Cover image for A clearing in the distance : Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the nineteenth century
Title:
A clearing in the distance : Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the nineteenth century
Author:
Rybczynski, Witold.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Scribner, [1999]

©1999
Physical Description:
480 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Language:
English
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 9.5 28.0 78254.
ISBN:
9780684824635
Format :
Book

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Central Library SB470.O5 R93 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Non circulating
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Lancaster Library SB470.O5 R93 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
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Williamsville Library SB470.O5 R93 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
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Audubon Library SB470.O5 R93 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
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Summary

Summary

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.


Author Notes

Witold Rybczynski is the author of eight books, including Home: The Short History of an Idea, The Most Beautiful House in the World, Waiting for the Weekend, Looking Around, and City Life. The Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, he is a regular contributor to The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Review of Books.


Reviews 3

Booklist 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. --Donna Seaman


Publisher's Weekly Review

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 parksÄManhattan's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park, the Fens in Boston and others in Buffalo, Louisville and ChicagoÄOlmstead (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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

A noted urbanist gives us a portrait of Olmsted not just as landscape architect but as cultural figure. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

CHAPTER ONE "Tough as Nails" 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: Central Park. 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 Excerpted from A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century by Witold Rybczynski All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Foreword
Schemes
1 ""Tough as nails""
2 Frederick goes to school
3 Hartford
4 ""I have no objection""
5 New York
6 A year before the mast
7 Friends
8 Farming
9 More farming
10 A walking tour in the old countryJostling and Being Jostled
11 Mr. Downing's magazine
12 Olmsted falls in love and finishes his book
13 Charley Brace intervenes
14 Yeoman
15 A traveling companion
16 The Texas settlers
17 Yeoman makes a decision
18 ""Much the best Mag. in the world""
19 AbroadHitting Heads
20 A change in fortune
21

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