Genius of Place

The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted


By Justin Martin

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The full and definitive biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, influential abolitionist, ardent social reformer and conservationist, and the visionary designer of Central Park

Frederick Law Olmsted is arguably the most important historical figure that the average American knows the least about. Best remembered for his landscape architecture, from New York’s Central Park to Boston’s Emerald Necklace to Stanford University’s campus, Olmsted was also an influential journalist, early voice for the environment, and abolitionist credited with helping dissuade England from joining the South in the Civil War. This momentous career was shadowed by a tragic personal life, also fully portrayed here.Most of all, he was a social reformer. He didn’t simply create places that were beautiful in the abstract. An awesome and timeless intent stands behind Olmsted’s designs, allowing his work to survive to the present day. With our urgent need to revitalize cities and a widespread yearning for green space, his work is more relevant now than it was during his lifetime. Justin Martin restores Olmsted to his rightful place in the pantheon of great Americans.


Greenspan: The Man Behind Money
Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon

"There's a great work wants doing," said FLO.
This book is dedicated to my twin sons, Dash and Theo,
and those are words to live by.

John Olmsted (Courtesy of Historic New England)
FLO and friends (Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)
FLO's brother, John (Historic New England)
Mary Perkins Olmsted (National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)
FLO in cap and cape (National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)
Greensward plan (Courtesy of City of New York/Parks & Recreation)
The Ramble (Courtesy of The Frances Loeb Library, Harvard Graduate School of Design)
The Cave (The Frances Loeb Library, Harvard Graduate School of Design)
Central Park's creators (Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film)
The partners (Both from National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)
U.S. Sanitary Commission (Courtesy of the New York Public Library)
The cannon (Courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society)
Yosemite (Courtesy of the Yosemite Research Library, National Park Service)
Riverside plan (National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)
Fairsted, 99 Steps, and Muddy River (All from National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)
Capitol plan and aerial view (Both courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol)
FLO's three children (The Frances Loeb Library, Harvard Graduate School of Design)
FLO with signature (National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)
World's Fair 1893 (Courtesy of Peter Marsh)
FLO and Marion (National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)
FLO's Sargent portrait (Courtesy of The Biltmore Company, Asheville, North Carolina)
The Biltmore (The Biltmore Company, Asheville, North Carolina)
McLean (Courtesy of McLean Hospital)
The frontispiece on page vi is a woodcut image that appeared in Frederick Law Olmsted's A Journey Through Texas. It was based on a sketch by Olmsted, featuring himself and his brother John camping on the prairie.

Why Olmsted Matters
ON MARCH 25, 1893, a gala dinner was held in honor of Daniel Burnham, driving force behind the Columbian Exposition, a World's Fair about to open in Chicago. Various artists and architects who had worked on the project gathered for this lavish event.
But when Burnham took the stage to be feted, he chose to deflect credit away from himself and onto someone else instead. "Each of you knows the name and genius of him who stands first in the heart and confidence of American artists, the creator of your own parks and many other city parks," said Burnham. "He it is who has been our best adviser and our constant mentor. In the highest sense he is the planner of the Exposition—Frederick Law Olmsted." Burnham paused to let that sink in. Then he added: "An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views. He should stand where I do tonight, not for the deeds of later years alone, but for what his brain has wrought and his pen has taught for half a century." A collective roar went up among those assembled.
Burnham's tribute provides a sense of Olmsted's stature and importance. But effusive as it is, it still fails to do him full justice. His life and career were just too sprawling and spectacular. Ask people today about Olmsted, and they're likely to come back with a few stray details—best case. But his achievements are immense. Olmsted may well be the most important American historical figure that the average person knows least about.
Olmsted is best remembered as the pioneer of landscape architecture in the United States. He created New York City's Central Park and a number of other green spaces, often in collaboration with his sometime partner Calvert Vaux. Olmsted designed the grounds of scores of private estates, Stanford and assorted college campuses, several mental institutions, and a pair of cemeteries. For these achievements alone, Olmsted would have a measure of lasting fame. At a time when open space is at a premium, he's left a legacy of green in city after city across America and in Canada, too.
But he was also an environmentalist. This is a separate role from landscape architect. "I was born for a traveler," Olmsted once said, and he managed to roam most of the country in the course of his lifetime. Along the way, he became aware that some of the most striking natural landscapes were under siege. Olmsted played a crucial role in the early efforts to preserve Yosemite and Niagara Falls, for example. Over time, he began to bring environmental considerations to his park work as well. He designed Boston's Back Bay Fens not only as a park but also as America's very first effort at wetlands restoration.
Preserving wild places is different from crafting urban spaces, and it's a vital Olmsted role that is often overlooked. I devoted a great deal of research time and did abundant spadework in an effort to reconstruct this aspect of his story. This biography is designed, among other things, to give Olmsted his due as a pioneering environmentalist.
But he was so much more. Olmsted was a sailor, a scientific farmer, and a late bloomer nonpareil. During the Civil War, he did a stint as the head of a battlefield relief outfit. (In the postwar years, the outfit—after many twists and convolutions—became the basis for the American Red Cross.) He also took a fascinating detour, moving out to California and managing a legendary but ill-starred gold-mining enterprise.
Olmsted was no dilettante, though. He simply did a lot of different things and did them well. It was the nineteenth century, and a younger America was in the grip of a frontier mind-set. All things seemed possible; all hands on deck. During this era, people didn't have to carve out narrow areas of specialization. It was an ideal time for someone of Olmsted's gifts. Seeking varied experience was his essence, as surely as Mark Twain's essence was to turn a phrase.
At the same time, there's a common theme that runs through many of Olmsted's diverse endeavors. First, last, always, he was a reformer. No disrespect to Americans who came of age in the 1940s, often called the "Greatest Generation," but Olmsted's cohort (those who came of age in the 1840s) was pretty great in its own right. It was an especially socially conscious period in the country's history, and it produced people who fought for the rights of the physically disabled and the mentally ill and—in the North—for the freedom of slaves.
Olmsted was very much a part of his generation. Thus, he didn't become a scientific farmer merely as a way to make a living. He did so because, at a time when America was a predominantly agricultural nation, the vocation represented a chance to benefit society by demonstrating the latest cutting-edge practices. He became a park maker because, at a time when cities were especially dense and teeming, it was a way to provide recreation and relief to the masses.
When it comes to reform, however, there's no question that some of Olmsted's most notable contributions came from yet another erstwhile vocation—journalist. That's what Burnham alluded to when he said "his pen has taught" in the tribute to Olmsted.
During the 1850s, Olmsted traveled throughout the American South as a reporter for a brand-new paper, the New-York Daily Times. (The paper later dropped Daily from it name.) His mandate was to approach the region almost like a foreign correspondent. In the course of his travels, Olmsted interviewed both white plantation owners and black slaves and produced a series of extraordinary dispatches—balanced, penetrating, humane. As a consequence, Olmsted managed to lay bare the evils of slavery in a way that other more polemical works of the era often did not. For Northerners anxious to understand the South in the years right before the Civil War, Olmsted's dispatches were one of the best windows.
When war finally erupted, Olmsted's writings from the 1850s continued to furnish a vital perspective, this time to British readers. Britain was on the fence at the beginning of the conflict, uncertain whether to side with the Union or the Confederacy. In 1861, Olmsted's The Cotton Kingdom—an updated compendium of his collected Southern writings—was published in England. The Cotton Kingdom helped sway British public opinion toward the Union cause.
Olmsted did eventually settle down as a landscape architect, exclusively. Demand for his designs was such that he really didn't have a choice. But when finally forced to pick a career, he brought the sum of all the wildly varied experiences that had come before. That's why Olmsted's work is so gorgeous, so inspired, so dazzlingly set apart. It draws on the numerous disciplines to which he'd been exposed. When Olmsted created the landscape for the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina, in the 1890s, for example, he looked to memories of his long-ago travels throughout the antebellum South. When he designed the grounds for the 1893 World's Fair, he drew on his experiences in China, as a sailor, a half century earlier.
For this book, I also wanted to bring Olmsted's personal life into clearer focus. Previous accounts have tilted into hagiography, casting Olmsted as a kind of radiant figure—a deeply devoted husband and sweet, gentle father. Such portrayals conflate his pastoral park creations with his personal demeanor, which is a mistake. Yes, he created beauty, but he was capable of being a very hard man.
I consulted pertinent letters from five separate archives and spent hours poring over them, deciphering the distinctive handwriting of Olmsted and various intimates, often with the aid of a magnifying glass. That furnished the grist for a more accurate and more human portrait of Olmsted. He was a great artist and a hard-driving reformer, to be sure. He also happens to have had a strained marriage and serious tension within his family. In many ways, the two things were related.
Olmsted had a big life, but also a tough one. He faced more—much more—than his share of tragedy, even by nineteenth-century standards. He contended with the untimely deaths of children, close relations, and dear friends. He suffered various physical ailments, such as the ravages of a near-fatal carriage accident. And he endured assorted forms of psychological torment: insomnia, anxiety, hysterical blindness, and depression. "When Olmsted is blue, the logic of his despondency is crushing and terrible," a friend once said. Olmsted spent his final days in an asylum; in a great irony, it was one for which he had earlier designed the grounds.
But first he accomplished more than most people could in three lifetimes. As a park maker, environmentalist, and abolitionist, Olmsted helped shape modern America. This is his extraordinary story.

"An Enthusiast by Nature"
GROWING UP, 1822–1851

So Very Young
ON APRIL 26, 1822, John and Charlotte Olmsted welcomed a baby known variously as "Fred" and "Fred-Law." He was born in the boomtown of Hartford, Connecticut, at a time when America itself was still in its infancy.
There were twenty-four states then, Missouri being the westernmost, and the United States was still working out its border with the Canadian territories to the North. The country was so sparely populated that on average there were only about twelve people per square mile.
Fred's father had been born in 1791, during George Washington's first term as president. Fred's mother was born in 1800, the dawn of a new century that would bring such innovations as the train, the telegraph, the revolver, and baseball. Fred was the first child for John, age thirty, and Charlotte, age twenty-one. He was named after Frederick Olmsted, John's older brother who had died a few years earlier, and Jonathan Law, Charlotte's adoptive father.
Even the notion of giving a child a middle name, as in Frederick Law Olmsted, was new in this era. Records show that virtually no one born during colonial times had received one. John Quincy Adams, America's sixth president, was the first to have a middle name. Over time, American parents began latching onto this long-standing practice of the European gentry, whiff of pretension and all. The year 1822 produced a bumper crop of middle-named babies; Fred-Law's exact contemporaries include Rutherford Birchard Hayes (the nineteenth president), noted explorer Edward Fitzgerald Beale, and Henry Benjamin Whipple, who would grow up to be the first Episcopal deacon of the future state of Minnesota.
Fred was born into a comfortable household on College Street in Hartford. Circa 1822, the state's capital was a good-size city with a population of nearly 7,000. The place was thriving, thanks to its fortunate location along the banks of the Connecticut River, which flows into Long Island Sound and onward to the Atlantic. This made Hartford perfect as an inland port for shipping traffic between the United States, Europe, and even the Far East. The American insurance industry first took root in Hartford to serve merchants looking for financial protection in the event their wares were lost in shipwrecks. During this period, Hartford also included its share of blacksmiths, saddlers, tailors, masons, and wagon makers. There were thirteen doctors and twenty-two lawyers. There were twelve churches and fourteen taverns.
Fred's father was part owner of Olmsted and King, which occupied a prime location, corner of Main and Pearl streets, right near the statehouse. The store specialized in fabrics that arrived by ship, such as silk from France and wool from Germany. These fabrics were used for everything from curtains to neckties to carpeting. John Olmsted had started the store during the War of 1812. By the time of Fred's birth, it was prospering.
The senior Olmsted was a big man with broad shoulders and a kind of Abe Lincoln–like awkwardness in both dress and manner. He had a keen mind for business, despite receiving little formal education. He was extremely meticulous, too, and kept a diary of sorts, filled with crabbedscript notations on the finances of both his store and his household. Occasionally, he'd add the briefest mention of something of a more personal flavor, such as an illness or his surprise at an uncharacteristically early spring thaw.
At times, John Olmsted could appear very gruff. In social situations especially, he would often retreat to the periphery, where he'd sit quietly and uncomfortably. But the reticence masked perhaps the defining trait of Fred's father. At heart, he was a soft man, capable of real sweetness toward those he loved. His feelings for his young family were fervent.
John Olmsted also felt an intense patriotism for his native Hartford. This he expressed through generous charitable contributions to such Hartford institutions as the nation's first public art museum and third insane asylum. Such was his duty, as a seventh-generation descendant of one of the city's founders, James Olmsted.
In 1632, this original Olmsted set out from Essex, England, aboard the ship Lyon, bound for America. He had buried his wife and lost four of his seven children. Anxious for a fresh start in the New World, he settled first in the colony of Massachusetts. But in 1636, he joined an expedition led by the Reverend Thomas Hooker that headed south on foot to found a new community. The group wound up in the Connecticut Valley and settled in a place they named Hertford, after a town in England. (It was later Americanized to "Hartford.") As part of a land distribution, James Olmsted was given 70 acres along a road that became Front Street.
When Fred was a baby, James Olmsted's colonial-era house was still standing. Generation upon generation of Olmsteds were inextricably tied up with the history of Hartford. Joseph Olmsted was the city's first deacon. Captain Aaron Olmsted was the first in the community to own a piano. Voting records show that even into the 1800s, Olmsted remained the second most common name in Hartford after Hill. Olmsteds were everywhere: Ashbel Olmsted served a term as town clerk; George Olmsted was secretary of the local Temperance Society.
The Olmsted line on his father's side may have dominated the civic life of Hartford, but Fred's very first memory involved his mother. He was about three years old. His mother was sitting under a tree sewing while he played at her feet. It's a hazy little reminiscence, but poignant when one considers what happened soon after.
On February 28, 1826, Charlotte Olmsted died of an overdose of laudanum. Laudanum is a tincture consisting of opiates dissolved in alcohol. It was a common patent medicine, a mainstay in many nineteenth-century American households, used to aid sleep, suppress coughs, relieve menstrual cramps, and myriad other things. Laudanum was also highly addictive and frequently lethal. Charlotte's death happened just six months after the birth of a new baby, John Hull Olmsted. This was her second child—Fred's baby brother.
Supposedly, Charlotte overdosed accidentally, while battling the flu. One wonders whether she took her own life. Maybe she was suffering from postpartum depression, a syndrome entirely unrecognized in that time. Or perhaps she was reeling from the religious revival, which she had attended only a few weeks before her death. Such revivals were part of a fevered effort to stiffen religious conviction that swept across America during the first half of the 1800s. They were highly public events, in which participants were called upon to demonstrate the purity of their faith to the satisfaction of the community. Participating in a revival was known to pitch people into terrible bouts of self-doubt and recrimination.
Olmsted's second memory is clearly from his mother's deathbed. "I chanced to stray into a room at the crisis of a tragedy then occurring and turned and fled from it screaming in a manner adding to the horror of the household," he later recalled. "It was long before I could be soothed and those nearby said to one another that I would never forget what I had seen."
Even as a small boy, Fred began working to blot out the memory. For the rest of his life, his mother's death was something he refused to discuss in any detail. Charlotte Olmsted took an accidental overdose of laudanum. That was that.
Following his wife's death, John Olmsted briefly stopped writing in his diary, a silence that spoke volumes. Then he picked back up with: "No a/c kept of expenses from Feb 24 to March 12." And he added the following brief notation: "Tues Feb 28 at ½ past 5 p.m. my dr wife died & was buried Sunday following."
A grieving John Olmsted left the care of his two young sons to a live-in nurse. After a few months, four-year-old Fred was enrolled in a "dame school." Dame schools offered instruction—often, very casual instruction—at the homes of women in a community. They served as a kind of nineteenth-century version of nursery school. In some cases, the schooling extended through what today would be the first few primary grades. Fred attended Mrs. Jeffry's dame school. There, his days consisted mostly of playing in a nearby brook, chasing frogs, and building dams to trap small fish.
John Olmsted would be a widower for a little more than a year before wedding Mary Ann Bull. His new wife—Fred's stepmother—was twenty-six and came from a prominent Hartford family. Her father was a druggist. A contemporary account calls her a "celebrated beauty of the day" and goes on to describe her as "the leading singer in the Centre Church choir," with a "rich soprano voice." For John, this second marriage appears to have been more of a practical arrangement, hardly a love match. He was raising two small boys. He needed help.
Mary Ann Olmsted was organized, focused, intense. She was extremely devout, to the point of being puritanical. In fact, she and Charlotte had been friends, and together they had attended the religious revival. Apparently, John hoped that his new wife would provide a hard line, realizing all too well that he was inclined to be soft toward his two sons. Furthermore, while John Olmsted was a regular churchgoer, he had failed to experience a genuine conversion—that mysterious but undeniable signal held by Connecticut Congregationalists as proof of true faith. He seems to have hoped that Mary Ann would set an example for his boys, where he was lacking.
Two weeks after the wedding, both Fred and his brother, John, were baptized. Not long after that, Fred was moved to a school run by Naomi Rockwell, considered a more disciplined dame school. He was six now and small compared to his schoolmates. There was a shut-off quality about him that was heartrending, making others want to reach out to him. An older girl named Anne Charlotte Lynch used to pick Fred up at his house and walk him to Miss Rockwell's. She later remembered him as having blue eyes, thick blond curls, and chubby dimpled arms, invariably dressed in a short-sleeved frock.
At Miss Rockwell's, Fred was introduced to a curriculum that drew largely on pedagogical works by residents of Hartford. This was remarkable and rooted in Connecticut's Puritan origins. The first Puritan settlers had been fervent about education on the theory that if they taught their children to read and reason, their principles might be passed along to subsequent generations. As the capital and as an economic and cultural center, Hartford had a long, distinguished history of producing schoolbooks. The homegrown works that Fred studied also happened to be the standard texts adopted by teachers throughout the young nation.
To learn grammar, Fred used The American Spelling Book by Noah Webster, the trailblazing lexicographer and Hartford native. Webster's "blue-back speller" was the text for generations of American school kids. It is arranged according to syllables, starting out with entire passages written in single-syllable words and working its way to five-syllable doozies. Webster was a very pious man, and the "blue-back speller" includes ample religious instruction, even in monosyllabic form:
The way of man is ill.
My son, do as you are bid.
But if you are bid, do no ill.
See not my sin, and let me not go to the pit.
To learn what was where, Fred used A Geography and Atlas, a brand-new book by Hartford resident Jesse Olney. By introducing children first to observable details such as lakes and hills and then moving to the more abstract, such as countries and continents, Olney revolutionized the way that geography was taught. His book quickly became a mainstay in virtually every school in the United States—dame, public, private, or otherwise.
According to notations in John Olmsted's diary, Fred also read various books featuring "Jack Halyard, the Sailor Boy" at Miss Rockwell's school. These fictional tales packed with moral instruction were the work of Hartford's own Samuel Goodrich, who wrote under the name Peter Parley. He was the J. K. Rowling of nineteenth-century America. Parley was mobbed by children during his frequent reading tours, and he sold millions of Jack Halyard tales.
While Miss Rockwell's specialized in one kind of instruction, Fred was receiving equally valuable lessons from his parents. If there's one area where John and Mary Ann Olmsted connected emotionally, it was in their shared appreciation for nature. The couple frequently took their two young boys on horseback rambles through the Connecticut countryside. Even though the Olmsteds were city dwellers, natural splendor was very close at hand. Hartford—bustling civic center that it was—consisted of a mere thirty streets. It was possible, within a matter of minutes, to leave the town utterly behind and travel across broad meadows and over rolling hills, soaking in the beauty of the hinterlands.
Fred rode with his father, sitting on a pillow placed on the saddle. There was little conversation. John and Mary Ann preferred to take in the scenery with a kind of hushed reverence. These quiet family expeditions, devoted to appreciating the landscape and its beauty, made quite an impression on young Fred. Often, the family would stop near a stream so that Fred and his brother could bathe. Or they might have a picnic. The boys would gather wild berries while their stepmother arranged a spread beneath the shade of a tree.
One time, Fred and his father were walking across a meadow as evening was falling, after a long day's ramble. Fred was tired, so his father scooped him up. Fred made a few comments about their surroundings, but his father didn't respond, carrying him in silence. Suddenly, Fred pointed to a star up in the sky. His father hugged him close and mumbled something about the "infinite love" he felt for his son.
That moment stuck with Fred, too. He'd remember it—cling to it even—for the rest of his days. It was a solid marker in a life that would be filled with so much change.
John Olmsted's diary entry for February 8, 1829, was ostensibly a brief note on the weather: "Sunday rain." Then, almost as an afterthought, he scrawled: "Miss Naomi Rockwell buried. Died Friday Eve from burns by clothes taking fire."


On Sale
May 31, 2011
Page Count
496 pages
Da Capo Press

Justin Martin

About the Author

Justin Martin is the author of several books, with his two most recent titles covering Civil War-era subjects. Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians, selected as the outstanding biography of 2014 by the Victoria Society, New York, and as a finalist for the Marfield Prize, was also picked as one of the best books of that year by both the Kansas City Star and Choice magazine. Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted was also met with many plaudits and glowing reviews nationally. Martin lives with his wife and twin sons in Forest Hills Gardens, New York.

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