A CLEARING IN THE DISTANCE

Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century

By Witold Rybczynski

Scribner. 479 pp. $28

Reviewed by David Laskin

"An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views," architect Daniel Burnham said of Frederick Law Olmsted at a banquet celebrating the completion of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, for which Olmsted devised the master plan. Landscape architecture did not even have a commonly recognized name when Olmsted pioneered the profession in the mid-19th century. He was one of those titans who stand at the beginning of a new endeavor, a figure of inexhaustible and seemingly effortless creativity whose work now strikes us as inevitable, spontaneous, fundamental: more like nature than art (which was exactly the effect he often strove for).

Olmsted, of course, is most famous for co-designing Central Park (with architect Calvert Vaux), but he left his mark on the green public spaces of many other cities (indeed most major U.S. cities), notably Buffalo, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Montreal. Born in 1822 to a prosperous Hartford, Conn., family, Olmsted came of age at a time when American cities were rapidly becoming more densely and diversely populated, more industrialized and more sprawlingly chaotic. "A pragmatic visionary," in the words of one historian, Olmsted was almost alone in his day in foreseeing the need for urban planning: Our cities must have parks where ordinary people can refresh themselves; there must be tree-shaded parkways linking parks and new suburbs to city and country; striking natural features like shorelines, wooded slopes; and dramatic vistas must be preserved and incorporated into the urban fabric.

Not all of Olmsted's visions were realized, and many of his landscapes were later altered or obliterated. But enough of his work remains that we can appreciate what he was trying to do and how brilliantly he succeeded.

It's somehow reassuring to learn from Witold Rybczynski's superb new biography that this master made a series of false starts -- and ran through a bundle of his father's money -- before he stumbled, almost by chance, on his true metier. Olmsted's formal education was haphazard, scattered and brief. In the course of his teens and twenties, he apprenticed as a surveyor, clerked in a New York City dry goods store, spent a year "before the mast," lolled around Hartford courting pretty young women, and borrowed several thousand dollars from his father to set himself up as a farmer, first in Connecticut and later on Staten Island. Though he loved farming, he let friends persuade him to embark on a series of a newspaper articles about social and economic conditions in the slave states in the years before the Civil War -- articles he later expanded into several influential books.

Yet, strangely, the divagations of Olmsted's young manhood proved to be the ideal preparation for the job of creating Central Park, which more or less fell into his lap when he was appointed first park "superintendent" and then architect-in-chief after winning the design competition with Vaux. Considering that neither one of them had ever done anything like this before, it's astonishing how original, elegant and right their design was. Greensward, as they called their plan, ingeniously solved the problems of the long, narrow, swampy, rocky site by blending formal elements like the elm-shaded Mall with naturalistic features like the Ramble. Equally impressive was their accommodation of multiple streams of traffic -- pedestrian, bicycle, carriage and later automobile -- on a smooth network of paths, bridges, and sunken roadways. Central Park, which New Yorkers adored even before it was completed, was a triumphant debut (it wasn't all triumph, though: Olmsted battled for years over installation and management and was eventually ousted by political foes).

Thirty-six when work on Central Park began in 1858, Olmsted had nearly four decades of work ahead of him, and Rybczynski carefully covers each major commission and career move: his involvement in the unsuccessful Putnam's magazine and later the Nation; his tireless administrative work during the Civil War for the United States Sanitary Commission, a precursor of the Red Cross; his stint as manager of the ill-fated Mariposa gold mine in northern California; his planning work on what would eventually become Yosemite National Park; his designs for Brooklyn's Prospect Park (Olmsted's masterpiece, in Rybczynski's opinion), a park and boulevard system for Buffalo, a suburban development outside Chicago, the grounds of Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, and a "continuous park system" in Boston that incorporated the Fens, an urban wetland that doubled as a sewage disposal system.

A Clearing in the Distance is a model of thoroughness, sympathy and lucidity. What's missing are the wide-ranging insights and unexpected connections of Rybczynski's books on architecture and urban history -- Home, Looking Around, City Life. Adam Gopnik mused in a recent New Yorker piece about how easy it is to get lost in an Olmsted park: Olmsted's abhorrence of straight lines and striking monuments gives his landscapes a fluid, melancholy monotony in which, to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Bishop, "topography displays no favorites." A Clearing in the Distance lacks this kind of piercing assessment.

Which is perhaps to say that the book succeeds too well at being a conventional biography. If Rybczynski skirts the implications of Olmsted's art, he has admirably captured the life in full. Olmsted lives in these pages as a brilliant, complicated, often deeply troubled man -- an intellectual leader who naturally took his place with the great minds of his day; an affectionate if sometimes exasperating son and a kindly if exacting father and stepfather; an artist who knew his way around business and politics; a robust outdoorsman who suffered recurrent bouts of depression, mental exhaustion, debilitating headaches and eye strain.

"It was the future that concerned him," writes Rybczynski of Olmsted, "and he had the rare patience to successfully project his plans years ahead." Rybczynski clearly stands in awe of Olmsted's success, but reverence never clouds the clarity of his narrative. Fascinating throughout, written with engaging grace and informed understanding, this is a life that is truly worthy of its subject.

David Laskin, a Seattle-based writer, is the author of "Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather."

CAPTION: Frederick Law Olmsted, ca. 1860