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)
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