A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century

A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century

by Witold Rybczynski


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In a brilliant collaboration between writer and subject, Witold Rybczynski, the bestselling author of Home and City Life, illuminates Frederick Law Olmsted's role as a major cultural figure at the epicenter of nineteenth-century American history.

We know Olmsted through the physical legacy of his stunning landscapes -- among them, New York's Central Park, California's Stanford University campus, and Boston's Back Bay Fens. But Olmsted's contemporaries knew a man of even more extraordinarily diverse talents. Born in 1822, he traveled to China on a merchant ship at the age of twenty-one. He cofounded The Nation magazine and was an early voice against slavery. He managed California's largest gold mine and, during the Civil War, served as the executive secretary to the United States Sanitary Commission, the precursor of the Red Cross.

Rybczynski's passion for his subject and his understanding of Olmsted's immense complexity and accomplishments make his book a triumphant work. In A Clearing in the Distance, the story of a great nineteenth-century American becomes an intellectual adventure.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684865751
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 07/05/2000
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 299,535
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.43(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Witold Rybczynski has written about architecture and urbanism for The New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book Home and the award-winning A Clearing in the Distance, as well as The Biography of a Building, The Mysteries of the Mall, and Now I Sit Me Down. The recipient of the National Building Museum’s 2007 Vincent Scully Prize, he lives with his wife in Philadelphia, where he is emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: "Tough as Nails"

With his high forehead, wide-set blue eyes, and unruly hair, the young Frederick Olmsted made a strong impression. A boyhood friend described him as "a vigorous, manly fellow, of medium height, solidly built with rather broad shoulders and a large well formed head. If athletics had been in fashion he would have been high up in foot-ball and base-ball." In midlife he suffered a carriage accident that left him with a pronounced limp, but he remained a skilled small-boat sailor and an experienced horseman. He was a seasoned outdoorsman who hunted and fished, though not for sport. Later photographs usually show him pensive.

He rarely looks directly at the camera, which gives him an air of self-containment, almost detachment. "His face is generally very placid," wrote his colleague Katharine Wormeley, "with all the expressive delicacy of a woman's, and would be beautiful were it not for an expression which I cannot fathom, -- something which is, perhaps, a little too severe about it." But she added, "I think his mouth and smile and the expression of his eyes at times very beautiful...there is a deep, calm thoughtfulness about him which is always attractive and sometimes -- provoking."

An odd choice of word -- "provoking." Olmsted's close friend Charles Eliot Norton likewise discerned this quality. "All the lines of his face imply refinement and sensibility to such a degree that it is not till one has looked through them to what is underneath, that the force of his will and the reserved power of his character become evident." When I asked the landscape architect Laurie Olin how he would characterize Olmsted, his immediate answer was "Tough as nails." Olin is right, of course. Although the modern image of Frederick Law Olmsted is of a benevolent environmentalist, a sort of Johnny Appleseed scattering beautiful city parks across the nation, he had indomitable energy and iron determination. As a mine manager in California, he once faced down a crowd of striking miners. (They were understandably upset because he had reduced their wages.) "They tried a mob but made nothing of it," he laconically wrote to his father, "and I have lost no property only time. I shall hold out till they come to my terms and dismiss all who have been prominent in the strike." He did just that. His obstinacy often got him in trouble. Many times he chose to resign positions rather than continue on a course of action he disapproved. His most famous resignations -- there were several -- occurred during the long and often frustrating construction of Central Park. But there were others. Leland Stanford, the railroad magnate, engaged him to lay out the grounds of what would become Stanford University. Olmsted prepared the plans on the understanding that, as was his practice, he would also hire his own staff to supervise the work. When Stanford, who had been governor of California and was used to getting his own way , reneged on the agreement, Olmsted walked away from the job. The university was completed without him.

Another battle of wills occurred during his tenure with the United States Sanitary Commission. The Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross, was a private organization established after the outbreak of the Civil War to administer volunteer relief efforts to the Union troops. Olmsted spent two years as its first general secretary, in charge of day-to-day operations. As fund-raising efforts intensified, hundreds of thousands of dollars flowed to the Commission, whose board felt the need to exert more direct supervision over the activities of its chief executive officer. He characteristically bridled at any attempt to curtail his freedom, and a sometimes bitter struggle ensued. One of those with whom he had run-ins was the treasurer of the Commission, George Templeton Strong. Strong, best known as the author of an exceptional set of diaries, was a prominent Wall Street lawyer and civic leader. He knew Olmsted well: both men were involved in the Union League Club and in the establishment of The Nation magazine. Some six months before Olmsted's resignation, Strong noted in his journal: "He is an extraordinary fellow, decidedly the most remarkable specimen of human nature with whom I have been brought into close relations." Then, in obvious exasperation, he added: "Prominent defects, a monomania for system and organization on paper (elaborate, laboriously thought out, and generally impracticable), and appetite for power. He is a lay-Hildebrand."

The last strikes me as a shrewd characterization. Hildebrand, or Gregory VII, was an eleventh-century pope who is remembered for his lifelong attempt to establish the supremacy of the papacy within the Church -- and the authority of the Church over the state. Olmsted, too, was trying to establish an ascendancy. He was doing it with what sometimes seemed to others religious zeal, but he did not seek personal aggrandizement. Strong commented on his colleague's "absolute purity and disinterestedness"; he recognized that Olmsted wasn't empire-building. The supremacy that Olmsted was trying to establish was that of the technician -- the organizer; the authority was that of The Plan. But he was ahead of his time. His obsession with organization and planning on paper may sometimes have been clumsy, and it was certainly laborious -- this was before telephones and typewriters, let alone computers and fax machines. But it was not, as Strong thought, ineffective. Olmsted successfully coordinated the operations of the Sanitary Commission, with its thousands of contributing private aid societies, and its scores of nurses and doctors. He deployed convalescent shelters, field hospitals, and hospital ships and distributed food and medical supplies over a battlefront that extended for hundreds of miles. Strong had also forgotten that it was precisely "monomania" that had enabled Olmsted to organize the labors of several thousand workers in what was then the largest public works project in the nation: Central Park.

Olmsted was one of the first people to recognize the necessity for planning in a large, industrializing country -- whether in peace or war. This recognition was not yet widely shared, which is why he was often misunderstood. "He looks far ahead, & his plans & methods are sometimes mysterious," wrote Rev. Henry Whitney Bellows, founder and president of the Sanitary Commission, of his willful protégé. "[His critics] think him impracticable, expensive, slow -- when he is only long-headed, with broader, deeper notions of economy than themselves, & with no disposition to hurry what, if done satisfactorily, must be thoroughly." Long-headed is good. It was the future that concerned him, and he had the rare patience to successfully project his plans years ahead. I think that was one of the things that finally attracted him to landscape architecture. It is a field where a long time -- sometimes generations -- is required for the full realization of the designer's goal.

A small incident illustrates his foresight. Once, five years after the end of the Civil War, when he was already an established landscape architect in New York, he received a letter from the quartermaster general of the U.S. Army, Montgomery Meigs. Meigs had a high regard for Olmsted, with whom he had worked during the war. The general wrote to ask advice on the landscaping of national cemeteries, for which purpose Congress had just appropriated funds. Olmsted was preoccupied with the construction of Prospect Park in Brooklyn; nevertheless it took him less than a week to draft a careful and detailed reply. As to the general design, he wrote, "the main object should be to establish permanent dignity and tranquillity." He warned Meigs that any attempts at elaborate gardening should be avoided. "Looking forward several generations, the greater part of all that is artificial at present in the cemeteries must be expected to have either wholly disappeared or to have become inconspicuous and unimportant in the general landscape." Olmsted recommended doing only two things: building a simple enclosing wall, and planting trees. The effect would be of a "sacred grove" for the war dead. What a beautiful idea!

Olmsted's artistry was always underpinned by sensible considerations, and this was no exception. Since the war cemeteries would be built in different parts of the country, he advocated using trees indigenous to each region. He also warned against the temptation to plant fast-growing species (they would be short-lived) and listed those to be avoided. Instead of buying expensive large trees, he suggested establishing nurseries next to the cemeteries where seedlings could be cultivated and transplanted after ten years or so. What if land for a nursery was unavailable? His novel suggestion: "nursery rows could be planted between the tiers of graves. They would be harmless for the time being and would disappear after a few years" as the trees matured and were relocated.

Copyright © 1999 by Witold Rybczynski

Table of Contents



1. "Tough as nails"
2. Frederick goes to school
3. Hartford
4. "I have no objection"
5. New York
6. A year before the mast
7. Friends
8. Farming
9. More Farming
10. A walking tour in the old country

Jostling and Being Jostled

11. Mr. Downing's magazine
12. Olmsted falls in love and finishes his book
13. Charley Brace intervenes
14. Yeoman
15. A traveling companion
16. The Texas settlers
17. Yeoman makes a decision
18. "Much the best Mag. in the world"
19. Abroad

Hitting Heads

20. A change in fortune
21. The Colonel meets his match
22. Mr. Vaux
23. A brilliant solution
24. A promotion
25. Frederick and Mary
26. Comptroller Green
27. King Cotton
28. A good big work
29. Yeoman's war
30. "Six months more pretty certainly"
31. A letter from Dana
32. Never happier
33. Olmsted shortens sail
34. A heavy sort of book
35. Calvert Vaux doesn't take no for an answer
36. Loose ends

A Magnificent Opening

37. Olmsted and Vaux plan a perfect park
38. Metropolitan
39. A stopover in Buffalo
40. Thirty-nine thousand trees
41. Best-laid plans
42. Henry Hobson Richardson
43. Olmsted's dilemma
44. Alone
45. "More interesting than nature"
46. Olmsted in demand
47. "I shall be free from it on the Ist of January"

Standing First

48. An arduous convalescence
49. Fairstead
50. The character of his business
51. The sixth park
52. Olmsted meets the Governor
53. Olmsted and Vaux, together again
54. "Make a small pleasure ground and gardens"
55. Olmsted drives hard
56. The fourth muse
57. DearRick
58. Sunset

Olmsted's Distant Effects

Distant Effects
A Selected List of Olmsted Projects

Illustration and Photograph Credits

What People are Saying About This

Frances FitzGerald

A sensitive, engrossing biography...of one of the most creative and multi-faceted men of the American 19th century.

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A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
cutegrandpa More than 1 year ago
This was an excellent book. I was entranced in it from beginning to end. I learned a lot that I didn't know before. His writing was good and easy to read.
mielniczuk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
On the first walk through Boston's 'Emerald Necklace' I felt a strange sense of familiarty. An historical marker introduced me to Olmstead. Finding this title a few days later introduced me to the man responsible for parks I'd experienced in Montreal, New York, and Buffalo. Rybczynski documents these contributions. He also shows how Olmstead combined his sense of nature and justice to create dramative public spaces that remain unequalled more than a century later.
Othemts on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An excellent biography about a remarkable man. Olmsted carved out democracy from the landscape, and shaped the values of the American city. I learned a lot from this book.
jcbrunner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An excellent biography about a remarkable man. In his youth, Frederick Law Olmsted drifted from job to job as a seaman, merchant, journalist and farmer. Thanks to his well connected Connecticut family, he managed to combine his knowledge about English gardens, his farming and journalistic experience into designing New York's Central Park (together with an architectural partner). The rest is history: He became America's foremost landscape designer at a time when American cities were short of parks. Europe's cities transformed their razed medieval walls into green belts. American parks in contrast were set out along avenues of future expansions, a gamble that paid of handsomely.Olmsted was a supreme networker, a mover and shaker more than a manager. Both his farm, his magazine as well as a goldmine he oversaw did not prosper under his direction. During the Civil War, he headed the Sanitary Commission which pressured the Federal Government to care better for its soldiers. Managing this fickle decentralized organization proved to be beyond his skills and he escaped from its management. In his landscape design family firm, he wisely restricted himself to designing and schmoozing which allowed for a smooth transition of this early professional services firm to his son who, conveniently for the brand, carried the same name and continued and expanded his legacy.Rybczynski's biography is written with a love for both the man and his works, illustrated with plenty of maps and b/w photographs that makes one want to explore the parks he designed. The only flaw are the short fictionalized inserts. Rybczynski should stick to non-fiction. Highly recommended to anyone interested in urban planning or in the Renaissance men of the 19th century.
JenP83 More than 1 year ago
Gives a lot of background of American history before, during, and after the Civil War, plus what went into the design and planning of Central Park, etc.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Just by accident, I happened to see the last portion of a television interview with the author, Witold Rybczynski. Given my long-standing interest in Olmsted, I quickly decided to buy the book. With no hope what-so-ever of spelling the author's name correctly and not being able to remember the word Clearing in the title, I typed Olmsted in the Barnes & Noble key word search field and up popped A Clearing in the Distance as the first entry. A few more clicks, and the book was on its way. My previous knowledge of Olmsted's life and career was limited mainly to his philosophy of outdoor recreation and involvement in the National Park movement in America. For example, I successfully got the publishers of a popular introductory geology text to correctly spell Olmsted (no 'a') Point, a prominent feature overlooking Yosemite Valley. A Clearing in the Distance promised to fill the gaps and provide an education about this man whose intellectual legacy, like his writings, landscapes, and parks, just keeps growing in breadth and stature with the passage of time. The book fulfilled my expectations. I will no longer feel intimidated about discussing Olmsted on the hi-brow cocktail party circuit; more importantly, I'm more confident and on safer grounds discussing Olmsted's major contributions to the long-standing movement in America toward an environmental conscience and toward appreciating Nature on its own terms as contrasted with overpowering and obliterating Nature and creating wholly artificial environments on a massive scale. I'm not convinced that Olmsted would have 'enjoyed' a day at a megamall; I am convinced that he would have firmly opposed the use of cell-phones, E-Trade, and satellite-linked pagers in Yosemite Valley and Central Park. I was especially pleased to find a basis in Olmsted's youth and formative years for his exceptionally strong social conscience and racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance. His economic and social advantages never blinded him to common sense, whether it came from a genteel intellectual or an uneducated slave. His belief that we, as human beings, will rise to the challenge if given the proper education, information, and level of responsibility is evident in his methods of delegating responsibility and in his insisting on a solid, well-rounded education and career preparation for his children. Clearly, Olmsted did not believe in social and/or genetic predestination and would not have been at all sympathetic to the KKK! Olmsted's keen interest in Nature will be a source of comfort and inspiration to present-day environmental scientists and activists striving to understand the complexities of natural processes and fighting to protect what's left of our natural areas. His dedication to utilizing basic knowledge of bedrock, soils, climate, vegetation, and aquatic environments would still bring a big yawn today in some otherwise well-educated, 'knowledgeable' circles, but geologists, soil scientists, and ecologists will love it. As a kid growing up in eastern Pennsylvania, I somehow got the idea that Levittown and its post World War II siblings were the first, large-scale, planned communities in the U. S. I now know better! Prior to reading this book, I had envisioned Olmsted's time as manager of the Mariposa Estates as an enjoyable, trouble-free, California interlude from his heavy 'Easterner' responsibilities. Dead Wrong! Given the labor and fiscal troubles Rybczynski documents on the estate, and the ensuing financial chaos engulfing the New York management company, it seems that Olmsted was a miracle worker to avoid violence and keep things going for as long as he did. The eventual insolvency and collapse of the Mariposa Estate gold mining operations was, in all likelihood, a genuine commercial failure based on ignorance and inflated expectations as contrasted to a stock swindle and flim-flam operation based on greed and cunning. First of all, the company's owners and Olmsted himself
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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