With his father's blessing, though, Olmsted--who would not
find his calling until his mid-thirties, when he helped design
and supervise the construction of Central Park--wandered in and
out of a variety of professions. First, the teenaged Olmsted
worked as an apprentice surveyor. But he soon grew tired of it,
and his father arranged for him to work as an apprentice clerk
in Manhattan. Then, just before he turned twenty-one, he signed
up to sail to China on a merchant ship. (Richard Henry Dana's
Two Years Before the Mast had been published two years
earlier in 1840, and reading it sent many young men like Olmsted
to sea.) Predictably, it was not a pleasant journey. He was seasick,
came down with typhoid, visited only a single Chinese city and
got scurvy on the voyage home. Clearly, he wasn't called to a
life at sea.
He next spent five months working on an uncle's farm, and
it is here that he first found something that felt comfortable
(it also marks his first efforts at writing about a landscape
he had himself helped create). After another stint on a farm--this
one run by a "scientific farmer" (as they were then
called) who possessed the "new knowledge of fertilizers,
plant nutrition, and field drainage, a knowledge based not on
traditional practice but on science"--Olmsted decided he
wanted to be a scientific farmer and began taking courses at
Yale to prepare himself.
In 1847, his father gave him money to buy a seventy-five acre
farm on the shore of Long Island Sound. Only a little over half
of it was arable land, but despite his professed goals, Olmsted
was interested in something more than scientifically based productivity:
he wanted a beautiful farm. To his father's alarm, he
began improving the farm in ways that didn't boost productivity.
But when the experiment proved financially unsustainable, his
father again came to his aid, lending him the money for a larger,
more productive farm on Staten Island.
Still, the land's aesthetic potential drew Olmsted's eye,
and in addition to improving the quality of the soil, Rybczynski
He moved the barns and outbuildings away from the house to
a more discreet location behind a knoll and rerouted the approach
road to the house so that it followed a graceful curve. He sodded
the area around a utilitarian barnyard pond at the rear of the
house and added water plants to further enhance the scenic effect.
His wealthy neighbors were impressed, and Olmsted soon found
himself giving advice about landscaping and even became a founding
member of the county agricultural society, for which he wrote
Soon, though, Olmsted realized he couldn't make his farm's
ordinary crops pay for its improvements, and he came up with
a novel solution: he would redesign the farm as a nursery for
ornamental and shade trees to be used for New York's growing
number of suburban and summer houses. It was a profitable scheme.
But it was a seemingly wasteful trip to Europe--after all, how
could he leave the farm for six months?--that defined his future
because in England he saw firsthand what he would try to recreate
as an ideal:
England became the touchstone for Olmsted's ideas about rural
scenery. He swallowed the English countryside whole, but he did
more than merely succumb to its visual delights. His own modest
efforts at landscaping Tosomock Farm had evidently awakened in
him a desire to understand exactly how natural elements could
be manipulated to create an effect of picturesqueness or sublimity.
Upon his return to the farm, Olmsted found his previous way
of life rather provincial. Rejecting an invitation to enter politics,
he turned to writing with an article on Birkenhead Park, the
Liverpool public park designed by Joseph Paxton (who would later
design the Crystal Palace for the 1851 International Exhibition
in London). As Olmsted pointed out to his readers, Liverpool
bucked European tradition by financing and building the public
park as a municipal project. (Normally, European parks were either
donated estates or privately owned gardens in which the public
was allowed to stroll.)
Emboldened by the article's reception, Olmsted wrote a book
called Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England.
The first volume appeared in February 1852, and the two volumes
together were successful enough to be reprinted in 1859. In the
meantime, the publisher of the New-York Daily Times offered him
a job as a correspondent traveling in the South and writing about
the effects of slavery on its rural life. Olmsted readily accepted,
and the series was successful enough (fifty-four articles were
published) for the publisher to send Olmsted to Texas with much
the same assignment. After nine months, Olmsted returned to his
farm and began the first of what would become three books based
on his Southern travels.
Olmsted's literary reputation grew, and his interest in being
a full-time farmer waned. Soon, he convinced his father to buy
him the third partnership of a magazine, on the condition that
Olmsted sign the title on the farm over to his brother. Almost
immediately, Olmsted was working as the magazine's managing editor.
But after building the magazine's reputation and securing ties
with British publishers to insure they would not be merely 'pirating'
British authors (as their chief rival, Harper's Monthly,
was), Olmsted left the firm to return to full-time writing.
As fate would have it, though, the firm was declared bankrupt,
and Olmsted's investment (his father's, actually) seemed lost.
And then a job prospect appeared: a superintendent was needed
for the new, as yet undesigned Central Park project. After heavy
campaigning, the board voted to hire Olmsted, eight to one.
And finally, it would seem, Olmsted had found his place. It
didn't mean, though, that Olmsted's future would be more sedate
or his jobs narrower in focus.
Central Park's Mall in 1863.
addition to asserting his authority with a large work force and
winning the board's confidence, Olmsted drew up plans with a
young English architect named Calvert Vaux and submitted them
in the design competition for Central Park. In a field of thirty-three
entries that ranged from formal European gardens to naturalistic
English gardens, Vaux and Olmsted's proposal won.
The Mall in 1894.
|As Rybczynski points out, Vaux and Olmsted handily
incorporated a variety of elements stipulated by the commissioners--three
playing fields, a parade ground, a skating pond, a large fountain,
a garden, a tower and an exhibition building. And they found
a cunning solution to the site's awkward dimensions by creating
diagonal sight lines to draw the viewer's eye away from the shallow,
half-mile-wide park. But, Rybczynski writes,
Perhaps their most successful illusion--certainly the most
original--was the way that they dealt with the competition program's
difficult requirement that four or more public streets traverse
the park. City traffic would have been a noisy and dangerous
intrusion and would have destroyed the effect of country scenery.
Vaux and Olmsted placed the streets in large excavated trenches,
eight feet below ground. Like the British ha-ha, or sunk fence,
the sunken streets dealt with a functional necessity in such
a way that the visual continuity of the landscape remained undisturbed;
pedestrian ways, carriage roads, and bridle paths simply bridged
the streets. This also had the advantage of allowing the park
to be closed at night without interrupting traffic. No other
entry included this feature.
Of course, the design's naturalistic appearance was to be
a hard-won artifice. Pipes had to be buried to drain the swampy
areas, the lawns needed fertilizers and seed, 300,000 trees had
to be planted, and millions of cubic yards of stone and dirt
had to be moved--by hand.
The project wasn't totally free of power struggles and political
in-fighting, of course, but Olmsted managed his assignment well,
considering he had to share hiring and firing authority as well
as being taken to task for seemingly minor expenditures. In the
meantime, though, the slavery issue that Olmsted had dedicated
three books to erupted in war, and Olmsted took paid leave from
the Central Park project to serve as the chief executive officer
of the United States Sanitary Commission--"a civilian agency,"
Rybczynski writes, which "would monitor the health and sanitary
conditions of troops and would advise the army's Medical Bureau."
True to form,
Olmsted threw himself aggressively into the Sanitary Commission's
cause, contracting jaundice while aboard a hospital ship in the
Virginia peninsula, having dinner with Ulysses S. Grant during
Grant's siege of Vicksburg and efficiently overseeing the transport
of medical supplies to such pivotal battles as Gettysburg and
Antietam (indeed, Olmsted's supervision was so efficient that
the medical supplies actually arrived by wagon train a day before
the battle started in Antietam).
In the meantime, Olmsted and Vaux were appointed as "Landscape
Architects to the Board," but Olmsted was overextended with
his Commission work, and Vaux found working with the Central
Park board to be hopeless. On May 12, 1862, they resigned their
firm from the board, thereby ending Olmsted's chances of returning
as superintendent after the war ended.
Immediately, Olmsted found himself facing an interesting proposal:
E.L. Godkin, a journalist friend, asked Olmsted if he would be
interested in co-founding a weekly newsmagazine that would, in
Godkin's words, "secure a more careful, accurate and elaborate
discussion of political, economical and commercial topics, than
is possible in the columns of the daily press." He readily
expressed interest, but while they were busy raising start-up
funds, Olmsted got another job offer: would he like to manage
a large goldmining site in California?
This time, Olmsted hesitated, since taking the job would mean
resigning from the Sanitary Commission and turning his back on
public service during war. But he was $12,000 in debt, the newsmagazine's
future was still unsettled, and the mining operation was enormous
(it covered seventy square miles). Eventually, after much hand-wringing,
Olmsted decided to accept the mine offer.
experience Olmsted had gained while working on Central Park and
the Sanitary Commission came in handy once he reached California,
because after he reduced wages to offset the mines' losses, he
was embroiled in a large strike. Unmoved, he hired replacement
workers and posted guards at the entrances, and after five days,
the strike ended. Shortly afterwards, though, Olmsted was diagnosed
with an enlarged heart and ordered to rest. It was, as Rybczynski
notes, the first time in a decade that Olmsted slowed down.
He spent time with his family, exploring the wilderness and
taking trips into the Sierra Nevada to escape the California
heat. Despite his friends back East seeing it as an exile, it
was an idyllic period for Olmsted. And on top of everything else,
he actually made enough money to pay off his debts and invest
conservatively in stocks. (His annual salary, in modern dollars,
was $300,000.) Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Olmsted, the mining
company was in the midst of a financial scandal, and Olmsted
found himself acting as the mediator for the forces that were
vying for control of the mines.
In time, payment of his salary was stopped, and he accepted
a job designing an Oakland cemetery.
The notion of landscaping suitable to an arid climate had
absorbed Olmsted. He realized that he could not hope to replicate
a conventional rural cemetery. "You must then look to an
entirely different way of accomplishing the end in view, and
to entirely different measures from those made use of in the
East," he counseled his clients.
Instead of creating a Mount Auburn in the desert then, as
Rybczynski observes, Olmsted created for Oakland "neither
a garden nor a park but a city...of the dead."
Other small projects followed, but Olmsted suffered bouts
of depression. The fall of Richmond and Lee's subsequent surrender
at Appomattax cheered him up, though, and while "appalled"
by Lincoln's assassination, he wrote to a friend that "At
any rate the nation lives and is immortal, and Slavery is dead.
Enough for us."
Still, his business worries continued, and in an ill-fated
move, Olmsted signed over the mining estate to its principal
creditor (the U.S. commissioner who later investigated the company
called Olmsted's move "a stupendous folly").
Time passed, and then, with another swing of fate, Olmsted
learned the funds had been raised back East to start the newsmagazine.
(It would become The Nation, and Olmsted would serve briefly
as its associate editor and would be a part owner for several
years.) Then Calvert Vaux wrote that a new park was being planned
for Brooklyn. After months of Vaux's entreaties, Olmsted agreed
to move back East and return in earnest to landscape architecture.
the Brooklyn park project was later named--marked a distinct
maturation in Olmsted and Vaux's work, as Rybczynski notes:
Central Park is an impressive achievement for two neophytes,
but it is the work of beginners. Its many different parts barely
hold together--they are simply fitted into the awkward rectangle,
side by side. There is no narrative thread. Prospect Park is
different. Its elements demonstrate, with startling clarity,
both variety and unity. Each has its own character yet
interacts with its neighbor. Each also has a meaning. Laurie
Olin describes Prospect Park as "a meditation on post-Civil
War America": a transcendental vision of a unified, peaceful
country, in which the meadows represent agriculture, the wooded
terrain is the American wilderness, and the lakeside terrace
and its more refined architecture, civilization. Neither Olmsted
nor Vaux anywhere enunciates this compelling vision, but then
artists are often reticent about their work.
Olmsted's next project, a public park in San Francisco, was
never developed, but Rybczynski argues that
it represents a turning point in his career. More was involved
here than landscaping; the park and promenade were conceived
on the scale of an entire city. The ability to think on a large
scale, to project himself into the future, and to quickly master
broad issues were skills Olmsted acquired while he was directing
the United States Sanitary Commission, managing the Mariposa
Estate, and chairing the Yosemite Commission. All these projects
depended on his ability to digest and organize large amounts
of information, and to integrate diverse requirements. All involved
planning in time as well as space.
That last sentence is central to one of Rybczynski's abiding
themes in the biography: in at least this one sense--his "greater
aptitude for patience"-- Olmsted was a genius. (Olmsted
himself acknowledged that "I have all my life been considering
distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and
applause to that of the future.")
Indeed, it's Olmsted's prescience--his ability to understand
how a town would grow and how, in turn, its needs would change--that
makes projects (to which he gave increasingly undivided attention
in later life) age so well. His design for Chicago's Riverside
subdivision was, in Rybczynski's words, "the first fully
realized rendering of this American ideal: a compromise between
private and public, between domesticity and community, between
the city and the country." In Olmsted's words, "The
official qualification of a suburb is domesticity, and to the
emphasizing of the idea of habitation, all that favors movement
should be subordinated."
Today, of course, this shift away from the suburbs merely
as a quiet neighborhood at the end of a long commute is getting
a serious second look in a series of village-based experiments,
with an emphasis on the domesticity and subordination of the
automobile that Olmsted extolled, decades before the automobile
A Clearing in the Distance is something
of a departure for Rybczynski: it's his longest work to date
and the first to focus on a person rather than a concept (in
the past, of course, he's written about home, weekends, airport
design and city life, among other things). Happily, he manages
the transition quite successfully--largely because, as he did
in his earlier books (and essays), he sticks to traditional structures
and writes in a casual, easily read voice. Indeed, in the spirit
of the occasional essay genre he works in so well, Rybczynski
often slips himself into the biography quite comfortably in the
first person. ("And now, I feel myself becoming impatient
with Olmsted," he writes at one point.) The effect of such
loose, conversational devices is remarkably seductive.
He isn't unwilling to experiment a bit, though. In one of
the more interesting liberties he takes with the standard biography
genre, Rybczynski includes several short vignettes that break
free from traditional fact-bound structures and show us what
Olmsted might have been thinking and feeling at particular, imagined
moments. Thus, for example, Rybczynski offers a passage that
explores what Olmsted might have been feeling during his first
night alone in the Long Island farmhouse. Later, in a particularly
powerful passage, Rybczynski imagines Olmsted (now an older man,
working on the Central Park project), sitting on a sunny veranda
and writing a letter to his father about a pair of awful events:
Olmsted has broken his leg in three places and his two-month-old
son has died suddenly and unexpectedly. While he mulls over his
loss in the warm sun, Olmsted finds himself unable to tell his
father about his feelings:
Olmsted writes of everything except the one thing that is
foremost in his thoughts. His son, John Theodore, is dead. He
died suddenly of infant cholera, only eight days after the carriage
accident. He was exactly two months old. Olmsted knows that his
father, who had lost three of his children, sympathizes with
him and would like to know how he and Mary are doing. He will
have to read between the lines. "Mary rather worse--pretty
constant sharp and sick headache. Took advice of doctor yesterday--simply
ordered to be quiet & take it easy. Only wants strength."
Poor Mary! It has been hardest on her. He has his work to occupy
him. He is still not mobile, but his staff make their reports
at his bedside, and he has himself carried about the park regularly
on a litter chair. Without the activity he might have been overwhelmed.
He has stopped writing now. He is staring out at the park--his
park--but his eyes are unfocused. The sheet of paper slips from
his fingers and flutters to the floor. He does not notice. He
sits a long time. Eventually, as the sun swings around to the
west, the shaded veranda turns cool. He painfully eases himself
out of the chair with the help of the crutches and limps indoors.
This passage is drawn from one of the better vignettes, but
they are each of them satisfying exercises, and only the most
conservative reader will look askance at Rybczynski's taking
such liberties with the genre. Less rigid readers will find them
liberating and useful tools that would add imagination to more
than a few dull biographies.
As Rybczynski's subtitle ("Frederick Law Olmsted and
America in the Nineteenth Century") suggests, a biography
of Olmsted casts a wide net over a century's history: from an
innocent, humble New England childhood, he grew up to take an
active role in the abolition movement and the subsequent war,
traveled West and lived in what Willa Cather called "a country
still waiting to be made into a landscape," and came back
East to design public parks and towns to assuage the burdens
of increasing urbanization.
In some sense, Olmsted's life followed the course of the century,
from self-taught men to urban professionals, and he managed to
create forward-looking spaces that continue to serve their long-sighted
intentions more than a century after their planning. A Clearing
in the Distance, then, gives us both a history and a life
that have resonance even today.