The following review of Witold Rybczynski's book, "A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century," first appeared in the New York Times on June 13, 1999. It was written by Suzanna Lessard and is reprinted here with her permission.
There is a simplicity, a generosity and, above all, a kind of modesty in Frederick Law Olmsted that is rare in men of great gift. In a portrait of him by John Singer Sargent he stands among blooming laurel, dogwood and rhododendron— the materials of his trade—leaning on a cane, an old man yet with a freshness about him that is almost childlike. He stands fully in the light: there is nothing hidden here. Even the blue sky glimpsed through leaves, painted with frank, modern brushstrokes, is just the sky of the moment.
Witold Rybczynski, who is a professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania and has written eight books, including "City Life" and "Home: The Short History of an Idea," also reflects Olmsted's character in the style in which he renders him in his excellent biography, "A Clearing in the Distance." It's a straightforward work, thorough and respectful, yet easeful in a way that is reminiscent of Olmsted himself.
Olmsted was born in Hartford in 1822. When he was 3 his mother died, and there was then a stepmother and other children while he was sent away to a series of rather odd schools, an experience that left him susceptible to depression and gave him a taste for solitary rambles in the New England landscape. But there is little of the tortured soul about Olmsted. On the contrary, a kind of acceptance of life as it is dealt to him seems to underlie even those black moods that occasionally beset him. His father, a dry-goods merchant, was a loving man and patient with this son, who seemed directionless for a long time, first trying farming (Father bought the farms), then going to sea, then reporting extensively on slavery in the South, publishing several books and eventually going into publishing himself. Though a handsome young man of good family, Olmsted had as much trouble finding a wife as he had settling on an occupation. In the end he married his brother John's widow, with whom he raised several children and stepchildren; he was a faithful husband, albeit one who was often taken away from his family by work.
In 1857, Olmsted managed to wangle a job as superintendent of the Central Park, as it was then called, in New York, a project that was just getting under way. A publishing venture had failed, and he was personally in debt. When the architect Calvert Vaux suggested that they enter the competition for the job of actually designing the park, he agreed: it is typical of Olmsted that he fell by happenstance into the work at which he became a genius. The jury was divided between Democrats, who, paradoxically, were attracted to formal European designs, and Republicans, who liked the English picturesque style that Olmsted had studied intensively in travels abroad. The Republicans were in the majority, and they all picked the submission by Olmsted and Vaux.
Struggles with bureaucrats were to dog Olmsted all his days. At one hearing an important witness said: "Oh, damn the landscape! . . . We don't know anything about your landscape, and we don't know what landscape has to do with the matter before us." Indifference to his talent, sometimes verging on abuse, may be in part why for a long time Olmsted himself didn't think of landscape design as a legitimate profession. The frustrations over Central Park dragged on for years and drove him to quit or threaten to quit several times. This was Olmsted's first attempt at landscape architecture, and the result was the treasure New Yorkers could not live without.
Olmsted occupied his point in time as if it were a hospitable New England mountaintop from which he could see back into the past and forward to the future with equal, matter-of-fact ease. He lived in the Gilded Age but was in no way infected by its excesses or infatuated with its imperialistic and aristocratic dreams. He believed in the restorative power of landscape for ordinary people. In a time of neo-classical fervor, he disliked straight lines. He loved contrasting textures, but it was a cardinal rule with him to blur the boundaries. The architecture of Europe impressed him, but trees were his true love.
Another reason for the humble way Olmsted wore his talent could be that landscape design came to him so naturally. He mapped out a city plan for all of Buffalo in a couple of hours. In 1877, when he was handed the project of designing a park for Montreal's Mont Royal, a steep outcropping of traprock in the middle of the city, he at first expressed ''diffidence in my ability to do justice to so unusual a problem,'' but once he took on the job the design seems to have fallen into place with a kind of inevitability. The ease can be almost disappointing: one wishes to know more about the evolution of these beautiful common grounds that have come to have such meaning to us all.
In Olmsted's midlife, work came to him plentifully, but power politics and budgets that had a tendency to dry up continued to plague him. The decision of a Buffalo official to build his own house in the middle of a public green is an example of the sort of obstruction to his vision that he frequently encountered. In that case Olmsted prevailed. But when Leland Stanford started imposing his own ideas on the plans for Stanford University—usually last-minute inspirations based on things he and his wife had seen on a trip to Europe—Olmsted was furious and withdrew. Rarely did he have a free hand. An exception was Biltmore, George Vanderbilt's estate in North Carolina, the setting in which Sargent painted him.
It was not long after that painting was done that Olmsted, at 71, began to exhibit the symptoms of what seems to be Alzheimer's disease. As soon as he understood the seriousness of his impairment, he began to turn the reins over to his stepson John. Later he was encouraged to go to Maine: from a house on Penobscot Bay he wrote long letters daily about the details of the firm's business. His decline was relentless, however. He died in 1903 at the age of 81.
Early on, Rybczynski identifies the key quality that underlies Olmsted's success—a "long-headedness," as a contemporary called it, the patience and ability to make plans that will not come to fruition for decades and will hold up over centuries. The second quality is one he ''inherited'' from Lancelot (Capability) Brown, the great 18th-century English landscape architect, so nicknamed for his practice of always working with the capability of a site. "It would be wasteful to try to make anything else than a mountain of it," Olmsted advised the commissioners at Montreal, whereas in Prospect Park, his masterpiece, he relied on what he described as the "three grand elements of pastoral landscape"—that is, meadows, forest and water, with which he manufactured scenic effects.
The author has written a transparent book, in which he is a largely retiring but very pleasant guide. Every so often, however, he steps forward in a delightful, casual way, clambering through the underbrush looking for a place where Olmsted once lived, for example, or referring to experiences of his own in order to interpret Olmsted's choices. Another device, used sparingly, is passages in italics in which he describes Olmsted in a particular location at a particular moment and imagines, as a novelist would, what is going on in Olmsted's mind. At first these passages struck me as almost amateurish, and at odds with the disciplined transparency, but I came to look forward to them, in particular for the way in which they evoke place, so much a key to Olmsted's sensibility.
Olmsted's vision was essentially a suburban one. He was happiest living in Brookline, Mass., one of the first suburbs in America. He saw nature as a kind of raw material to be shaped in a sensitive way, always in relation to man's world and yet also gracefully hiding that world. In this he was a man for today. What got lost between then and the suburban present is the sensitivity: the artificial curves of roads in suburban developments, for example, are derived from Olmstedian innovations, but on his plans the curves were barely perceptible. And of course the creation of common land, essential to his vision, also fell by the wayside. Today there is a profound contempt for suburbia in the world of high design, which has abandoned the territory almost completely to developers. Nevertheless, more than half of the population of the United States now chooses to live in suburbia, and behind that fact and the problems that it poses looms the legacy of this quiet giant.
"A Clearing in the Distance" is published in New York by Scribner.