A Clearing in the Distance

by Witold Rybczynski
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1889

The title of Witold Rybczynski’s biography of Frederick Law Olmsted alludes to the great landscape architect’s habit of taking the long view—looking past present considerations to a fulfillment that might require decades. As this practitioner of the art of landscape design realized, nature cannot be hurried.

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That Frederick Law Olmsted was not a man to be hurried became evident in his early years. In his twenties he resembled a type common today but nonexistent in his time: the vocationally uncommitted young man, financially dependent on patient but anxious parents yet not terribly eager to emerge from a prolonged adolescence. An indifferent student whose father would nevertheless have supported him through college had he wanted to go, the young Olmsted first trained to be a surveyor, then took up the duties of a clerk in a dry goods establishment, and at nineteen signed on as a deckhand on a merchant ship bound for China. One voyage convinced him that he was no sailor. Could he be a farmer? After Fred spent some months as a hired hand, John Olmsted staked him to his own farm; it appeared that the young man might succeed as a farmer—if indeed he could be convinced to become anything. One is inclined, however, to doubt that a true farmer would decide, as he did, to take six months off to travel around Europe.

What Olmsted did have was the capacity to learn from these youthful experiences and from a series of seemingly unrelated positions he filled later—writer of articles on social and economic conditions in the South in the early 1850’s for The New York Times and Putnam’s Magazine, superintendent of construction of Central Park in New York, director of the United States Sanitary Commission—a forerunner of the Red Cross—during the Civil War, manager of the famous (and ultimately infamous) Mariposa mining endeavor in California, and chairman of the Yosemite Commission, a body whose work in effect began the National Park system. Olmsted obtained such positions because he had the knack of making a favorable impression on influential people, because he was skilled at representing his sometimes dubious credentials in the best possible light, and because he was lucky in such matters. Once he had obtained a position, he invariably did a good job, sometimes a superior one.

His profession was, in fact, waiting for someone to invent it. He was in his mid-thirties when, at the suggestion of a member of the commission responsible for the fashioning of Central Park in Manhattan, he took up the first of the designing and landscaping achievements for which he is now famous. His title was at first simply superintendent—his duties, at least in the minds of the park commissioners, the direction of the hundreds of workmen and the establishment of an adequate police force for the project. The chief engineer, Colonel Egbert Viele, had submitted a design for the park, but Mayor Fernando Wood did not approve of it. Thus the way was open for Olmsted to impose his own imagination on these eight-hundred-odd acres in the middle of Manhattan. He was fortunate to obtain in Calvert Vaux a partner with a much stronger architectural background than his own. Together the two men submitted a design that won the commissioners’ approval, and Olmsted’s title was upgraded to architect-in-chief. He learned many lessons about politics, and he became proficient at manipulating the political figures whose cooperation was essential but frequently difficult to effect. He proved to be a stubborn young man who won major battles by the expedient of threatening to quit the project rather than submit to anything he considered unreasonably restrictive. He later would walk away from other commissions for this reason; one example was the campus of Stanford University, when its benefactor, railroad magnate Leland Stanford, tried to countermand his design. Today Central Park seems like the obvious beginning of his career, but the truth is that nearly a decade later, he was wondering whether to become a railroad executive, a newspaper editor, or perhaps a consul in the Foreign Service.

In the interim, the most improbable of all his various endeavors, his management of the Mariposa gold mining property, cast him into the proximity of the colossal California sequoia trees and the wonders of Yosemite, and thus not only honed his administrative skills but added an important dimension to his long- standing appreciation of the natural scene. His interest in social reform, guided by the influence of his friend from early days, Charles Loring Brace (who directed the Children’s Aid Society for many years), sharpened by his observations of the slave system in the American South in the 1850’s, and brought to fruition in his work for the Sanitary Commission, now coalesced with his penchant for scenic design. When, in 1865, Vaux invited him to participate in the establishment of another park in Brooklyn, Olmstead, forced out of Mariposa by a financial failure that was no fault of his, made a decision that finally determined his vocation as landscape architect. Of the many Olmsted projects that followed, a sizable number reflected Olmsted’s determination to provide American city dwellers with benefits of the sort he had previously witnessed almost exclusively on the private estates of European gentry.

The author sees Olmsted as a visionary, a man who could see in the nation’s still young and small cities the unhappy prospect of vast urban stretches without natural beauty or the opportunity for the physical, and especially spiritual, refreshment that, as a sensitive child of his century, he was sure well- designed open spaces could provide for their burgeoning populations. He foresaw that urbanization would destroy the very topographical features that could be the focal points of public parks. In one of his reports to the commissioners of the Central Park project, he warned that the “present varied surface” of Manhattan could not survive the grid of streets that was creeping northward and would inevitably extend over the length and width of the borough. He formed the habit of imagining what the open areas he undertook to design would look like after many decades, knowing that he would not live to see the eventual splendor of many—probably most—of his parks, tree-lined avenues, and campuses. The most valuable photographs in the book are paired ones, showing some of his works shortly after completion, when they tended to look raw and almost disappointingly understated, and after the plantings—usually trees, for Olmsted was little interested in flowers and small shrubs—had had a chance to mature.

Although Olmsted in his middle and later years presented a kindly, almost cherubic appearance, he had learned to be tough, decisive, and uncompromisingly demanding when necessary. He was particularly rigorous with two sons who essayed, not without plenty of encouragement from him, to follow in his footsteps. This late- maturing man, the beneficiary of his own father’s almost infinite patience, scolded his stepson John unmercifully when, at age twenty-five, the latter seemed to be drifting. His own son with Mary Perkins Olmsted, the widow of his brother John, found himself peppered with instructions following his decision to pursue the profession of landscape architect. The knowledge that Frederick Sr. garnered haphazardly while wandering abroad, Frederick Jr. was forced to pursue systematically. Olmsted was, of course, seeking to speed up the process that had brought him to his true life’s work late, but it probably did not occur to him that efficiency was bought at the expense of the joyousness he had felt while making serendipitous discoveries in his own sweet time.

One reason for his severity as a taskmaster was his recognition that the younger Olmsteds possessed only moderate talent. With his usual foresight he wanted his name—eventually a revered one—to persist beyond his own time. He was always a shrewd judge of talent and had been quick to form productive relationships with the greatest building architects of his time. His partnership with Vaux, to whom he did not always allot the credit deserved, advanced his career significantly. His association with Henry Hobson Richardson effected such noteworthy achievements as the state capitol buildings and grounds in Albany, New York, and a number of celebrated works, both public and private, for the Ames family in North Easton, Massachusetts. Working with the eminent architect Richard Morris Hunt, he designed the grounds of Biltmore, George Washington Vanderbilt’s spectacular estate in Asheville, North Carolina. The young Olmsteds would have to work hard to maintain the Olmsted reputation—and they did.

Though a vigorous and energetic man, Olmsted suffered a succession of illnesses and injuries. As a teenager he contracted eye trouble, probably conjunctivitis, which may partly explain his failure to attend college. At thirty-eight he broke his left thigh in three places in a fall from a horse. Fearing the onset of gangrene, surgeons wanted to amputate his leg but decided that he might not survive the operation. They finally did nothing, and the leg healed but came out shorter than the other; Olmsted limped for the rest of his life. At forty-two he was diagnosed as having an enlarged heart and warned that he faced invalidism—at a time when he had yet to begin systematically the profession for which he is now known. The most serious of his health problems, however, may have been chronic depression. The deaths of dear ones, fears that he might leave his family unprovided for at his death, and professional disappointments incapacitated him for months at a time. Still working in his seventies, he gradually succumbed to what appears to have been Alzheimer’s disease and had to spend his last five years in the McLean Asylum in Waverly, Massachusetts, whose grounds he had once designed. He died there at eighty-one.

Rybczynski first became acquainted with Olmsted’s work when, as a college student in Montreal, he frequently walked on Mount Royal, a park designed by Olmsted. Now an architect and urbanologist himself, the author expressed his sense of kinship with his subject by eschewing the modern biographer’s typical impersonality and breaking occasionally into the first person. He has also interpolated into his narrative eight “vignettes,” in most of which he attempts to present selected moments in Olmsted’s life “through his eyes.” Though based on the historical record, these italicized insertions, averaging about three pages, draw also on his imagination. The last of these, however, focuses not on Olmsted but on two people strolling through Prospect Park in Brooklyn in 1997; they are the author and the administrator of the park, who is explaining to him a current restoration of as much as possible of the original Vaux-Olmsted design.

Rybczynski’s book is engagingly written. One curious error occurs on page 241, where the author refers to the well-known New York political operative Thurlow Weed as “Weed Thurlow.” It is regrettable that the sixteen pages of photographs do not include several to which he refers specifically in his text. These minor points aside, A Clearing in the Distance is an admirable life of a man whose legacy millions of people in various parts of the United States continue to enjoy.

Sources for Further Study

American Scholar 68 (Summer, 1999): 142.

Booklist 95 (May 15, 1999): 1659.

Library Journal 124 (May 15, 1999): 104.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (June 13, 1999): 7.

Publishers Weekly 246 (May 31, 1999): 76.

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