Freddy Olmsted was a spoiled brat.
That's not the theme of Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, Justin Martin's biography of the famed landscape architect and "proto-environmentalist," but I could not escape the conclusion as I read this straightforward and enjoyable book.
Before Freddy got around to designing Central Park (with the inspired but impotent Calvert Vaux) in New York, or Prospect Park in Brooklyn, or the Chicago World Fair site, or any of the other parks and estates in the U.S. that helped him establish the field of landscape architecture... before he helped preserve Yosemite or Niagara Falls, in the years before there was a notion of a National Parks system... Olmsted was a chronic failure and a mooch.
He couldn't hack it at school so he moved home with his father and stepmother. He gave up his first job as a surveyor to sail to China. Then he spent a summer on an upstate New York farm, and he became inspired in the way that a good vacation sometimes inspires, and he decided to become a farmer... so he asked his father to buy him a farm. Not just any farm, but a farm in Connecticut on Long Island Sound. What's more amazing: His father bought the farm... and the seed... and the tools and equipment, and everything else Freddy would need (no one really called him Freddy, and in fact he was born into the first generation of Americans to be given middle names, a convention that had previously been viewed as too Old World, too pretentious). Fred gave up after a year, but not before contemplating an expensive renovation to the farmhouse with the nation's premiere architect, Alexander Jackson Davis, even though the farm was a complete failure.
The solution? His father bought Freddy another farm, this one on Staten Island. Fred liked that for awhile and experimented with scientific farming principles just coming into vogue... but then he got the travel bug, so his dad financed a trip to Europe, while all the while subsidizing the farm to the tune of $1,000 a year. (Perspective: Olmsted would be paid a salary of $2,500 when he won the commission to design and build Central Park.) When Freddy returned home, farming seemed boring. Traveling was more fun. So his neighbor, who just happened to be a major publisher, got him a contract to write a book a sprawling book that "reads like a book that has been dashed off in an unholy hurry" and which didn't sell about his European adventures. The awful book won him a job traveling through the South to write about the state of slavery and life in the South for this new little publication that would soon call itself the New York Times. On this assignment, finally, Frederick Law Olmsted did his first meaningful work, writing objectively about life in the South in the years preceding the Civil War. The writing would be influential not only in America, but later in Europe when the South was trying unsuccessfully to bring England into the war on its side. When Olmsted returned to his failing farm, he convinced his father to subsidize his stake in a new publishing company, and when that publishing company decided against publishing Omsted's next book, guess who paid to self-publish the book?
Around this time, Olmsted got involved in designing Central Park, a position that allowed him to find himself, and to impress enough people that, at the outset of the Civil War, he was asked to administer a new government agency charged with improving the health of northern soldiers and healing the wounded. From there he dabbled in a failed gold-mining venture before returning to landscape architecture and establishing himself as the public figure we admire. It is Olmsted, after all, who helped shape our American notions that open spaces are for the people, not for the elite; who helped plant the idea that natural treasures should be preserved as national parks (though that term had not yet been coined); and whose graceful landscape designs have more than endured they've flourished as seedlings planted in Olmsted's day have matured.
I can't figure out what lesson to draw from all this. Olmsted couldn't have succeeded in life without the hand-holding of his rich father. He wouldn't have accomplished such works of lasting value, or established so many ideas of lasting consequence if he came from a poorer family. His genius would have been wasted as a surveyor forced to work hard to actually pay his own bills. His life path seems impossible now. No one gets that many chances. Partially, he's a product of his times, when fewer people and fewer prominent citizens competed for a seemingly unending string of opportunities as the nation grew. But mainly it's because of his rich and over-indulgent father. (By the way, Freddy grew to be a nitpicky and often-cruel father, to his oldest stepson particularly, and an ungenerous administrator of his father's depleted estate after his death.)
But that's the difference between reading a biography and a Wikipedia entry, I guess. Reading this book, you get a full picture of the man, a man frustratingly immature and coddled for so many years, a man struck by personal tragedies I haven't enumerated here, and ultimately a man whose achievements warrant a full-length biography.
Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, $19.50 at amazon.com.
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