Sunday, May 15, 2011
Book review: The visionary
How America was shaped by the imagination and energy of Frederick Law Olmsted.
Frederick Law Olmsted became an influential celebrity during his lifetime. His design of outdoor space set a standard for others and gave birth to a new profession.
Olmsted's accounts of his travels in the slave states would light a fire in the abolitionist north. He pioneered the conservation of wilderness areas, especially Yosemite and Niagara Falls.
Olmsted's genius for organization and planning helped soldiers in the field during the American Civil War. He was executive director of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, and in that post he helped bring better medical care to the sick and wounded soldiers -- on both sides of the conflict -- and would later spawn a civilian organization called the American Red Cross.
Olmsted experimented with scientific farming and ran a farm (often in absentia) on Staten Island, where his neighbors included family names such as Vanderbilt.
Olmsted is best known for his design and management of New York City's Central Park. It was his first public commission and perhaps his most important one.
The genius of the Central Park design is present in many aspects. The use of the land and the subtle division of functions without intruding on the visitor's conscious mind create a peaceful oasis in the midst of a busy metropolis.
Olmsted's visionary planning skills made it possible to plan a park that would change as the community around it changed, but without allowing the change to detract from the basic nature of the space. Even today, 150 years after the park was conceived at the north edge of a growing city, a stroll in The Ramble of a few quiet moments at the Bethesda Fountain will give respite from a noisy city far larger than many would have expected in mid-19th century.
Of course, there are many other Olmsted places to enjoy. My favorites include the parks in Buffalo, the Emerald Necklace of parks in Boston, Shelburne Farms in northern Vermont, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, Chicago's Jackson Park (a legacy of the 1892 Columbian Exposition), and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.
The story of Olmsted's landscape design career is a fascinating one, but his impact went far beyond giving people nice places to visit.
Following the publication of the flame-fanning novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Olmsted toured the American South for the New York Daily Times (now the venerable New York Times) and filed a series of reports about the South under the penname "Yeoman."
"Yeoman's" reports were not laced with the polemics of abolitionism; they were unvarnished, matter-of-fact portraits of the South. These reports showed the South to be a place where the slave and slave owner were victims of an untenable economic system -- not a place of romance and genteel living.
While journalism may seem an unexpected career path for the dilettante son of a successful Connecticut merchant, farming was also an unexpected career path, but not as odd as running a gold mining operation in Northern California.
Near the end of the Civil War, Olmsted took a position as managing director of a gold mining business in Northern California that had been sold to New York investors after the mine's output was grossly exaggerated by one of America's most clever swindlers, John C. Freemont.
The mine's lack of production and the demands of creditors caused Olmsted to lose his position, but not before he discovered Yosemite Valley. Olmsted was one of the first European Americans to explore this vast area, and he took it upon himself to campaign (successfully) for its conservation.
The concept of a government holding land for preservation would eventually grow into a national collection of public parks owned and maintained by the federal government. When the National Park system was established, Olmsted's son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., helped write the legislation
The story of Olmsted's life offers today's readers an opportunity to see what effect one energetic and imaginative person had on the formation of today's nation. The author delivers this fascinating story in a prose that invites the reader to complete the book in one sitting -- and then ask for more.