Reviewed by Kelsey Jones-Casey
Flourish, Fall 2011
Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmstead
De Capo Press, 2011, 496 pages
Had Frederick Law Olmsted been born in 1990 instead of 1822, he may have been diagnosed with ADHD. As a boy he changed schools multiple times, ran wild in the woods instead of studying and attending class, and proved to be “difficult to disciple” and “unwilling to focus in his studies.”
Olmsted may have agreed with an ADHD diagnosis, having described himself as “active, imaginative, impulsive, and restless.” This childhood restlessness did not wane with adulthood. Instead, Olmsted fanned through a flipbook of careers: surveying, sailing, journalism, farming, and social criticism. His distractibility was profound.
However, there was one force that could hold Olmstead’s attention, and that was the natural landscape. This man—too wild for indoor life—would later become “the father of landscape architecture” and the visionary inspiration behind Prospect and Central Parks in New York City, the “Emerald Necklace” of parks in Boston (including Boston Commons, Public Garden, Back Bay Fens, Jamaica Pond and Commonwealth Avenue Mall), and Niagara Reservation at Niagara Falls. He would serve on a committee established to preserve Yosemite in California and would be commissioned to plan the grounds of Stanford University. Not surprisingly, what was a boy’s source of joy and adventure became a man’s mission: to connect people with nature.
In his book Genius of Place, Justin Martin describes Olmsted’s long road to the art and science of landscape architecture. His thorough original research in personal letters, journals and contemporary news articles slowly reveals pieces of Olmstead’s puzzling life. Martin painstakingly places Olmstead’s accomplishments in a detailed historical context. He reminds us, for example, that there was no formal training in landscape architecture during Olmsted’s time. Not that he would have benefited from it.
Olmstead was an uneasy scholar. But he made up for large gaps in his formal schooling by reading books lent to him by his grandmother and through conversations in the company of other quick-minded women and men,
Not surprisingly, what was a boy’s source of joy and adventure became a man’s mission: to connect people with nature.
including his brother. He attended Yale for a few months, but quickly tired of it. He opted instead for an unlikely (and short-lived) career as a farmer. His widowed father was indulgent and kind, supporting his many adventures and career plans. Father Olmsted funded Frederick’s travels through Europe, purchased a farm for him in Massachusetts, and rarely hesitated to assist either of his sons when they asked for help or guidance.
It takes 460 well-written pages for Martin to document the circuitous and unorthodox path Frederick Law took in defining himself and his work. Foremost, there were Olmsted’s extended travels through the pre-Civil War South. For a New Englander surrounded by expanding industry and urbanization in the north, the oppressive violence of slavery and the economic depression of the South was shocking. The experience made a cautious abolitionist of Olmsted and sharpened his critique of contemporary social injustices. It perhaps was also part of the reason he took a post managing the United States Sanitary Commission, a war relief effort on battlefields near Washington, D.C. and in Virginia. His southern travels certainly inspired his volunteer work with the post-war Southern Famine Relief Coalition, which provided food to starving families in the region, in the late 1860s. It also launched his multiple stints as a journalist, which gave him the voice and readership he needed in later years to promote the parks he created and to encourage conservation.
Despite his varied path, there is nothing to predict that Olmsted would become the nation’s first landscape architect. He came to that profession through the encouragement of a friend. He and artist friend Calvert Vaux designed a unique plan for New York’s proposed Central Park, complete with an ice-skating pond, carriage trails, and natural caves. The design was selected, and they became internationally recognized for the public’s lauding of the place. Olmsted was impassioned by the experience, and he began articulating the need for public natural spaces for the burgeoning cities of the East Coast.
Olmstead wrote of Central Park, “It is the one great purpose of the park to supply hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God’s handiwork that shall be to them, inexpensively, what a month or two in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks is, at great cost, to those in easier circumstances.”
He often undertook landscape design projects at places where his landscapes could provide those who suffered “a sense of calm.”
A park was not to be a place for recreation for the rich, but for the poor. Olmsted never forgot this sentiment throughout his career. He firmly believed that governments had an obligation to provide such places and to protect the natural world for future generations. He devoted much of his writing to this subject, and often undertook landscape design projects at places like mental asylums where his landscapes could provide those who suffered “a sense of calm.”
Lest readers romanticize Olmsted’s vocation, Martin also includes descriptions of the less savory aspects of his subject’s life. For example, many communities were displaced in the creation of Central Park, including a freed slave community called Seneca Village and many poor immigrants living on the margins of society. Martin also recounts the story of the brutal beating of a slave girl in the South, which Olmstead witnessed but did nothing about. Olmstead also served as a gold mine manager in California, with apparently few qualms about the environmental consequences of that work.
In short, Frederick Law Olmsted was a social reformer heavily shaped by the norms of his times. He lived in a tight-knit world of privileged families, where a combination of hard work and good connections ensured success.
It was sheer joy of landscapes that inspired Olmstead to make them accessible to all people.
He lived in a rapidly urbanizing and industrializing region with shrinking green space, growing population, and new social problems. But as best as he could, in the ways he saw fit, he protected land for the sake of people.
Olmsted’s landscapes are characterized by their naturalness. In a choice between rose gardens or wetlands, he would choose wetlands. In a choice between exotic flowers and native prairie grass, he would choose prairie grass. He once said that “landscape moves us in a manner more nearly analogous to the action of music than anything else.” And his landscapes were music indeed: flowing pathways, moving water, bustling corners where people could meet, trees that children could climb.
“Genius loci” or “genius of place” was a term that first referred to spiritual beings who inhabited particular spaces, but it later came to mean that landscapes should be molded to match the natural context. Based on that definition, Martin chose his title for this book well. It was sheer joy of landscapes that inspired Olmstead to make them accessible to all people. Perhaps surprisingly, Frederick Law Olmsted helped design one of the United States’ first suburbs. Not the cookie-cutter, lollipop-looped developments we imagine today, but a place “in stark relief to nearby Chicago where the street scheme was angular and the mood frenzied.” He wanted most desperately to have us look at nature. Thanks to him, we can do just that.
Kelsey Jones-Casey is putting down rootlets in Seattle where she grows garlic, enjoys company, and conducts research on land rights in Africa for Landesa in a city surrounded by mountains and big beautiful water.