The last book my non-fiction reading group discussed was Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin. We had a good discussion about FLO, as he’s frequently known, since his energetic, and contentious life touched and influenced many of the innovations and changes of the nineteenth century. He’s best known as the landscape architect of New York’s Central Park, but he left behind an extensive legacy in other fields as well. In fact, he created several fields of study and practice.
Olmsted was born in Hartford CT in 1822; his father was a prosperous merchant and FLO grew up in comfortable surroundings. Like many young men–then and now–he wasn’t at all sure what he wanted to do. He tried attending Yale, like his older brother, but he dropped out after a few months. It’s likely that an episode of hysterical blindness may have been the cause. He went to sea as a sailor to see the world, but quit after one voyage; the privations of the sailor’s life were not for him.
Even at an early age he had a strong desire to be a social reformer and his love of the outdoors turned him in the direction of farming. He wanted to improve agricultural practices and apprenticed himself to an experienced farmer in upstate New York. After a year, convinced that he had all the expertise he needed, he purchased a farm in Staten Island with the help of his father. For a while he was successful, but ultimately abandoned farming for journalism. In 1850, when the issue of abolition was dividing the country, he was uncertain about his own opinions and undertook a trip through the South to see conditions firsthand. To finance the trip, he obtained a commission for a set of articles from the the New York Daily Times (now the New York Times). The extensive and insightful dispatches that he wrote are still a valuable resource for historians. The result, for Olmsted, was that he became convinced of the importance of the abolition of slavery.
When the Civil War began, he became the director of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, precursor to the Red Cross. Later, for a few years, he was the administrator of the Mariposa gold mine in California. While in California, he visited Yosemite; stunned by its beauty, he became an advocate for preservation of the park in this era before the concept of national parks.
All of these experiences prepared FLO for his career as a landscape architect. There was no such profession in the mid-1800s but Olmsted was never reluctant to be the first to do something. Central Park was his first commission, with partner Calvert Vaux, and already Olmsted had strong feelings that parks should be for the people. The site for Central Park was a wasteland, partially filled with squatter’s huts. Thousands of workers were hired and Olmsted put them to work clearing stones, grading, planting thousands of trees, and building stone walls. The roadways through the park were placed below ground level so they didn’t intrude on the beauty of the landscaping and the carefully designed vistas. His experiences in agriculture and administration were essential in the success of this first project. Olmsted went on to design significant parks in Boston, Chicago, Buffalo, and his designs played a significant role in the magnificent World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. His designs and philosophy affected parks all over the U.S.
Olmsted’s energy was unflagging until his last years, despite a leg injury that caused him pain through most of his adult life. Martin, the author of this biography, makes a case for bipolar disorder as a source of his furious activity. While we can never know for sure, FLO’s life displayed so much energy and endurance, as well as periods of serious mental ups and downs, that it may indeed be the case. Whatever the reason, we’ve been the beneficiaries. If you look at the website for the National Association of Olmsted Parks you’ll see the list. Genius of Place, while it aims to be a definitive biography, is also a joy to read and I recommend it highly!