A Clearing in the Distance
Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century
By Witold Rybczynski
(Scribner, Hardcover, 9780684824635, 480pp.)
Publication Date: June 1999
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In a brilliant collaboration between writer and subject, the bestselling author of Home and City Life illuminates Frederick Law Olmsted's role as a major cultural figure and a man 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, Boston's Back Bay Fens, Illinois's Riverside community, Asheville's Biltmore Estate, and Louisville's park system. He was a landscape architect before that profession was founded, designed the first large suburban community in the United States, foresaw the need for national parks, and devised one of the country's first regional plans.
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 wrote books about the South and about his exploration of the Texas frontier. He managed California's largest gold mine and, during the Civil War, served as general secretary to the United States Sanitary Commission, the precursor of the Red Cross.
Olmsted was both ruthlessly pragmatic and a visionary. To create Central Park, he managed thousands of employees who moved millions of cubic yards of stone and earth and planted over 300,000 trees and shrubs. In laying it out, "we determined to think of no results to be realized in less than forty years," he told his son, Rick. "I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future." To this day, Olmsted's ideas about people, nature, and society are expressed across the nation -- above all, in his parks, so essential to the civilized life of our cities.
Rybczynski's passion for his subject and his understanding of Olmsted's immense complexity and accomplishments make this book a triumphant work. In A Clearing in the Distance, the story of a great nineteenth-century American becomes an intellectual adventure.
Witold Rybczynski, born in Edinburgh, raised in Canada, and currently living in Philadelphia, is the Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written on architecture and urbanism for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker and Slate, and is the author of the critically acclaimed Home and the A Clearing in the Distance, a biography of frederick Law Olmsted, for which he was awarded the J. Anthony Lukas Prize. He is the recipient of the National Building Museum’s 2007 Vincent Scully Prize.