September 1999

 Excerpt from A Clearing in the Distance

 Table of Contents

A Clearing
in the Distance:

Frederick Law Olmsted and the Genius of Patience

by Woody Arbunkle

A Clearing
in the Distance

Witold Rybczynski
480 pp.
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Lewis Mumford once described Frederick Law Olmsted, the subject of Witold Rybczynski's compelling new biography, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century, as representative of a certain type of mid-nineteenth century American: the self-invented man. As Rybczynski writes,

Mumford compared Olmsted to Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and the economist Henry George, whose Progress and Poverty was one of the bestselling economic books of that time. Mumford could have added Mark Twain and Thomas Edison. All these men came to their calling circuitously. All had little formal schooling and a youth marked by a succession of careers, usually unrelated to their later vocations. Nevertheless, the originality of their ideas was due in no small part to the unconventional course of their early lives.

But Rybczynski rightly distinguishes Olmsted from that group with one key fact: "He was not forced out into the world by strained family circumstances." Indeed, Olmsted's father might even be accused of coddling his eldest son, in an era when most young adults were expected to settle quickly on a profession and pursue it doggedly.

With his father's blessing, though, Olmsted--who would not find his calling until his mid-thirties, when he helped design and supervise the construction of Central Park--wandered in and out of a variety of professions. First, the teenaged Olmsted worked as an apprentice surveyor. But he soon grew tired of it, and his father arranged for him to work as an apprentice clerk in Manhattan. Then, just before he turned twenty-one, he signed up to sail to China on a merchant ship. (Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast had been published two years earlier in 1840, and reading it sent many young men like Olmsted to sea.) Predictably, it was not a pleasant journey. He was seasick, came down with typhoid, visited only a single Chinese city and got scurvy on the voyage home. Clearly, he wasn't called to a life at sea.

He next spent five months working on an uncle's farm, and it is here that he first found something that felt comfortable (it also marks his first efforts at writing about a landscape he had himself helped create). After another stint on a farm--this one run by a "scientific farmer" (as they were then called) who possessed the "new knowledge of fertilizers, plant nutrition, and field drainage, a knowledge based not on traditional practice but on science"--Olmsted decided he wanted to be a scientific farmer and began taking courses at Yale to prepare himself.

In 1847, his father gave him money to buy a seventy-five acre farm on the shore of Long Island Sound. Only a little over half of it was arable land, but despite his professed goals, Olmsted was interested in something more than scientifically based productivity: he wanted a beautiful farm. To his father's alarm, he began improving the farm in ways that didn't boost productivity. But when the experiment proved financially unsustainable, his father again came to his aid, lending him the money for a larger, more productive farm on Staten Island.

Still, the land's aesthetic potential drew Olmsted's eye, and in addition to improving the quality of the soil, Rybczynski writes,


He moved the barns and outbuildings away from the house to a more discreet location behind a knoll and rerouted the approach road to the house so that it followed a graceful curve. He sodded the area around a utilitarian barnyard pond at the rear of the house and added water plants to further enhance the scenic effect.


His wealthy neighbors were impressed, and Olmsted soon found himself giving advice about landscaping and even became a founding member of the county agricultural society, for which he wrote supportive essays.

Soon, though, Olmsted realized he couldn't make his farm's ordinary crops pay for its improvements, and he came up with a novel solution: he would redesign the farm as a nursery for ornamental and shade trees to be used for New York's growing number of suburban and summer houses. It was a profitable scheme. But it was a seemingly wasteful trip to Europe--after all, how could he leave the farm for six months?--that defined his future because in England he saw firsthand what he would try to recreate as an ideal:


England became the touchstone for Olmsted's ideas about rural scenery. He swallowed the English countryside whole, but he did more than merely succumb to its visual delights. His own modest efforts at landscaping Tosomock Farm had evidently awakened in him a desire to understand exactly how natural elements could be manipulated to create an effect of picturesqueness or sublimity.


Upon his return to the farm, Olmsted found his previous way of life rather provincial. Rejecting an invitation to enter politics, he turned to writing with an article on Birkenhead Park, the Liverpool public park designed by Joseph Paxton (who would later design the Crystal Palace for the 1851 International Exhibition in London). As Olmsted pointed out to his readers, Liverpool bucked European tradition by financing and building the public park as a municipal project. (Normally, European parks were either donated estates or privately owned gardens in which the public was allowed to stroll.)

Emboldened by the article's reception, Olmsted wrote a book called Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England. The first volume appeared in February 1852, and the two volumes together were successful enough to be reprinted in 1859. In the meantime, the publisher of the New-York Daily Times offered him a job as a correspondent traveling in the South and writing about the effects of slavery on its rural life. Olmsted readily accepted, and the series was successful enough (fifty-four articles were published) for the publisher to send Olmsted to Texas with much the same assignment. After nine months, Olmsted returned to his farm and began the first of what would become three books based on his Southern travels.

Olmsted's literary reputation grew, and his interest in being a full-time farmer waned. Soon, he convinced his father to buy him the third partnership of a magazine, on the condition that Olmsted sign the title on the farm over to his brother. Almost immediately, Olmsted was working as the magazine's managing editor. But after building the magazine's reputation and securing ties with British publishers to insure they would not be merely 'pirating' British authors (as their chief rival, Harper's Monthly, was), Olmsted left the firm to return to full-time writing.

As fate would have it, though, the firm was declared bankrupt, and Olmsted's investment (his father's, actually) seemed lost. And then a job prospect appeared: a superintendent was needed for the new, as yet undesigned Central Park project. After heavy campaigning, the board voted to hire Olmsted, eight to one.

And finally, it would seem, Olmsted had found his place. It didn't mean, though, that Olmsted's future would be more sedate or his jobs narrower in focus.


Central Park's Mall in 1863.
In addition to asserting his authority with a large work force and winning the board's confidence, Olmsted drew up plans with a young English architect named Calvert Vaux and submitted them in the design competition for Central Park. In a field of thirty-three entries that ranged from formal European gardens to naturalistic English gardens, Vaux and Olmsted's proposal won.

The Mall in 1894.
As Rybczynski points out, Vaux and Olmsted handily incorporated a variety of elements stipulated by the commissioners--three playing fields, a parade ground, a skating pond, a large fountain, a garden, a tower and an exhibition building. And they found a cunning solution to the site's awkward dimensions by creating diagonal sight lines to draw the viewer's eye away from the shallow, half-mile-wide park. But, Rybczynski writes,

Perhaps their most successful illusion--certainly the most original--was the way that they dealt with the competition program's difficult requirement that four or more public streets traverse the park. City traffic would have been a noisy and dangerous intrusion and would have destroyed the effect of country scenery. Vaux and Olmsted placed the streets in large excavated trenches, eight feet below ground. Like the British ha-ha, or sunk fence, the sunken streets dealt with a functional necessity in such a way that the visual continuity of the landscape remained undisturbed; pedestrian ways, carriage roads, and bridle paths simply bridged the streets. This also had the advantage of allowing the park to be closed at night without interrupting traffic. No other entry included this feature.


Of course, the design's naturalistic appearance was to be a hard-won artifice. Pipes had to be buried to drain the swampy areas, the lawns needed fertilizers and seed, 300,000 trees had to be planted, and millions of cubic yards of stone and dirt had to be moved--by hand.

The project wasn't totally free of power struggles and political in-fighting, of course, but Olmsted managed his assignment well, considering he had to share hiring and firing authority as well as being taken to task for seemingly minor expenditures. In the meantime, though, the slavery issue that Olmsted had dedicated three books to erupted in war, and Olmsted took paid leave from the Central Park project to serve as the chief executive officer of the United States Sanitary Commission--"a civilian agency," Rybczynski writes, which "would monitor the health and sanitary conditions of troops and would advise the army's Medical Bureau."


True to form, Olmsted threw himself aggressively into the Sanitary Commission's cause, contracting jaundice while aboard a hospital ship in the Virginia peninsula, having dinner with Ulysses S. Grant during Grant's siege of Vicksburg and efficiently overseeing the transport of medical supplies to such pivotal battles as Gettysburg and Antietam (indeed, Olmsted's supervision was so efficient that the medical supplies actually arrived by wagon train a day before the battle started in Antietam).

In the meantime, Olmsted and Vaux were appointed as "Landscape Architects to the Board," but Olmsted was overextended with his Commission work, and Vaux found working with the Central Park board to be hopeless. On May 12, 1862, they resigned their firm from the board, thereby ending Olmsted's chances of returning as superintendent after the war ended.

Immediately, Olmsted found himself facing an interesting proposal: E.L. Godkin, a journalist friend, asked Olmsted if he would be interested in co-founding a weekly newsmagazine that would, in Godkin's words, "secure a more careful, accurate and elaborate discussion of political, economical and commercial topics, than is possible in the columns of the daily press." He readily expressed interest, but while they were busy raising start-up funds, Olmsted got another job offer: would he like to manage a large goldmining site in California?

This time, Olmsted hesitated, since taking the job would mean resigning from the Sanitary Commission and turning his back on public service during war. But he was $12,000 in debt, the newsmagazine's future was still unsettled, and the mining operation was enormous (it covered seventy square miles). Eventually, after much hand-wringing, Olmsted decided to accept the mine offer.


The management experience Olmsted had gained while working on Central Park and the Sanitary Commission came in handy once he reached California, because after he reduced wages to offset the mines' losses, he was embroiled in a large strike. Unmoved, he hired replacement workers and posted guards at the entrances, and after five days, the strike ended. Shortly afterwards, though, Olmsted was diagnosed with an enlarged heart and ordered to rest. It was, as Rybczynski notes, the first time in a decade that Olmsted slowed down.

He spent time with his family, exploring the wilderness and taking trips into the Sierra Nevada to escape the California heat. Despite his friends back East seeing it as an exile, it was an idyllic period for Olmsted. And on top of everything else, he actually made enough money to pay off his debts and invest conservatively in stocks. (His annual salary, in modern dollars, was $300,000.) Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Olmsted, the mining company was in the midst of a financial scandal, and Olmsted found himself acting as the mediator for the forces that were vying for control of the mines.

In time, payment of his salary was stopped, and he accepted a job designing an Oakland cemetery.


The notion of landscaping suitable to an arid climate had absorbed Olmsted. He realized that he could not hope to replicate a conventional rural cemetery. "You must then look to an entirely different way of accomplishing the end in view, and to entirely different measures from those made use of in the East," he counseled his clients.


Instead of creating a Mount Auburn in the desert then, as Rybczynski observes, Olmsted created for Oakland "neither a garden nor a park but a city...of the dead."

Other small projects followed, but Olmsted suffered bouts of depression. The fall of Richmond and Lee's subsequent surrender at Appomattax cheered him up, though, and while "appalled" by Lincoln's assassination, he wrote to a friend that "At any rate the nation lives and is immortal, and Slavery is dead. Enough for us."

Still, his business worries continued, and in an ill-fated move, Olmsted signed over the mining estate to its principal creditor (the U.S. commissioner who later investigated the company called Olmsted's move "a stupendous folly").

Time passed, and then, with another swing of fate, Olmsted learned the funds had been raised back East to start the newsmagazine. (It would become The Nation, and Olmsted would serve briefly as its associate editor and would be a part owner for several years.) Then Calvert Vaux wrote that a new park was being planned for Brooklyn. After months of Vaux's entreaties, Olmsted agreed to move back East and return in earnest to landscape architecture.


Prospect Park--as the Brooklyn park project was later named--marked a distinct maturation in Olmsted and Vaux's work, as Rybczynski notes:


Central Park is an impressive achievement for two neophytes, but it is the work of beginners. Its many different parts barely hold together--they are simply fitted into the awkward rectangle, side by side. There is no narrative thread. Prospect Park is different. Its elements demonstrate, with startling clarity, both variety and unity. Each has its own character yet interacts with its neighbor. Each also has a meaning. Laurie Olin describes Prospect Park as "a meditation on post-Civil War America": a transcendental vision of a unified, peaceful country, in which the meadows represent agriculture, the wooded terrain is the American wilderness, and the lakeside terrace and its more refined architecture, civilization. Neither Olmsted nor Vaux anywhere enunciates this compelling vision, but then artists are often reticent about their work.


Olmsted's next project, a public park in San Francisco, was never developed, but Rybczynski argues that


it represents a turning point in his career. More was involved here than landscaping; the park and promenade were conceived on the scale of an entire city. The ability to think on a large scale, to project himself into the future, and to quickly master broad issues were skills Olmsted acquired while he was directing the United States Sanitary Commission, managing the Mariposa Estate, and chairing the Yosemite Commission. All these projects depended on his ability to digest and organize large amounts of information, and to integrate diverse requirements. All involved planning in time as well as space.


That last sentence is central to one of Rybczynski's abiding themes in the biography: in at least this one sense--his "greater aptitude for patience"-- Olmsted was a genius. (Olmsted himself acknowledged that "I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future.")

Indeed, it's Olmsted's prescience--his ability to understand how a town would grow and how, in turn, its needs would change--that makes projects (to which he gave increasingly undivided attention in later life) age so well. His design for Chicago's Riverside subdivision was, in Rybczynski's words, "the first fully realized rendering of this American ideal: a compromise between private and public, between domesticity and community, between the city and the country." In Olmsted's words, "The official qualification of a suburb is domesticity, and to the emphasizing of the idea of habitation, all that favors movement should be subordinated."

Today, of course, this shift away from the suburbs merely as a quiet neighborhood at the end of a long commute is getting a serious second look in a series of village-based experiments, with an emphasis on the domesticity and subordination of the automobile that Olmsted extolled, decades before the automobile was invented.

Clearing in the Distance is something of a departure for Rybczynski: it's his longest work to date and the first to focus on a person rather than a concept (in the past, of course, he's written about home, weekends, airport design and city life, among other things). Happily, he manages the transition quite successfully--largely because, as he did in his earlier books (and essays), he sticks to traditional structures and writes in a casual, easily read voice. Indeed, in the spirit of the occasional essay genre he works in so well, Rybczynski often slips himself into the biography quite comfortably in the first person. ("And now, I feel myself becoming impatient with Olmsted," he writes at one point.) The effect of such loose, conversational devices is remarkably seductive.

He isn't unwilling to experiment a bit, though. In one of the more interesting liberties he takes with the standard biography genre, Rybczynski includes several short vignettes that break free from traditional fact-bound structures and show us what Olmsted might have been thinking and feeling at particular, imagined moments. Thus, for example, Rybczynski offers a passage that explores what Olmsted might have been feeling during his first night alone in the Long Island farmhouse. Later, in a particularly powerful passage, Rybczynski imagines Olmsted (now an older man, working on the Central Park project), sitting on a sunny veranda and writing a letter to his father about a pair of awful events: Olmsted has broken his leg in three places and his two-month-old son has died suddenly and unexpectedly. While he mulls over his loss in the warm sun, Olmsted finds himself unable to tell his father about his feelings:


Olmsted writes of everything except the one thing that is foremost in his thoughts. His son, John Theodore, is dead. He died suddenly of infant cholera, only eight days after the carriage accident. He was exactly two months old. Olmsted knows that his father, who had lost three of his children, sympathizes with him and would like to know how he and Mary are doing. He will have to read between the lines. "Mary rather worse--pretty constant sharp and sick headache. Took advice of doctor yesterday--simply ordered to be quiet & take it easy. Only wants strength." Poor Mary! It has been hardest on her. He has his work to occupy him. He is still not mobile, but his staff make their reports at his bedside, and he has himself carried about the park regularly on a litter chair. Without the activity he might have been overwhelmed.

He has stopped writing now. He is staring out at the park--his park--but his eyes are unfocused. The sheet of paper slips from his fingers and flutters to the floor. He does not notice. He sits a long time. Eventually, as the sun swings around to the west, the shaded veranda turns cool. He painfully eases himself out of the chair with the help of the crutches and limps indoors.


This passage is drawn from one of the better vignettes, but they are each of them satisfying exercises, and only the most conservative reader will look askance at Rybczynski's taking such liberties with the genre. Less rigid readers will find them liberating and useful tools that would add imagination to more than a few dull biographies.

As Rybczynski's subtitle ("Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century") suggests, a biography of Olmsted casts a wide net over a century's history: from an innocent, humble New England childhood, he grew up to take an active role in the abolition movement and the subsequent war, traveled West and lived in what Willa Cather called "a country still waiting to be made into a landscape," and came back East to design public parks and towns to assuage the burdens of increasing urbanization.

In some sense, Olmsted's life followed the course of the century, from self-taught men to urban professionals, and he managed to create forward-looking spaces that continue to serve their long-sighted intentions more than a century after their planning. A Clearing in the Distance, then, gives us both a history and a life that have resonance even today. Click here to find any book!


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 Excerpt from A Clearing in the Distance

 Table of Contents

Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 1999
riverrun enterprises, inc.