UNTIL VERY RECENTLY, the name of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) was mentioned mostly in passing, buried in textbooks and scholarly studies on landscape architecture, urban design and 19th-century American history. Those asides credited him for a few choice accomplishments: the design of the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Central Park in Manhattan, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and portions of the campus of Stanford University near San Francisco. Witold Rybczynski, a professor of urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania, finds much more to celebrate in A Clearing in the Distance. As a writer, Rybczynski has long been interested in the interaction of humans and built environments; his books Home and Waiting for the Weekend are remarkable studies of the way modern Americans live, work and play in cities and suburbs.
While writing his book City Life, published in 1995, Rybczynski became interested in Olmsted, and with good reason. Olmsted was an American original, a 19th-century Horatio Alger story come to life; a man who packed many careers, extensive travel, and deep learning into a long life. He was also a man who changed the face of many American cities for the better.
Olmsted came from a good family, but his father worried that young Frederick, who showed indications of straying from respectable commerce into the arts, was destined to be a dabbler and wastrel. To prove him wrong (and to escape whatever remedy his father might try to apply -- an apprenticeship or clerkship, perhaps), Olmsted signed on as a hand on a China-bound freighter and served his young years before the mast, learning firsthand the brutality of the seafaring life.
His shipboard service did nothing to cure his wanderlust, however. He spent time in Europe, studying art and touring monuments and ruins. He managed, briefly and disastrously, a California gold mine. He crisscrossed the country many times over, writing reports and articles, and worked as an editor for the New York Daily Times and The Nation, where he polished the prose of Herman Melville and Harriet Beecher Stowe, among others. Finally, during the Civil War, he became the administrator of a hospital unit, where he witnessed horrors and bureaucratic ineptitude.
His experiences in the war helped settle Olmsted somewhat. Having seen so much destruction, he was determined to serve the cause of beauty. He developed a vision of America's landscape, with its broad vistas and open skies, as a means of shaping the national character. He labored to make America's urban spaces speak to that promise, bringing "trees and scenery into the congested grid of city streets." He inserted wilderness and pastoral settings into the heart of American and Canadian cities -- Montreal, New York, Boston, Chicago -- in open opposition to European models, with their nothing-out-of-place formal gardens.
His program of parks, broad avenues and greenways would, Olmsted argued, serve a public good by connecting city dwellers to nature -- and more practically, by relieving the city's grim monotony of concrete and metal. And he was right: uptown New York without a Central Park would be a different, and far poorer, place.
Olmsted was, Rybczynski writes, "an organizer when organization was considered a symptom of 'monomania,' and a long-range planner in a period that thought of planning as 'mysterious.' "
His argument continues, implicitly, that Olmsted's ability to act very nearly autonomously to create whole sections of cities could not be effected today. Now endless commissions, interest groups and municipal administrations turn every project into a design by committee -- which is one reason why modern gardens, parks and public spaces are so uninteresting, especially in comparison to Olmsted's visionary creations.
Of all the branches of nonfiction, biography is the most challenging. It's a difficult and often thankless task to ferret out the details of long-ago lives, to make those details cohere, and to make those lives meaningful for contemporary readers.
Witold Rybczynski's fine and illuminating biography of Frederick Law Olmsted is a success on every level. Rescuing its subject from the status of historical footnote, it shows Olmsted to have been a man of many parts, an important figure whose legacy remains strong nearly a century after his death -- and someone whose idealism, and whose vision of livable cities, we would do well to rekindle.