In the 1850s, much of New York City was still a place where one could experience something like country darkness and quiet. Above what is now called “midtown,” stretches of the Hudson and East River shores of Manhattan were thickly wooded, with a few houses built on large tracts of privately owned land. The plan to lay out the city according to a grid of numbered streets, adopted in 1811, was still mainly an idea inscribed on maps; and so the topography of New York remained visible—hills, valleys, and outcroppings of rock that have been hidden or eliminated in today’s paved metropolis, where east-west vistas are glimpsed from the street only at block-long intervals or from high-floor windows.
In lower Manhattan, however, a busy—and, to many, a menacing—city was threatening to spill northward. Of New York’s roughly 600,000 inhabitants, nearly one third were children under fifteen, many of whom were orphans or vagrants who worked as peddlers, messengers, newspaper hawkers, or as petty criminals or prostitutes. Respectable women promenading on lower Broadway found themselves ogled, according to the Evening Post, by crowds of “whiskered and mustachioed” foreigners—and every crowd, in the view of many New Yorkers, was potentially a mob. Periodic outbreaks of cholera were blamed on these immigrants, whose numbers had risen rapidly in the 1840s, and who were widely held responsible for the squalor in which they lived, and for the threat that it would spread. The businessman George Templeton Strong, who kept a diary for forty years beginning in 1835, reported that most of his friends never left home without a pistol.
In early 1848, Frederick Law Olmsted, twenty-six-year-old son of a Connecticut dry goods merchant, moved from Sachem’s Head, near New Haven, to the edge of this city of “sunlight and shadows,” as the New-York Daily Times called it, where he tried to make a success of a Staten Island farm that he had bought with help from his father. As Witold Rybczynski makes vivid in A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century, Olmsted’s youth had been a series of false starts. Unable to follow his older brother to Yale because of poor eyesight, he had gone through two failed courtships, suffered from dyspepsia, and was getting a reputation as something of a dabbler—the sort of man about whom relatives whisper with sympathy tinged with contempt. His substitute for formal education was eclectic reading and traveling (he went to China on a merchant ship at the age of twenty-one), which kept his mind open, expectant, and restless even as he fretted about the amateurishness of which he stood accused. Rybczynski speculates that he chose the name “Tosomock” for the Staten Island farm by combining the words “toss” and “amock.” In early 1850, still restless, he wrote his father a letter that Rybczynski says would be “almost comical were it not also touching.” “I have found that my men are all ambitious to do their best when I am absent,” he wrote, announcing his wish to travel to England with his brother and their friend Charles Loring Brace, the future founder of the Children’s Aid Society, to observe British farming techniques.
Rybczynski, whose charming and inventive book Home: The Short History of an Idea (1986) established him as a writer adept at narrating how the private world we take for granted came into being, now turns to the story of how one unpromising man shaped what is sometimes called the “public square” in which we live and move. The story begins in earnest with the trip to England—a country, as Rybczynski remarks, that “became the touchstone for Olmsted’s ideas about rural scenery.” He arrived there in what Olmsted described as “sunny, leafy, blooming May…with hedges, English hedges, hawthorn hedges, all in blossom [and] the mild sun beaming through the watery atmosphere.”
Rybczynski writes about the landscape in the present tense as if he were looking over the great man’s shoulder while Olmsted discovers a country spared, in Rybczynski’s words, “the scorching summers and freezing winters that annually batter the American landscape,” where “the land is not only gentler; it appears more tended [and] the wilderness disappeared a long time ago—much of the country is a garden.” It was in England that Olmsted began to recognize what his New England forebears would have described as his “calling” (the term “landscape architect” did not yet exist). A few years earlier, Edgar Allan Poe had written an eerily prophetic story, “The Domain of Arnheim” (1847), about a man of similar longings and unfulfilled gifts:
No definition had spoken of the landscape-gardener as of the poet; yet it seemed to my friend that the creation of the landscape-garden offered to the proper Muse the most magnificent of opportunities…. In the multiform and multicolor of the flower and the trees, he recognized the most direct and energetic efforts of Nature at physical loveliness. And in the direction or concentration of this effort—or, more properly, in its adaptation to the eyes which were to behold it on earth—he perceived that he should be employing the best means—laboring to the greatest advantage—in the fulfilment, not only of his own destiny as poet, but of the august purposes for which the Deity had implanted the poetic sentiment in man.
In Poe’s story, the man possessed with these ambitions is immensely rich, and roams the earth until he finds “an elevated table-land of wonderful fertility,” which he buys and turns into his private artifact. Olmsted had to wait. Needing to make a living, he accepted an assignment in 1852 from Henry Raymond, editor of the fledgling New-York Daily Times, to travel in the South and send back a series of dispatches about Southern life. What he found was, to his mind, a failed civilization, which he described with irony aimed as much at Northerners wary of fugitive blacks as at Southerners committed to white supremacy: “When the negro is definitely a slave, it would seem that the alleged natural antipathy of the white race to associate with him is lost.” Olmsted thought he was seeing a world of indolence and brutality (he had witnessed the caning of slaves) in which self-reliant, disciplined individuals of the New England type were becoming extinct on both sides of the racial divide. And, he thought, the results of their extinction were written on the Southern landscape itself—which appeared to him as an uncultivated land of lonely roads clogged by packs of “long, lank, bony, snake-headed, hairy, wild” hogs. Only occasionally did one catch sight of a house set back, like Poe’s House of Usher, “with no distinct path leading towards it out of the waggon-track.” Distorted, partial, and partisan as it may have been, Olmsted’s was a devastating portrait (especially since he had begun as a moderate on the slavery question) of a culture that had pretensions to emulate the classical ideals of honor and otium, but that had become dissolute and violent.
Rybczynski devotes an interesting chapter to the contrast Olmsted encountered on a second trip two years later to San Antonio and elsewhere in Texas, where he visited several communities of German emigrants who, “undebilitated by mastership or slaveship,” had created a civic culture with thriving newspapers, free schools, music, gardening and political clubs, and a wide array of tradesmen’s shops. Here was confirmation of his view that the inner convictions of people express themselves in their outward surroundings—in this case in snug and clean houses situated in neighborly proximity to one another—and, just as important, that outward surroundings help to sustain inner convictions. It was all reminiscent, as Rybczynski remarks, of Olmsted’s native town of Hartford, Connecticut.
In the polyglot city of New York, however, where Olmsted was acquiring a reputation for intellectual distinction, there was no hope, or point, in trying to replicate the cozy regularity of a New England village. He had become too cosmopolitan for nostalgia. What he saw in New York—but never with the “let-them-be-damned” disgust felt then, as now, by many outsiders—was the specter of linked deterioration in the inner and outer life. It was a different syndrome from what he had encountered in the South, but no less ominous. As the city choked itself off from light and air (Melville, in his great story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” , described the view from a Wall Street office window as “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life”‘), and gave itself over entirely to the rush and struggle of commerce, it seemed to be cutting itself off from the civic good will of its citizens. New York was acquiring its modern character as a composite of discrete and sharply bordered neighborhoods, and in the process was becoming a city without much open space or a common center.
As early as 1844, the journalist, poet, and editor William Cullen Bryant—after whom the recently restored Bryant Park just west of the New York Public Library is named—had published an editorial in the Evening Post calling for a new city park whose advocates hoped it would function as the “lungs of the city.” By the late 1840s, there was talk of enlarging the ten-acre Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan by hauling in landfill (a technique that, in our own time, has created such add-ons to Manhattan island as Battery Park City), while other candidates for a “people’s park” included the 150 acres known as Jones Wood, between 66th and 75th Streets and Third Avenue and the East River.
There was no precedent for setting aside a large expanse of land within a growing city for the sole purpose of public recreation. The great gardens Olmsted had visited in England, such as Trentham or Kew, belonged to private or royal estates; and even in putatively democratic New York, earlier parks such as Gramercy and St. John’s (which was located near the present-day entrance to the Holland Tunnel) were gated, locked, and accessible only to privileged keyholders who, since they were visible through the fences, were duly resented by the excluded public. Like many New York stories, the story of how a great democratic park came into being in the roiling city is a mixture of civic altruism and private greed. Battery Park and Jones Wood proved inadequate to the need, and when the new park was finally assigned to the area between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, and between 59th and 106th Streets (the northward expansion to 110th Street took place in 1863), it was much vaster than any earlier plan had envisioned—nearly 800 acres.
In the process, fortunes were made and lost. Landowners whose lots fell within its boundaries (not to mention the nearly two thousand “squatters” who, without recognized land deeds, were simply evicted) cried foul at the buyouts imposed on them by the city’s Commission of Estimate. In what the historians Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar call “the first known proposal for a Central Park statue,” one angry landowner demanded that a “monument of brass on which shall be inscribed the complete history of this transaction” be erected in the park as visible testimony to the fraud.1 Yet if some were forced to sell at big losses, others who owned property adjacent to the new park enjoyed big gains, since their property values rose while the assessments they were required to pay to the city were relatively modest. Most of the cost of buying the parkland, and, later, of constructing the park, fell to the taxpayers.
This story of the political maneuvering leading up to the creation of Central Park is a fascinating one, especially, perhaps, to New Yorkers, who have grown used to decades of political stalemate over what to do with the thin ribbon of land that runs between the Hudson River and the West Side Highway (south of another one of Olmsted’s creations, Riverside Park), and who expect constant squabbling over whether or where to build sports stadiums, how to link the city by rail to its airports, and other perennial nonstarters. It is the story of how, once upon a time, New York businessmen, politicians, and the social elite, who regarded the immigrant poor with a combination of alarm and a sense of obligation, forced the withdrawal from the real estate market of a huge piece of incalculably valuable land, and preserved it for public purposes.
But since Olmsted did not become a part of this story until 1857, that story is largely absent from Rybczynski’s book. What we do see is his successful campaign for the job of superintendent of the new park, for which he was favored by New York politicians who had been impressed with his writing for the Times, as well as by such representatives of the social elite as the philanthropists Peter Cooper and James Hamilton (son of Alexander Hamilton). What these men saw in Olmsted was a Yankee fix-it man with an undiscourageable faith that any problem, if attacked with sufficient energy and ingenuity, will eventually yield. And they saw in him as well a man of uncommon foresight. In 1858, in a report to the park’s commissioners, he wrote:
The time will come when New York will be built up, when all the grading and filling will be done, and when the picturesquely-varied, rocky formations of the Island will have been converted into foundations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect, angular buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface, with the single exception of the Park. Then the priceless value of the present picturesque outlines of the ground will be more distinctly perceived, and its adaptability for its purpose more fully recognized. It therefore seems desirable to interfere with its easy, undulating outlines, and picturesque, rocky scenery as little as possible, and, on the other hand, to endeavor rapidly and by every legitimate means, to increase and judiciously develop these particularly individual and characteristic sources of landscape effects.
The term “picturesque,” used three times in this short passage, had a technical meaning in Olmsted’s day. It had been popularized by, among others, the watercolorist William Gilpin, who defined picturesque views as “those which please the eye… from some quality capable of being illustrated by painting.” Nineteenth-century theorists and practitioners of the picturesque had been inspired by the pastoral landscapes of the seventeenth-century French master Claude Lorrain. Composed in both senses of the verb (calm, and consciously designed), a picturesque view was understood to be the opposite and antidote to the sublime, which was associated with such threatening elements as cataracts, stony cliffs, or a glowering sky. The picturesque might include peasants at work or at ease, in scale with (never overwhelmed by) their natural surroundings, and farmhouses or cottages that show marks of exposure but look sturdy and safe. In the early years of pre-camera tourism, the writings of Gilpin and others served as travel guides and painting manuals for Americans who could afford to go on “holiday” to picturesque places such as Tuscany, the lake district of England, or, closer to home, the Berkshires or Adirondacks—places that had already been captured in paint or words by many visitors, but where every country lane promised the prospect of undiscovered views.
This is the aesthetic tradition in which Olmsted found warrant for his plan to “increase and judiciously develop” the New York landscape. He read Gilpin, but he was influenced less by painters than by landscape designers such as the English architect Joseph Paxton, whose Birkenhead Park he had visited on his 1850 trip, and the American Andrew Jackson Downing, whose prestige in the 1840s as a tastemaker for homes and gar-dens Rybczynski aptly compares to that of Terence Conran and Martha Stewart. What Olmsted found in their work was a practical application of Gilpin’s principle that “nature…must be a little assisted” if it is to achieve picturesque effects—by which he meant the strategic placement of trees, rocks, and ponds into pleasing tableaux, and the location of paths so that strollers would experience a succession of varied views.
But Olmsted’s ambition far outstripped that of previous landscape designers. He was dissatisfied with the fact that, as Poe had put it in his prescient story, “no such paradises are to be found in reality as have glowed on the canvas of Claude.” Moreover, the constituency he had in mind was entirely different; he wanted to bring “the priceless value of…landscape effects” to the new urban masses—and not merely by inviting them into picture galleries where nature was represented on canvas, but by making it possible for them actually to enter a composed landscape.2 He “envisioned Central Park,” as Rybczynski says, “as a surrogate Adirondack landscape where ordinary people could get away from their urban surroundings.” In short, Olmsted invented the distinctively American park, which he conceived of as a place where all citizens could find “the feeling of relief… from the cramped, confined, and controlling circumstances of the streets of the town; in other words, a sense of enlarged freedom.”
In narrating the process by which Olmsted turned this novel conception into a reality (contrary to the suspicions of his skeptical relatives, he had real managerial talents, at one point overseeing more than 3,500 workers in the construction of Central Park), Rybczynski is excellent at placing him in his social circle and in the whirl of his times. But he could have done more to see Olmsted in relation to aesthetic and social ideas, ideas that had a long history and were circulating in the writings of Poe and others.
The idea, for instance, that environment exerted a decisive force on character had long been a countertheme to the optimism for which Americans were noted. Thomas Jefferson’s only full-length book, the Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), was written to refute the theory (especially fashionable among French naturalists) that animal and human life in the New World was prone to physical and mental deterioration, and that, therefore, no advanced civilization could take hold on the American continent. This so-called science based its claims on such “evidence” as the relative smallness of the genitals of American “aborigines” and the scrawniness of New World mammals compared to their European counterparts. But Jefferson—devoted as he was to his vision of a virtuous republic sustained by yeoman farmers working the American soil—was at great pains to discredit it. One of his hopes in dispatching Lewis and Clark on their surveying expedition was that they would find evidence that the woolly mammoth once roamed the prairies—conclusive refutation, he thought, of the idea that there was anything puny about the nature and destiny of mammals (including man) in the New World.
Yet Jefferson, too, had his own favored brand of environmental determinism: for him, the force that threatened to drag down the republic was the city, with its cramped quarters, noxious air, and inferior people. “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” Cities were festering sources of infection—and, in a preview of an attitude that remains salient today, they were thought to foster the vice of dependence, since workers depended on wages, and manufacturers and merchants depended on what Jefferson called the “caprice of customers.” Cities seemed suited to sneaks and idlers—but not to citizens.
In this view, cities were expres-sions of moral decline, places where any device or technique to improve the efficiency and speed of human transactions was in demand, while reflection and contemplation were coming to seem archaic forms of self-indulgence—vestiges of a superseded (quasi-aristocratic) way of life. At worst, cities were centers of corruption and vice; at best they were the realized dreams of people with a frankly utilitarian take on the world. Such people were becoming stock figures in the literature of the early republic—the type of person who regards beauty for its own sake as an effeminate luxury, and is impatient to get on with the business of transforming nature into profitable use, like the man Margaret Fuller described in 1843 in her essay about Niagara Falls (the site of one of Olmsted’s later landscaping projects), who “walked close up to the fall, and, after looking at it a moment, with an air as if thinking how he could best appropriate it to his own use, he spat into it.” To many intellectuals, this was an appallingly accurate vision of the American future.
Olmsted himself was not hostile to democracy; but he did worry about America’s destiny (Rybczynski reports that he copied into his notebook a remark from Horace Bushnell’s lecture on “Barbarism the First Danger”—that “emigration…involves a tendency to social decline…a relapse toward barbarism”). The men who hired him to build Central Park were looking to save their city as a place favorable to civilization, as a place where—contrary to the doomsayers—the instincts deemed requisite for citizenship might still take hold. Perhaps his most prestigious champion in his campaign to become park superintendent was Washington Irving, who, at the age of seventy-four, was a living link to the Federalist elite of old New York. Olmsted, I suspect, was Irving’s candidate not just because of what we would call today his successful “networking,” but because Irving recognized in him a kindred mind and spirit. In his famous story “Rip Van Winkle” (1819), Irving had placed Rip between the alternatives of an orderly (picturesque) world and a chaotic (sublime) one. It is an allegory of the American future:
[From a Catskill peak, Rip] could overlook all the lower country for many a mile of rich woodland. He saw at a distance the lordly Hudson, far, far below him, moving on its silent but majestic course, with the reflection of a purple cloud or the sail of a lagging bark here and there sleeping on its glassy bosom, and at last losing itself in the blue highlands.
On the other side he looked down into a deep mountain glen, wild, lonely, and shagged, the bottom filled with fragments from the impending cliffs, and scarcely lighted by the reflected rays of the setting sun.
This vision of the American poised between civilization and savagery was a motif not only in Irving’s stories, but in much of the literature of Olmsted’s youth. It was present, for instance, in James Fenimore Cooper’s borderland stories of pioneers falling into “red” lawlessness as they move beyond the margins of white settlements, and in Poe’s and Hawthorne’s tales of rationality collapsing into one kind of obsession or another.
There was, in other words, an almost Spenglerian fear of degeneration shadowing the minds of Olmsted’s elders; and although he was neither an alarmist nor a nativist, this element of social fear was very much present in his landscape work. Following Kant and Burke and their many popularizers, he believed that the human mind was universally inclined to respond in certain predictable ways to scenes of sublimity (with terror and awe) or of picturesque serenity (with calm, relief, and equanimity). For Olmsted, who commenced his work at just the time when the idea of nature as a work of conscious design was being discredited by Darwin, landscape architecture was a way of creating an environment in which people could feel the immanent presence of a designing (albeit human) intelligence. Again, it was Poe who put the matter most clearly:
In the most rugged of wildernesses—in the most savage of the scenes of pure nature—there is apparent the art of a creator; yet this art is apparent to reflection only; in no respect has it the obvious force of a feeling. Now let us suppose this sense of the Almighty design to be one step depressed—to be brought into something like harmony or consistency with the sense of human art—to form an intermedium between the two…a landscape whose…united beauty, magnificence, and strangeness, shall convey the idea of care, or culture, or superintendence….
Olmsted brought this spirit, I think, to all his projects, such as the redesign of the landscape around Niagara Falls, where in the 1880s he proposed a network of pathways that would allow the “nearness to the eye of illumined spray and mist and fleeting waters, and of the intricate disposition of leaves, with infinitely varied play of light and shadow” to carry the viewer into a disinterested contemplation of nature. He believed, as Rybczynski puts it, that “the experience of scenery, whether man-made or natural, could be a powerful civilizing force.” And to be civilized was not to regard the world as an economic opportunity or a big spittoon, but as a living work of intentionally achieved beauty in which it is a joy to be a sentient being.
Rybczynski writes especially well about Central Park as an artifact embodying this ideal. He describes it as a sprawling trompe l’oeil whose elements work brilliantly together—the diagonal pathways that deflect the eye from looking straight at surrounding buildings, the traverse roadways sunken below park level so that promenaders would not encounter carriage traffic or workmen pulling carts. Even today, ringed as it is by massive buildings, and despite the replacement of carriages by automobiles and the incursion of “attractions” (the zoo, the skating rink, the ever-expanding Metropolitan Museum), the park still screens and mutes the city with amazing effect. Within a few steps after entering, one feels the usually irrepressible city recede and defer to the trees and grass.
A Clearing in the Distance begins on a conventional biographical note—“With his high forehead, wide-set blue eyes, and unruly hair, the young Frederick Olmsted made a strong impression”—but it is not really a biography. It is a valuable essay on the new vocation of landscape architecture as Olmsted adapted it to meet the needs of a future he foresaw with remarkable clarity. But the book does carry us willingly through Olmsted’s life—with informative chapters on his service in the United States Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, on his work as one of the founding editors of The Nation, and on many of his major projects, including some of the country’s earliest suburban communities and parkway systems (he dreamed of a pleasure drive stretching all the way from the Palisades to the Atlantic Ocean) not only in New York, but in Chicago, Boston, and Atlanta.
Over his lifetime of eighty-one years, Olmsted arguably did more than anyone else before or since to reshape the American landscape—at least until the engineers of the Tennessee Valley Authority brought electricity to the rural South, and the builders of interstate highways created the infrastructure for today’s suburbs, “exurbs,” and shopping malls. He became, in the words of his friend Charles Eliot Norton, “first in the production of great works which answer the needs and give expression to the life of our immense and miscellaneous democracy.” Even a selective list of his projects is startling. Some of the late ones were accomplished by his design firm after its leadership had been assumed by his son, and some of the early ones were done in partnership with the architect Calvert Vaux, who once wrote to him about their collaborative achievements, “Possible together, impossible to either alone.” The list begins with his first and most famous project—Central Park—and includes, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, Prospect Park, Fort Greene Park, Tompkins Park, Riverside Park, and Morningside Park, as well as the design or redesign of Cornell University, South Park (Chicago), Yale University, the grounds of the US Capitol, the Back Bay Fens, Arnold Arboretum, and Franklin Park in Boston, Stanford University, the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago, 1893), the National Zoo in Washington, Smith College, and many more.
Like any exceptional life, Olmsted’s is finally recalcitrant to explanation—especially with respect to his great reserves of energy and hope in the face of personal sorrows, including the childhood deaths of two sons. Though Rybczynski indulges himself in some ill-advised short chapters in which he tries to evoke Olmsted’s mood through invented interior monologues for which there is no firm biographical evidence, he generally keeps psychological speculation to a tactful minimum. He hints that Olmsted’s high hope for the civilizing effect of his creations was rooted in his own need for the personal solace he found in cultivated nature. Like many people of ferocious energy, Olmsted suffered from spells of depression. “When Olmsted is blue,” wrote George Templeton Strong, “the logic of his despondency is crushing and terrible.”
And yet, by working in and with nature, he seems to have found a way to imagine the future as fertile and full of hope. A Clearing in the Distance—and here, perhaps, is one implied meaning of Rybczynski’s title—includes some well-chosen photographs showing two of Olmsted’s major works, Central Park and the Lawrenceville School, at different stages of completion over the years. Like Olmsted’s early life, it all seems inauspicious at first: a stonework bridge leads to nowhere in particular; a few squat buildings are laid out in a bare field marked by a lamppost. But in the sequence of pictures we see these man-made structures become parts of an integrated landscape finished by time. Scrubby fields become lawns. Saplings become trees. Low shrubs become leafy canopies—until there is revealed a partly natural, partly constructed world in which millions of people have found respite, and that stands among the signal and sustaining accomplishments of our civilization.
The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 83. ↩
Before the Gilded Age, when the first great private American collections (J.P. Morgan’s, Henry Clay Frick’s) were assembled, genuine old master paintings were rarely seen in the United States. What we would call a “traveling exhibition” might come to town, but it was likely to be filled with bad copies; and acquaintance with European painting was likely (as Albert J. von Frank has written in The Sacred Game: Provincialism and Frontier Consciousness in American Literature, 1630- 1860, Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 125) to be “limited to hand-colored and often cheap engravings” that gave little sense of the vibrancy of the originals on which they were based. ↩