A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century

Witold Rybczynski, Author Scribner Book Company $63 (480p) ISBN 978-0-684-82463-5
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 parks--Manhattan's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park, the Fens in Boston and others in Buffalo, Louisville and Chicago--Olmstead (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)
Reviewed on: 06/07/1999
Release date: 06/01/1999
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