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Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted

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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 ...

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Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Martin (Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon) begins his ardent biography by positing that Olmsted "may well be the most important American historical figure that the average person knows least about. "FLO" was a man for whom landing the lucrative post of designing Central Park was perhaps the least extraordinary episode in a quite remarkable life. Restless from a young age, Olmsted's sense of adventure compelled him to embark upon a turbulent stretch as a sailor, which Martin renders as thrillingly as any maritime tale. Science lectures at Yale and an affinity for Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus inspired a pursuit of horticulture. Opportunistic and resilient, "Olmsted dove into farm life with aplomb." Incessantly plagued by ill health and family tragedy, Olmsted nevertheless made numerous trips to Europe. He was a mercurial man, an author, journalist, and prospective businessman before he became a pioneering landscape architect. Olmsted (1822-1903), who took part in the Civil War battlefield relief effort, was an activist, environmentalist (helping to save Yosemite and Niagara Falls), and humanitarian, as well as an incredibly gifted visionary. Martin presents Olmsted's era in all its glory, with the intimate affairs and staggering accomplishments of the great man unfolding against the vivid backdrop of 19th-century America. Photos. (May)
Library Journal
Olmsted is perceptively described by Martin (Greenspan: The Man Behind Money) as "the most important American historical figure that the average person knows least about." But Martin's valiant attempts to illuminate his subject produce mixed results. A typical 19th-century American autodidact, Olmsted had numerous interests that led him to many endeavors, from farmer to world-famous landscape architect—but with years in between as journalist, abolitionist, Civil War-era medical relief administrator, and more. His motivation was a deep "social vision," as Martin calls it, that drove him to try to effect change wherever he believed it was needed. Martin maintains that Olmsted's greatest legacy will remain that of "park maker," notably, with Calvert Vaux, of New York's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park. VERDICT This is a workmanlike biography; it adequately examines the balance between Olmsted's public and private personae, but Martin does not fully bring together the disparate threads of Olmsted's extraordinary life in a clear portrait. Readers may be better served by Witold Rybczynski's A Clearing in the Distance, which masterfully articulates both the accomplishments and the influences of this great figure who deserves to be better known.—Richard Drezen, Brooklyn, NY
Kirkus Reviews

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.

From the Publisher

Kirkus Reviews, 4/15/11
“The remarkable story of America’s first, and still foremost, landscape architect…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.”

Gazette, 4/16/11
“A full-scale biography.”

The Daily Green, 4/29/11
“[A] straightforward and enjoyable book…Reading this book, you get a full picture of the man, a man frustratingly immature and coddled for so many years, a man struck by personal tragedies…and ultimately a man whose achievements warrant a full-length biography.”
Red Weather Review, 5/1/11
“A nicely rounded portrait…This lively rendering of ‘a hard man’ who created beauty should have wide appeal.”

Publishers Weekly, web-exclusive 5/16/11
“[An] ardent biography…Martin presents Olmsted's era in all its glory, with the intimate affairs and staggering accomplishments of the great man unfolding against the vivid backdrop of 19th-century America.”
Manhattan magazine, June 2011
“This biography of the landscape designer who stamped Manhattan green shows him to be a troubled idealist who had an unlucky personal life, but who nonetheless shaped some of the most important public spaces in America.”
Buffalo News, 5/13/11
“Olmsted led one of the most productive and influential lives in American history, yet owing to the diffusiveness of his early ventures and the nature of his principal legacy, landscape architecture, he has never attained the name recognition of some of his more singularly focused peers. Justin Martin's engaging new biography will help to change that perception…A fast-moving and fascinating narrative of the life of one of America's great visionary figures.”
Roanoke Times, 5/15/11
“The story of Olmsted’s life offers today’s readers an opportunity to see what effect one energetic and imaginative person had on the formation of today’s nation. The author delivers this fascinating story in a prose that invites the reader to complete the book in one sitting—and then ask for more.”
American History Blog, 5/8/11
“An excellent book…Martin tells Olmsted’s life story in such a way as to bring the reader into Olmsted’s life. It is an enjoyable read that flows smoothly. A biography is enjoyable both because the subject has led an interesting life AND because the author has presented that life in a readable way. Genius of Place has just that combination. I highly recommend it."
Wall Street Journal, 5/31/11
"Martin is good at shedding light on the less familiar aspects of Olmsted's life. Having written biographies of Alan Greenspan and Ralph Nader, he seems to know his way around rather remote personalities...Engaging."
Library Journal, 6/1/11
“A workmanlike biography; it adequately examines the balance between Olmsted’s public and private personae.”
New YorkJournal of Books, 5/31/11
 “A comprehensive journal of Frederick Law Olmsted’s life written with great precision and exhaustive historical specifications; but these elements do not get in the way of a well-told tale…Highly recommended.”
Chew & Digest Books, 6/1/11
“One of the greatest things a biographer can do is not only cover that particular person’s life, but give us an idea of the time that he or she lived in…Martin does this in spades…Enlightening.”
Barnes and Noble Review, 6/3/11
Few men have written their signature across our public spaces as vividly, personally, and influentially as Olmsted…Justin Martin's first-ever full-scale biography reveals other fascinating sides of the famed landscape designer as well, including reformer and journalist.”
ProvidenceJournal, 6/5/11
“Martin has done a fine job in presenting the life of a fascinating American.”
Internet Review of Books, 6/6/11
“A welcome exception to the rule that biographies don’t make easy reading.”
BostonGlobe, 6/16/11
“[A] wide-ranging, surprisingly revealing biography…Martin brings the Hartford-born Olmsted to life…An eye-opening, much-needed biography of a man whose work continues to inspire…Illuminating.”

The Daily,

“Rich and meticulously-researched, Justin Martin’s biography makes a convincing case for Olmsted as ‘The most important American historical figure that the average person knows the least about.’”
NorfolkVirginian-Pilot, 6/12/11
“[A] fascinating new biography.”
Rocky Mountain Land Library, 6/13/11
“Olmsted designed more than thirty major city parks, the U.S. Capitol grounds, several university campuses, and many planned communities. But there’s much more to Olmsted’s life, as Justin Martin’s Genius of Place makes abundantly clear…A rich story of a remarkable life.”
InfoDad, 6/16/11
“Packed with information gleaned from primary sources…Will certainly captivate not only those interested in Olmsted as landscape architect but also people who want to know about early environmentalism and the conservationist movement—and the intricacies of creating open spaces in and near many of the nation’s great cities.”
Corduroy Books, 6/16/11
“A riveting and great intro to a fascinating architect not just of American places but American ideas.”

PortlandBook Review (website), 6/17/11
“A well written and easy to follow biography. Justin Martin does an excellent job helping to bring this figure to life.”
HudsonValleyNews, 6/15/11
“A good (and surprising) read…An intimate portrait…A fine biography of a man who helped shape modern America.”, 6/5/11
“Martin reveals [Olmsted] not only as a brilliant landscape architect, but also as a dedicated Abolitionist, indulgent father, and fervent conservationist.”

Landscape Architecture magazine, July 2011
“Exhaustively researched and clearly written, this volume should become the standard for students of both history and design.” 

SeattleTimes, 6/26/11
“Absorbing…Lively…Olmsted's life story is fabulous biographical material, and Martin largely makes the most of it. In a brisk, unvarnished style, he artfully balances Olmsted's achievements with his personal limitations.”, 6/29/11

E: The Environmental Magazine, July 2011Genius of Place offers more than the legacy of a man who accomplished ‘more than most people could in three lifetimes.’ Martin provides an intimate portrayal of man himself, whose life was both blessed with genius and plagued by tragedy.”, 7/10/11
“Provides a rich history of early America as well as the compelling life story of 19th century landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted…Rich with historical details of much of America's finest landscapes…A thoroughly enjoyable book.”

CharlestonPost and Courier, 7/17/11
“Reading Genius of Place feels like listening to Olmsted's best friend dishing about the private life of a real person…Martin makes a convincing argument that Olmsted saw all of his work, from park-making to gold mining, as social reform. He points out the subtle ironies of Olmstead's life and provides historical and personal background without bogging the reader down or disrupting the flow of the narrative…Genius of Place is far more than a survey of Olmsted's creations. It's a tightly woven narrative that ties together his personal life, his many vocations and his impact on a turbulent era.”

The Dirt (the American Society of Landscape Architects blog), 7/27/11
“Illuminates Olmsted’s major achievements as a visionary artist, social reformer, pioneering environmentalist, and founder of the modern profession of landscape architecture…Does not disappoint in the totality of its coverage…[Martin’s] intriguing account of Olmsted’s life…captures the significance of his legacy.” (Canada), 7/25/11“In lush detail, Martin walks the reader through the chapters of Olmstead’s life…With the fine grain research skills of an experienced biographer, Martin succeeds in shining light on the combination of vision and accident, values and necessity that led to Olmstead’s career in landscape architecture.”
Reference and Research Book News, August 2011
“Martin takes on the extraordinarily multifaceted life and career of the man known for his design of Central Park but whose legacy reaches far deeper and wider.”

Christian Science Monitor, 8/29/11
“Martin does an excellent job of tracing the development of this multitalented genius and—by the book’s end—makes a powerful case for Olmsted as a reformer who not only created some of the world’s most beautiful parkland but also helped to shape our lives and public spaces as we know them today.”

SacramentoBook Review, August 2011
“Not only a great portrait of the man, but a portrait of a period in American history.”
Choice, October 2011
“[A] readable, chatty book…[This] biography succeeds in portraying a seminal character whose life strongly influenced the way people experience urban space in contemporary America.”

Flourish, Fall 2011
“[Martin’s] thorough original research in personal letters, journals and contemporary news articles slowly reveals pieces of Olmsted’s puzzling life. Martin painstakingly places Olmsted’s accomplishments in a detailed historical context…Well-written.”

AlaskaAirlines Magazine, September 2011
“[A] compelling biography.”
Leaflet (e-newsletter of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society), September 2011
“A page-turner of a biography, which follows the ascendancy of a man who follows one dream after another, leaving a tangible, enduring legacy for a nation.”
Forest HillsGardenNews, September 2011
“A delightful 400 page read…[Martin] draws the reader into the rhythm of FLO’s various life stages, and what a journey it is…Genius of Place is able to make readers care as much about the play-by-play in FLO’s private life as the color commentary around his public roles—and this is no small feat.”
Textscape blog, 8/30/11
”More forthright…about Olmsted the man than are some of the other more hagiographic biographies.”
Architect, September 2011
“Part exposé of the man, part history of Americans subduing the U.S. terra firma.”
Landscape Architecture, October 2011
“Unearths insights into the park maker’s troubled personal life as well as his roles as writer, social reformer, and unruly business collaborator.”
Curled Up with a Good Book, 9/25/11
“Martin has a keen eye…Martin makes full use of a wealth of primary sources to bring life to his subject…To understand the man, of course, we must understand the times in which he lives. Martin incorporates the historical perspective so seamlessly that readers may not even be aware that they have been transported to 19th-century America…Olmsted’s life reveals itself as naturally as his designs, integrated with the setting and exposition of this outstanding biography.”
MinneapolisStar-Tribune, 10/24/11
“Martin has succeeded brilliantly in bringing to detailed life the man he calls the greatest American most Americans have never heard of.”

The Dirt, 11/23/11
Named one of the “Best Books of 2011.” “Illuminates Olmsted’s major achievements as a visionary artist, social reformer, pioneering environmentalist, and founder of the modern profession of landscape architecture…Martin paints a portrait of Olmsted as a preeminent American figure, revealing that ‘as a park maker, environmentalist, and abolitionist, Olmsted helped shape modern America.’”

Acadiana Lifestyle, November 2011
“A long delayed tribute to an amazing American.”, 10/11/11
Genius of Place has proved an unexpected and intriguing delight.  And make no mistake; Martin is a master craftsman of connecting his readers to his subject.  Olmsted’s life is painted in vibrant and articulate pages full of interest and sans a single paragraph of stuffiness.”
Englewood Review of Books, 7/14/11
“Deep research to expose the inner life of Olmsted combined with [Martin’s] engaging writing style.”
January magazine, 12/18/11 “Best Books of 2011,” Biography category.
“Not only does Martin outline Olmsted’s impressive credentials as a designer, but also his less well known contributions as a champion for America’s parks, an essayist on the abolitionist movement and his work as an early environmentalist…Genius of Place is a very good biography of a man whose contributions to the beauty of the United States is incalculable.”
NewportMercury, 4/25/12
“Paints a fascinating portrait of Olmsted.”

Midwest Book Review, August 2012
“From [Olmsted’s] stormy family relationships to his social and political impact on the country, Genius of Place provides a powerful survey.”

Smithsonian magazine’s Around the Mall blog, 12/11/12
“Olmsted did so many different things in life, that it’s like reading a history of the country to read about him.”

Louisville Courier-Journal, 12/7/12
“Olmsted’s intriguing personal saga of tremendous achievement and devastating tragedies are captured in the richly-detailed biography Genius of Place.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer
, 1/18/13
“Exhaustively researched.”

Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, January 2013
“[Martin’s] writing is lively and the story never flags…Martin poignantly reveals the hardships of nineteenth-century living…An unflinching, and yet not unsympathetic, account of the brilliant yet tormented man who significantly shaped the landscape, and thinking, of fin de siècle America.”

Politics and Patriotism Blog, 1/29/13
“Shows us how one man with a fractured resume (and no college degree) came to make contributions to journalism, publishing, anti-slavery abolition movements, the American Civil War, Washington D.C., and the nation’s long-term understanding of landscape aesthetics.”

Joseph’s Reviews (blog), 3/2/13
 “Author Justin Martin does quite well by his subject in this comprehensive and thoroughly annotated biography…This reviewer was deeply moved by the breadth and depth of this marvelous biography. Clearly, it could easily serve as an engaging textbook for both young and older readers.”

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780306818813
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • Publication date: 5/31/2011
  • Series: A Merloyd Lawrence Book
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 292,697
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.52 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Justin Martin, author of highly praised biographies of Alan Greenspan and Ralph Nader, lives in Forest Hills Gardens, New York, an enclave of New York City designed by Olmsted's son.

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Table of Contents

Photo Credits ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Why Olmsted Matters 1

I "An Enthusiast By Nature": Growing up, 1822-1851

1 So Very Young 6

2 At Sea 21

3 Uncommon Friends 35

4 A Farmer and Finite 48

5 Two Pilgrimages 61

II "The Cause of Future Freedom": Southern Travels and Journalism, 1852-1857

6 "The South" 74

7 Tief Im Herzen Von Texas 89

8 A Red-Hot Abolitionist 103

9 The Literary Republic 108

III "A People's Pleasure-Ground": Conceiving Central Park, 1857-1861

10 "Is New York Really Not Rich Enough?" 124

11 Right Man, Right Place 135

12 A Park Is Born 148

13 Growling Green 161

14 Swans 172

IV "Heroes Along with the Rest": Civil War Service, 1861-1863

15 In Search of a Mission 178

16 In the Republic of Suffering 196

17 Antietam to Gettysburg 211

18 "The Country Cannot Spare You" 223

V "There Seems to Be No Limit": California, 1863-1865

19 Gold Dust 232

20 Yosemite 244

21 Unsettled in the West 254

VI "Where Talents and the Needs of the World Cross": Shaping the Nation, 1865-1877

22 New Prospects 270

23 City Planning: Buffalo and Chicago 287

24 Battling Boss Tweed, Splitting with Vaux 303

25 Blindness and Vision 313

VII "I Have All My Life Been Considering Distant Effects": Summits and Sorrows, 1877-1903

26 A Troubled Wander Year 328

27 Stringing Emeralds 335

28 Saving Niagara, Designing Stanford 347

29 Big House in the Big Woods 359

30 A White City Dreamscape 369

31 "Before I Am the Least Prepared for It" 387

32 Fade 399

Epilogue: Olmsted's Wild Garden 401

Notes 407

Index 437

Appendix: The Olmsted Views 453

About the Author 461

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 30, 2011

    HIGHLY Recommended

    A friend recommended this book to me (her book group was reading it) and she said she couldn't put it down. I could not put this book down either!
    This work is in no way a boring and dry bio. It is unusual and exceptional. It is an amazing story of a brilliant person who has left a legacy that many of us enjoy still today. The author reveals the genius of Olmstead and expounds upon what comes with this level of genius (both the good and bad). I found it very intriguing to have insight into the mindset of Olmstead when was he was designing such places as Central Park, Biltmore, Emerald Necklace in Boston and the Chicago World's Fair, and his goals for each project. Wow...was he talented!

    I would recommend this book to anyone without reservation. I would be surprised to find anyone who would not find this book outstanding. It is exceptionally well-written. I cannot say enough about this book, one of my favorites of all time!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 12, 2013

    A definitive biography

    Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, modifying landscapes to produce parks and gardens was the purview of kings and nobility. The concept of producing public parks and gardens open to all can be reliably attributed to one man - Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903). Although that may come as no surprise to those familiar with the history of landscape architecture, the fact that Olmsted's achievements spanned many fields other than landscape architecture is remarkable. Luck was the handmaiden of Olmsted's eccentric and peripatetic personality. For most of his life that luck held out.

    Olmsted was born into moderate means in Hartford, Connecticut. Initially setting out to apply new, scientific concepts to farming, first in Connecticut and then on New York's Staten Island, he grew restless, even while relatively successful, with agriculture. Chance brought him into contact with the founders of the New York Times, where, as one of their first reporters, Olmsted established a tradition and style that greatly influenced the future of that newspaper; and, as a consequence of his reports on life in the pre-Civil War South, had some influence on the course of American history. Just prior to the Civil War, Olmsted fell into the position of architect for New York's Central Park. With characteristic speed and Herculean energy, the Central Park project was well underway before the start of the War, at the start of which Olmsted immediately began looking around for ways to more actively support the Union cause. This he did admirably by creating the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Without any prior military experience and with little precedent in military history, Olmsted essentially invented the means by which combat troops were fed, clothed, housed and their wounds treated. Even before the War had ended, Olmsted was off again on a totally different, and much less successful career path - gold-mining in California. That ill-fated stint in the West, did, however, introduce him to the nascent concept of National Parks; and idea that would contribute to off and on during the years he spent back east establishing his landscape architecture business. The notoriety of Central Park, gained Olmsted's firm an extensive portfolio of lucrative projects, including the Columbian Exposition, the Stanford University campus and the fabulous Biltmore estate.

    Although Olmsted can be recognized as a notable conservationist for his contributions to the establishment for our National Park system, it would not be appropriate to consider him in any was an early environmentalist. First and foremost, Olmsted was an artist who employed natural and manmade landscape elements much the same as painters employ color and texture. He designed landscapes not to bring the public into nature but to create an experience similar to that of an art museum.

    In the end, Olmsted mental instability landed him as a patient in an asylum whose grounds he had himself designed.

    In The Genius of Place Justin Martin has produced a fine, balanced biography of a great historical figure. The book is organized into 7 parts with a total of 32, mostly short, chapters. The eBook reviewed here suffered from non-functional links to both extensive Notes and several figures and photographs.

    Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University

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