With his high
forehead, wide-set blue eyes, and unruly hair, the young Frederick
Olmsted made a strong impression. A boyhood friend described
him as "a vigorous, manly fellow, of medium height, solidly
built with rather broad shoulders and a large well formed head.
If athletics had been in fashion he would have been high up in
foot-ball and base-ball." In midlife he suffered a carriage
accident that left him with a pronounced limp, but he remained
a skilled small-boat sailor and an experienced horseman. He was
a seasoned outdoorsman who hunted and fished, though not for
sport. Later photographs usually show him pensive. He rarely
looks directly at the camera, which gives him an air of self-containment,
almost detachment. "His face is generally very placid,"
wrote his colleague Katharine Wormeley, "with all the expressive
delicacy of a woman's, and would be beautiful were it not for
an expression which I cannot fathom, -- something which is, perhaps,
a little too severe about it." But she added, "I think
his mouth and smile and the expression of his eyes at times very
beautiful...there is a deep, calm thoughtfulness about him which
is always attractive and sometimes -- provoking."
An odd choice of word -- "provoking." Olmsted's
close friend Charles Eliot Norton likewise discerned this quality.
"All the lines of his face imply refinement and sensibility
to such a degree that it is not till one has looked through them
to what is underneath, that the force of his will and the reserved
power of his character become evident." When I asked the
landscape architect Laurie Olin how he would characterize Olmsted,
his immediate answer was "Tough as nails." Olin is
right, of course. Although the modern image of Frederick Law
Olmsted is of a benevolent environmentalist, a sort of Johnny
Appleseed scattering beautiful city parks across the nation,
he had indomitable energy and iron determination. As a mine manager
in California, he once faced down a crowd of striking miners.
(They were understandably upset because he had reduced their
wages.) "They tried a mob but made nothing of it,"
he laconically wrote to his father, "and I have lost no
property only time. I shall hold out till they come to my terms
and dismiss all who have been prominent in the strike."
He did just that. His obstinacy often got him in trouble. Many
times he chose to resign positions rather than continue on a
course of action he disapproved. His most famous resignations
-- there were several -- occurred during the long and often frustrating
construction of Central Park. But there were others. Leland Stanford,
the railroad magnate, engaged him to lay out the grounds of what
would become Stanford University. Olmsted prepared the plans
on the understanding that, as was his practice, he would also
hire his own staff to supervise the work. When Stanford, who
had been governor of California and was used to getting his own
way, reneged on the agreement, Olmsted walked away from the job.
The university was completed without him.
Another battle of wills occurred during his tenure with the
United States Sanitary Commission. The Commission, a precursor
to the Red Cross, was a private organization established after
the outbreak of the Civil War to administer volunteer relief
efforts to the Union troops. Olmsted spent two years as its first
general secretary, in charge of day-to-day operations. As fund-raising
efforts intensified, hundreds of thousands of dollars flowed
to the Commission, whose board felt the need to exert more direct
supervision over the activities of its chief executive officer.
He characteristically bridled at any attempt to curtail his freedom,
and a sometimes bitter struggle ensued. One of those with whom
he had run-ins was the treasurer of the Commission, George Templeton
Strong. Strong, best known as the author of an exceptional set
of diaries, was a prominent Wall Street lawyer and civic leader.
He knew Olmsted well: both men were involved in the Union League
Club and in the establishment of The Nation magazine.
Some six months before Olmsted's resignation, Strong noted in
his journal: "He is an extraordinary fellow, decidedly the
most remarkable specimen of human nature with whom I have been
brought into close relations." Then, in obvious exasperation,
he added: "Prominent defects, a monomania for system and
organization on paper (elaborate, laboriously thought out, and
generally impracticable), and appetite for power. He is a lay-Hildebrand."
The last strikes me as a shrewd characterization. Hildebrand,
or Gregory VII, was an eleventh-century pope who is remembered
for his lifelong attempt to establish the supremacy of the papacy
within the Church -- and the authority of the Church over the
state. Olmsted, too, was trying to establish an ascendancy. He
was doing it with what sometimes seemed to others religious zeal,
but he did not seek personal aggrandizement. Strong commented
on his colleague's "absolute purity and disinterestedness";
he recognized that Olmsted wasn't empire-building. The supremacy
that Olmsted was trying to establish was that of the technician
-- the organizer; the authority was that of The Plan. But he
was ahead of his time. His obsession with organization and planning
on paper may sometimes have been clumsy, and it was certainly
laborious -- this was before telephones and typewriters, let
alone computers and fax machines. But it was not, as Strong thought,
ineffective. Olmsted successfully coordinated the operations
of the Sanitary Commission, with its thousands of contributing
private aid societies, and its scores of nurses and doctors.
He deployed convalescent shelters, field hospitals, and hospital
ships and distributed food and medical supplies over a battlefront
that extended for hundreds of miles. Strong had also forgotten
that it was precisely "monomania" that had enabled
Olmsted to organize the labors of several thousand workers in
what was then the largest public works project in the nation:
Olmsted was one of the first people to recognize the necessity
for planning in a large, industrializing country -- whether in
peace or war. This recognition was not yet widely shared, which
is why he was often misunderstood. "He looks far ahead,
& his plans & methods are sometimes mysterious,"
wrote Rev. Henry Whitney Bellows, founder and president of the
Sanitary Commission, of his willful protégé. "[His
critics] think him impracticable, expensive, slow -- when he
is only long-headed, with broader, deeper notions of economy
than themselves, & with no disposition to hurry what, if
done satisfactorily, must be thoroughly." Long-headed
is good. It was the future that concerned him, and he had the
rare patience to successfully project his plans years ahead.
I think that was one of the things that finally attracted him
to landscape architecture. It is a field where a long time --
sometimes generations -- is required for the full realization
of the designer's goal.
A small incident illustrates his foresight. Once, five years
after the end of the Civil War, when he was already an established
landscape architect in New York, he received a letter from the
quartermaster general of the U.S. Army, Montgomery Meigs. Meigs
had a high regard for Olmsted, with whom he had worked during
the war. The general wrote to ask advice on the landscaping of
national cemeteries, for which purpose Congress had just appropriated
funds. Olmsted was preoccupied with the construction of Prospect
Park in Brooklyn; nevertheless it took him less than a week to
draft a careful and detailed reply. As to the general design,
he wrote, "the main object should be to establish permanent
dignity and tranquillity." He warned Meigs that any attempts
at elaborate gardening should be avoided. "Looking forward
several generations, the greater part of all that is artificial
at present in the cemeteries must be expected to have either
wholly disappeared or to have become inconspicuous and unimportant
in the general landscape." Olmsted recommended doing only
two things: building a simple enclosing wall, and planting trees.
The effect would be of a "sacred grove" for the war
dead. What a beautiful idea!
Olmsted's artistry was always underpinned by sensible considerations,
and this was no exception. Since the war cemeteries would be
built in different parts of the country, he advocated using trees
indigenous to each region. He also warned against the temptation
to plant fast-growing species (they would be short-lived) and
listed those to be avoided. Instead of buying expensive large
trees, he suggested establishing nurseries next to the cemeteries
where seedlings could be cultivated and transplanted after ten
years or so. What if land for a nursery was unavailable? His
novel suggestion: "nursery rows could be planted between
the tiers of graves. They would be harmless for the time being
and would disappear after a few years" as the trees matured
and were relocated.
Copyright © 1999 by Witold Rybczynski