Friday , February 23 2024
As you enjoy America's public gardens this summer, thank this 19th century master landscape architect.

Book Review: Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin

Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted provides a rich history of early America as well as the compelling life story of 19th century landscape architect. Frederick Law Olmsted. Originally from Hartford, Connecticut, Olmsted was a New York Times journalist in the paper’s early days, served on the Civil War battlefields, in what later became the Red Cross, and was an environmentalist since childhood walks with his father.

In Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, author Justin Martin presents the extraordinary story of this important figure in American history. Olmsted’s work as a landscape architect can be seen in over 30 public projects, including the magnificence of New York City’s Central Park, Stanford University, the Capital grounds in Washington, DC, and the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. In 1893, Olmsted designed the World’s Fair in Chicago, the first project to use the lake as a way to connect the city. As the city had “a paucity of natural scenery,” he developed Jackson Park, to hold much of the fair grounds, which remains today. Until his work, Jackson Park was a mix of sand hills and swamps with few trees.

Travel the country today and consider the challenges of travel for Olmsted as a younger and then elderly designer, dealing with the scale of these projects, and the challenges in transportation and technology of the era. Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted is rich with historical details of much of America’s finest landscapes.  In Riverside, Illinois he created a model park-like suburb with curving streets and abundant common space. In the late 1860s, perhaps this was one of America’s first suburbs. It remains today a dense landscape with charming homes, beautiful grounds, and winding, curvilinear streets that sometimes fail to reveal a road out of town, with only gas-light lamps to light the way.

Many of us know only a few of Olmsted’s projects and little of his life, although his great lasting works of landscape architecture that have become a part of history in the US and Canada. The timelessness and utility of his landscape and garden creations is evident on the U.S. Capital grounds, where his 1874 designs remain viable today to millions of visitors.

Olmsted’s life was not without woes, as Martin reveals in this well-researched story of America’s genius designer. Olmsted’s life was filled with sorrows that clouded his magnificent achievements. He witnessed many major hardships, untimely deaths of loved ones, and suffered from many physical and later, mental, problems.

Much of what we treasure in America today is due to the timelessness of his designs, plans, and inspiration, over a century later. He remains a great influence on younger architects and designers.

In a sad irony, by 1898, Olmsted was living in an asylum, one for which he had earlier designed the grounds. Upon entry, he noted they had failed to carry out his plan for the grounds. For much of the rest of America, however, we celebrate the preservation of his life’s works of art in garden design and landscape architecture.

Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted is a thoroughly enjoyable book, and a biography of a man described by Daniel Burnham as “An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes, with lawns and banks and forest covered hills, with mountain sides and ocean views.”

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