Genius of Place
Frederick Law Olmsted – a man of strange and restless talent – dreamed of making a better, greener world accessible to all.
It was Frederick Law Olmsted’s biggest break. But when the job was first offered to him it looked a lot more like a last resort.Skip to next paragraph
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In 1857, at the age of 35, Olmsted – who had already failed twice as a “scientific farmer” and then went on to lose thousands of dollars as a publisher – was offered a salary of $1,500 to clear stones and drain swamps in the middle of New York City. At the moment, Olmsted’s shoes were in tatters and he had no money for rent. “What else can I do for a living?” he moaned as he accepted the title of superintendent of a brand-new work in progress: New York’s Central Park.
Olmsted was “a late bloomer nonpareil,” writes Justin Martin in his thorough, admiring biography Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted. Martin does an excellent job of tracing the development of this multitalented genius and – by the book’s end – makes a powerful case for Olmsted as a reformer who not only created some of the world’s most beautiful parkland but also helped to shape our lives and public spaces as we know them today.
As a dreamy young man who loved to read, beautify farmland, and travel – and whose father could afford to send him to visit Europe’s most wonderful gardens – Olmsted had turned himself into a landscape architect without knowing what he was doing. (The field did not exist at the time.) But suddenly, in Central Park, he was in exactly the right place at the right time. Paired with the talented and like-minded architect Calvert Vaux, Olmsted submitted a plan for the development of Central Park that, by comparison, left the ideas of his closest rival looking “commonplace and tasteless.”
The ideal of Olmsted’s life was that green spaces should nourish the city dweller’s innate hunger for natural beauty. Where his contemporaries cherished no higher vision for Central Park than a tedious set of statues and parade grounds, he dreamed of glorious vistas that would “supply the hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God’s handiwork.”
Olmsted’s success in creating a showcase of natural beauty in Central Park was so overwhelming that suddenly his talents were wanted all over America. Among many other achievements, Olmsted went on to design more than 30 major parks in US cities. He worked on the US Capitol grounds and several prestigious US college campuses, including Stanford University. He was also an early environmentalist who was instrumental in advocating for the preservation of sites of great natural beauty like Yosemite and Niagara Falls.