The remarkable story of America’s first, and still foremost, landscape architect.
By 1857, when he applied to superintend the creation of a large green space in the middle of Manhattan, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) had already worked briefly as a clerk, surveyor, sailor, farmer, journalist, book author and publisher. He’d applied his restless intelligence to a variety of social issues, most notably abolition, and during the Civil War helmed the United States Sanitary Commission and then supervised a gold-mining operation in California. But it was the New York City opportunity, enhanced when he and architect Calvert Vaux won a design competition for the project, which became his true vocation. Almost universal applause had greeted the creation of Central Park. After 1867, having teamed with Vaux again to design Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Olmsted accepted a variety of landscape commissions for public parks, university campuses, planned communities and institutional and private grounds that, taken together, transformed notions of how the built environment could brush up against nature. Martin (Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon, 2002, etc.) examines many of the most conspicuous projects, but he focuses on Olmsted the man, demonstrating how each interlude in this unusually crowded life shaped his genius. Smoothly detailing Olmsted’s many interests and varied experiences (including his work as a proto-environmentalist and conservationist), chronicling the unusual number of personal tragedies, infirmities and ailments that plagued him, charting the evolution of his thinking and introducing us to the wide range of colleagues, friends and family who supported him, Martin helps explain the driven, artistic temperament that informed the famed landscapes. He persuasively casts Olmsted as essentially a social reformer whose passion for meaningful work found its most complete expression in the creation of public spaces intended for the enjoyment of all.
A revealing look at a still-underappreciated giant whose work touches posterity more intimately and more delightfully than many of his distinguished Civil War–era contemporaries.