From Indolence to Immortality: A Map of Olmsted’s Career

A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century , by Witold Rybczynski. Scribner, 480 pages, $28.

Plagued by political infighting and haphazard design, the chronically delayed Hudson River Park is a reminder that a great park requires more than a strip of open land. Frederick Law Olmsted, the 19th-century landscape architect who designed Central Park, had what today’s park planners lack: both the rare ability to imagine what New Yorkers need and the political muscle to make it work. With A Clearing in the Distance , Witold Rybczynski, the author of lively and accessible architectural history and criticism, provides context for the famous landscapes Olmsted “painted” with natural materials across the country.

When Olmsted won the design competition for Central Park in 1858, the 36-year-old had only limited experience in planning and politics and still occasionally relied on his father’s generosity to keep himself afloat. His appointment the year before as superintendent of the park was orchestrated by prominent New Yorkers familiar with his writings on Southern agriculture and London’s parks. Although he wouldn’t fully embrace landscape architecture as his vocation until nearly 10 years later, Olmsted was already something of a visionary: “The time will come when New York will be built up … and when the picturesquely varied, rocky formations of the Island will have been converted into foundations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect, angular buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface, with the single exception of the Park.” With the critical help of gifted architect Calvert Vaux, Olmsted engineered a marvel of urban design, which, almost 150 years later, is still one of the principal reasons New York City is still habitable with a population of more than 7 million.

This astonishing success was not a bolt from the blue. Olmsted’s useful stints as scientific farmer, surveyor, sailor, journalist and businessman involved one or both of his lifelong passions: the study of natural and manmade scenery, and civic improvement. Before finding his true calling, he argued the case against slavery on economic grounds in a series of articles for The New York Times . During the Civil War, he helped establish and run the U.S. Sanitary Commission, precursor to the Red Cross. He pioneered the national park system. He also helped found The Nation . After building Central Park, he designed dozens of landscapes including Prospect Park and Riverside Park, the campuses of Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, and the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C. He also raised four children, including two sons of his brother John Hull, who had died of tuberculosis and whose widow, Mary, Olmsted married.

Throughout his life, recurring illness caused by stress and overwork sent Olmsted abroad in search of salubrious climes, and thus he discovered the healing power of picturesque scenery. After touring in London public parks as beautiful as private estates, he decided that New York needed a “People’s Park” to provide “a sense of enlarged freedom” for regular people: “the feeling of relief experienced by those entering [a park], on escaping from the cramped, confined and controlling circumstances of the streets of the town … is to all, at all times, the most certain and the most valuable gratification afforded by a park.” Olmsted, who grew up wealthy in verdant Connecticut, recognized the universal value of scenery as a powerful civilizing force and agent of social reform. He wrote of his own Central Park: “It is one great purpose of the park to supply to the 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.” Olmsted built Central Park for those of us still saving up for our Hamptons compound.

He didn’t always have an easy time selling his bold ideas to the parks commissioners and private clients because his high standards of design and execution often required a significant cash investment and a slow payoff. In the case of Central Park, these priorities were in direct conflict with the quick, cheap fixes favored by the corrupt Tammany Hall Democrats running the city at the time. But he was a good salesman and skillfully manipulated the press. On several occasions, he enlisted prominent literary friends and newspaper editors such as Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant and George Templeton Strong to launch editorial campaigns to support his bid for a new job or to defend him against a political attack. Unlike Robert Moses, New York’s other uncompromising park builder, however, Olmsted managed to make an omelet without breaking too many eggs; his demanding nature inspired respect and loyalty, not hatred and fear. Even when waging his fiercest political battles, Mr. Rybczynski’s Olmsted is shockingly scrupulous and honorable.

The author is most critical of Olmsted’s indecision (referenced under “indolence” in the index) regarding his career. “Why can’t he just get on with it?” Mr. Rybczynski demands before his tone softens and gives way to personal reverie: “When I was his age … I sketched, wrote poems, fell in and out of love, and taught myself sculpture.” Mr. Rybczynski goes even further with this modish first-person approach to biography; in several imaginary narrative passages scattered throughout A Clearing in the Distance , he tries to “see the world in [Olmsted's] eyes,” as he explains in an author’s note. Hence this glimpse of our hero’s reaction to a successful business meeting: “Olmsted’s indigestion is bothering him–he shouldn’t have eaten so much.” Or again, when Olmsted hears from an old friend “It had made him cry, that letter.” These forays into Olmsted’s psyche notwithstanding, the author conveys little about the intellectual or emotional life of this complicated man. Mr. Rybczynski must have felt something extra was needed–why else insert imaginary episodes from Olmsted’s inner life? The author would have done better to stick to the facts. These passages seem to me more indulgent than evocative; they also suggest that Mr. Rybczynski might be better off nixing that novel he’s clearly itching to write.

A Clearing in the Distance offers some insight into several spheres of 19th-century American life, but it doesn’t quite encompass America in the 19th century as the subtitle promises. It introduces some of the major literary and political players of the period, and reminds us that New York was (and is) run by a surprisingly close-knit intellectual and power elite. But it only briefly examines the social and political undercurrents of the Civil War and its aftermath, and it only touches lightly on the pervasive corruption and political battles in city government during the Tammany Hall era.

Mr. Rybczynski is steadier on his feet when he evaluates Olmsted’s designs and their application, and when he describes his personal experience of the landscapes. Even in his own day, Olmsted’s humane ambitions and accomplishments earned him a reputation as the national authority on parks and urban design. A Clearing in the Distance reminds us of those accomplishments and adds to our appreciation of his priceless contribution to the American landscape.