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.
Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) is best remembered today as a landscape designer, well known for his plans for New York's Central Park and Prospect Park, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., and the campus of Stanford University, among other noteworthy sites.
But, writes urban studies professor and accomplished author Witold Rybczynski, Olmsted was an American original, a 19th-century success story who packed many careers and wide learning and travel into a long life. He spent time in China and Europe, managed a California gold mine, edited The Nation, commanded a medical unit in the Civil War, and crisscrossed the United States many times over, writing long reports and articles all the while. (One series of reports urged, for instance, that the then-remote Yosemite region of California be made a national park.) Olmsted, Rybczynski suggests, changed the face of America: he had a vision of the American landscape as a reflection of the national character, with its broad vistas and open skies, and he was concerned to make America's urban spaces livable, bringing "trees and greenery into the congested grid of streets." At Olmsted's urging, many American and Canadian cities adopted his system of parks, broad avenues, and greenways, which encouraged the appreciation and preservation of nature; his influence is felt today in the so-called urban ecology movement, and in dozens of public spaces across the continent.
Rybczynski's fine and illuminating biography of Olmsted shows him to have been a man of many parts, an important historical figure whose legacy remains strong nearly a century after his death. --Gregory McNamee