The Genius of the Place

FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted

by Laura Wood Roper
Johns Hopkins University Press, 555 pp., $15.00

Frederick Law Olmsted’s New York

by Elizabeth Barlow, illustrative portfolio by William Alex
Praeger, 174 pp., $12.50

Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape”

by Robert Smithson
Artforum, $3.00

Forty Years of Landscape Architecture: Central Park

edited by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., edited by Theodora Kimball
MIT Press, 575 pp., $4.95 (paper)

More than anyone else, Frederick Law Olmsted dominated the profession of landscape design in nineteenth-century America. He had a hand in the preservation of scenic wonders like Yosemite and Niagara Falls, in major landscape parks and park systems in more than a dozen major cities, in the first scientifically managed forest in this country, in the landscaping of the Columbian Exposition, model suburban subdivisions, campus planning, estate planning, even the first municipally sponsored playground. Moreover, he was over forty-four when he did most of this work, after he had pursued, and with notable success, several other careers. A remarkable man!

Lewis Mumford first brought Olmsted’s career to wide public notice in 1929, in a brief chapter of The Brown Decades. Before that, except for a few published addresses, Olmsted’s career was buried in official reports with such unappealing titles as Observations on the Progress of Improvements in Street Plans, with Special Reference to the Parkway Proposed to Be Laid out in Brooklyn. Mumford opened the tomb. Those who wished to make a more thorough inspection of its contents could turn to the two-volume Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.,…Forty Years of Landscape Architecture published in 1922-1928. This is a selection of Olmsted’s papers, with commentary on his career written by his son (who continued his father’s practice into the twentieth century) with Theodora Kimball. (A reprint of the second volume, wholly devoted to Central Park in New York, has now been reissued.) Since the late Twenties these books pretty much satisfied the interest in Olmsted, and they were often consulted for a number of general accounts of nineteenth-century American culture, in which Olmsted plays a respectable role. Now, four decades later, we have a deluge of books on him. Why?

There is, of course, the customary commemorative reason: 1972 marked the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Olmsted’s birth. And a practical reason: an extensive file of documents, long restricted to Laura Roper’s use, was recently opened to the public. But a more substantial reason for the interest in Olmsted’s work is obviously the current concern with ecological matters. As a result interest in the profession of landscape architecture has increased, and one suspects that at least some of the interest in Olmsted depends on the need of these new professionals, the landscapists, to compete with the more impressive list of heroes flaunted by the architects. At a time when landscape architecture is turning from its concerns with herbaceous borders for country estates to a preoccupation with large-scale ecological planning, what better candidate than Olmsted for canonization?

For Olmsted always kept the “big picture” in mind, not only in a formal sense but in a social sense as well. It is precisely his sense of the social responsibility of design decisions that makes Olmsted’s career so stirring today. Not only the most enlightened landscape architects but architects and industrial designers as well are increasingly questioning the degree to which design has catered to the elite …

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