A clearing in the distance Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the nineteenth century

Witold Rybczynski

Book - 1999

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BIOGRAPHY/Olmsted, Frederick Law
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New York : Scribner 1999.
Physical Description
480 p., [16] p. of plates : ill
Includes bibliographical references (p. 429-460) and index.
Main Author
Witold Rybczynski (-)
Review by Booklist Reviews

/*Starred Review*/ Rybczynski, celebrated for his sparkling prose as well as for his deep knowledge of architectural history, adeptly chronicles the life of the man who "was a landscape architect before that profession was founded." Olmsted is remembered best for New York's Central Park, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, Riverside, Illinois, and Stanford University in California, and the story behind how he came to create art with earth, water, and plants is as satisfying as a walk through his brilliantly designed parks. A loner as a boy, he acquired his love of landscape during long rambles across the Connecticut countryside. Curious, independent, and articulate, he became an intrepid traveler, travel writer, vocal abolitionist, and close observer of the American temperament. He flirted with farming, turned to publishing (helping found The Nation), managed a gold mine, and, ultimately, presented views on the role of nature in American cities that remain vital today. Rybczynski allows Olmsted's belief in the edifying affects of landscape to emerge gradually within his involving account of Olmsted's extraordinarily productive life, leaving readers impressed with and grateful for Olmsted's vision and his ability to express it on such a grand and significant scale. ((Reviewed May 15, 1999)) Copyright 2000 Booklist Reviews

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Having written incisive and original books on architecture and art and even a social history of the weekend, Rybczynski has found his ideal biographical match in this marvelous life of the noted landscape architect and reformer whose accomplishments include New York's Central and Prospect parks. Clearly, Olmsted thought at least as much about the interaction of art and society as Rybczynski himself. (LJ 5/15/99) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

A noted urbanist gives us a portrait of Olmsted not just as landscape architect but as cultural figure. Copyright 1999 Library Journal Reviews

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Frederick Law Olmsted is best known for the spectacular parks he designed, including Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City. His other accomplishments, however, are hardly inconsiderable; he lobbied successfully to make Yosemite a national park, ran the United States Sanitary Commission (the predecessor to the American Red Cross) during the Civil War, cofounded the Nation, and created the first planned suburban community in America. This is more than a biography, as Rybczynski (urbanism, Univ. of Pennsylvania; City Life, LJ 9/15/95) shows us Olmsted's struggle to find the perfect niche for himself by translating his affinity for agriculture into his real loveAlandscape design. Along the way we see Olmsted meet the era's influential figures and struggle with its major issues. An engaging biography that can be read not only for the story of its subject but for a taste of 19th-century America as well. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/99.]AGrant A. Fredericksen, Illinois Prairie Dist. P.L., Metamora Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

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 parks Manhattan's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park, the Fens in Boston and others in Buffalo, Louisville and Chicago Olmstead (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 Publishers Weekly Reviews

Review by Publisher Summary 1

A chronicle of the fascinating life and career of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, best known as the creator of New York's Central Park, shows the immense effect his ideas and actions had on American culture and history. 60,000 first printing. Tour.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

Chronicles the life and career of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and the effect his ideas had on American culture

Review by Publisher Summary 3

Olmsted (1822-1903) is best known for designing American city parks, but Rybczynski (urbanism, U. of Pennsylvania) looks at his other contributions to 19th-century culture. He sailed to China at age 21, co-founded The Nation magazine, agitated for abolition, explored as far west as Texas, farmed on Staten Island, and managed the largest mine in California. Then he got serious and entered politics. The account includes several high quality photographs. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Review by Publisher Summary 4

In a brilliant collaboration between writer and subject, the bestselling author of Home and City Life illuminates Frederick Law Olmsted's role as a major cultural figure and a man at the epicenter of nineteenth-century American history. We know Olmsted through the physical legacy of his stunning landscapes -- among them, New York's Central Park, California's Stanford University campus, Boston's Back Bay Fens, Illinois's Riverside community, Asheville's Biltmore Estate, and Louisville's park system. He was a landscape architect before that profession was founded, designed the first large suburban community in the United States, foresaw the need for national parks, and devised one of the country's first regional plans. Olmsted's contemporaries knew a man of even more extraordinarily diverse talents. Born in 1822, he traveled to China on a merchant ship at the age of twenty-one. He cofounded The Nation magazine and was an early voice against slavery. He wrote books about the South and about his exploration of the Texas frontier. He managed California's largest gold mine and, during the Civil War, served as general secretary to the United States Sanitary Commission, the precursor of the Red Cross. Olmsted was both ruthlessly pragmatic and a visionary. To create Central Park, he managed thousands of employees who moved millions of cubic yards of stone and earth and planted over 300,000 trees and shrubs. In laying it out, "we determined to think of no results to be realized in less than forty years," he told his son, Rick. "I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future." To this day, Olmsted's ideas about people, nature, and society are expressed across the nation -- above all, in his parks, so essential to the civilized life of our cities. Rybczynski's passion for his subject and his understanding of Olmsted's immense complexity and accomplishments make this book a triumphant work. In A Clearing in the Distance, the story of a great nineteenth-century American becomes an intellectual adventure.