in 1950.
I grew up near New York City and always considered Central Park to be a wonderful place, even in its worst times through the 60s and 70s. I am lucky enough now to live in a city with three Olmsted-designed parks (they were initiated by the old man, but designed and built by his sons). Their maintenance has been spotty, but they are still beautiful places, and I do wonder if they still have the power to civilize.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Michael Lima VINE VOICE on November 2, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
To me, a biography is successful if the author conveys both the subject's accomplishments and the influences that helped to shape these deeds. Rybczynski easily meets these standards in this entertaining, instructive study.
Rybczynski spends a lot of time discussing the significance of Olmsted's major projects, like Prospect Park and Mount Royal. The innovations that Olmsted brought to the field of landscape architecture in these projects are clearly laid out for the reader. However, these discussions were not the main point that I took from the book. Instead, I was enthralled with the discussions of the various jobs and travels that Olmsted undertook throughout his life, particularly in his formative years. Rybczynski does an excellent job of showing that these diverse experiences not only satiated Olmsted's curiosity, but also were essential to the development of Olmsted's views on landscape architecture. It is refreshing to find an example of the belief that a variety of experiences are necessary to bring out new talents, enhance existing skills, and create a well-rounded individual.
I highly recommend A Clearing In The Distance for many reasons. These reasons include a concise writing style and a multi-faceted subject. But, above all, the book brings attention to an individual deserving of such study. It is this quality that makes A Clearing In The Distance a "must-read" for not only admirers of Olmsted's works, but for anyone who is interested in the creative development of an innovator in their field.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 6, 1999
Format: Hardcover
The book is great, and should be read. Rybczynski's enthusiasm for this fascinating subject is infectious.
The biography is very personal, with lots of space devoted to growing up, family live, etc. I was surprised at this touch having only read Rybczynski's more analytical "City Life." It's a different side to this author.
Watch out for these italicized 2-4 page sections where the author writes historical fiction to supplement the narrative. I didn't like them at all. The preface warns you that they are based on Olmstead's letters, and aren't neccessarily real. I personally don't like any blurring between fact and fiction in a biography, and think that these sections unneccesarily insert the biographer's literary ego into the biography.
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