Olmsted's America: An "Unpractical" Man and His Vision of Civilization

Lee Hall
This work is a dual "biography" of Frederick Law Olmstead, the "father of American landscape architecture" and of the times that helped shape him and his work - and that he, in turn, did much to shape. He stands among America's great innovators, but his story is one of great achievement and miserable failure, of public acclaim and official derision. Olmstead derived most of his ideas about shaping the landscape from the English landscape gardens he visited and studied as a young man. He is best known for his collaborative work with Calvert Vaux, which resulted in the design and building of great parks and public spaces, such as Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Among his numerous solo projects are Boston's Emerald Necklace, the grounds of the United States Capitol and the Washington Monument, and also the extensive grounds at Biltmore in North Carolina. But Olmstead pursued many other careers, among them "scientific" farmer, journalist, and commissioner of the Union's Sanitary Commission during the Civil War. He was the author of several books, director of the Mariposa gold mines in California, instrumental in the instigation of Yosemite, and, by extension, the National Park Service, and designer of Riverside, Illinois, the first planned suburb. Perhaps the most important aspect of his legacy to Western civilization, however, was his body of writing about the importance of the integration of everyday life with nature and the ways that could be - indeed - must be accomplished. This biography examines how Olmstead's particular ideas affected the United States during his time, and the important significance these concepts hold for today's world, especially as they relate to nature and the environment. The text places Olmstead in his Victorian context and examines the ways in which the many contradictions in his life story and character explains his contributions and failings.

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