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Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted
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Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted

4.2 of 5 stars 4.20  ·  rating details  ·  266 ratings  ·  50 reviews
Frederick Law Olmsted is arguably the most important historical figure that the average American knows the least about. Best remembered for his landscape architecture, from New York's Central Park to Boston's Emerald Necklace to Stanford University's campus, Olmsted was also an influential journalist, early voice for the environment, and abolitionist credited with helping ...more
Hardcover, 496 pages
Published May 31st 2011 by Da Capo Press
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Freddy Olmsted was a spoiled brat. Before he got around to designing Central Park (with Calvert Vaux), or Prospect Park, or the Chicago World Fair site, or any of the other parks and estates in the U.S. that helped him establish the field of landscape architecture; before he helped preserve Yosemite or Niagara Falls... he was a chronic failure and a mooch. He couldn't hack it at school so he moved home with his father and stepmother. He gave up his first job as a surveyor to sail to China. Then ...more
I was introduced to Olmstead in the book Devil in the White City, where I found myself wanting more of the making of the world's fair story than the serial killer. This book provided lots more and was quite enjoyable.

Olmstead's childhood was a bit strange, but probably because we have such different views of what a normal childhood is. My own childhood may be deemed 'strange' by those who had different experiences. I am sympathetic to parents who have children who don't seem to be able to figure
Justin Martin has chosen to write this biography of Frederick Law Olmsted (FLO) like a story about his subject's life. At first I was a bit uncomfortable with this technique because I wanted to see his research and know his sources, but the more I read, the more the narrative drew me in and made me wonder if this style is more accessible and more appealing to wider audiences. This could very well be why it is written in this way rather than as a more historical text/biography. I was expecting a ...more
Fabulous! Parks for the general public; design of public spaces.
FLO led an interesting life, and this book tells his story well. Besides designing Central Park, he was a sailor, managed a gold mine, wrote several travel books and anti-slavery pieces, and was one of the first environmentalists. At times I found the writing a bit cutesy, and sometimes the author seemed to aggrandize FLO's influence over his times, but overall, I liked it. I would recommend this book to people who like biographies or are interested in the history of landscape architecture.
Picked this up in my local library last summer and was very glad to have read it. olmsted had a tremendous influence on my primary area of substantive research -- urban parks -- and has always been a fascinating figure. the bio did not disappoint. talk about a polymath. what remains with me a year later is his seeming imperviousness to failure, or perhaps it makes more sense to term it his resilience -- the man had several other full fledged (quasi mediocre) careers before he essentially invente ...more
Nov 08, 2011 Du rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: planning
Olmsted is a hectic, brilliant and functional character. He grew up in Hartford, CT, and traveled the country, and the world, having a frenetic career and never really settling down until he was well past 60. This book follows a similar path. As you might surmise, I have read many Olmsted books, my favorite being A Clearing In the Distance, by Witold Rybczynski. This book traveled many of the same paths, and overall suggests them in a well thought out and developed manner. What held it back for ...more
A truly wonderfully well-crafted work.
--Last year I discovered for myself the books by Olmstead which grew out of his travelogue columns about the slave south, written for the "new" New York Times in the 1850's. I was really surprised by what seemed to be another dimension of the acclaimed genius of American park design. The books, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856), A Journey Through Texas (1857), A Journey in the Back Country in the Winter of 1853-4 (1860), are surprisingly well-wr
David Dort
Many men of talent seek their path and contribution to humanity without ever finding it. In Genius of Place, we can marvel that Olmsted's visions found their way to our great cities (and literary canon as well). Olmsted seemed to have what we would now call a form of attention deficit bouncing from mariner to scientific farming to dispatch reporting all indulged by his wealthy father and with varying degrees of success. But Olmsted was there when Central Park needed a designer (having supervised ...more
I LOVED this book! It amazes me how many things FLO was able to accomplish in his lifetime and how many of his accomplishments we still rely on today. Frederick Law Olmsted was an amazing, self taught artist who founded the profession of landscape architecture. Blaine and I lived in one of the last developments that he designed-Druid Hills in Atlanta, his swan song-Biltmore-is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. His contribution to our knowledge of what it was really like to live ...more
Harry Lane
Well written biography of someone whose name is well-known, but whose life has been overshadowed by his work. Like many biographies, I found the chapters of Olmsted's early life the most interesting, and in his case fascinating on account of the tortuous path his activities took leading to his life's work. Were it not for an indulgent father, Olmsted might well not have had the opportunity to dabble in agronomy, journalism, management of relief efforts during the civil war, management of a gold ...more
Becky Smith
Fantastic. I have long been an admirer of FL Olmsted, his parks here in Louisville, the Biltmore Estate, and his philosophy of space. I chose this book after a recent visit to Biltmore and with a future trip to NYC in mind. I highly recommend it. My appreciation of Olmsted has grown and I have so many more trips to plan.
Matt Falber
I feel the need to defend Olmsted. Several reviewers have called him things like "spoiled," "mooch" or "loser." I think that's a bit harsh. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about his fumblings. They made him the man he became and in the end, he paid his father back and certainly gave back to society. Nobody is perfect and Justin Martin aims to paint Olmsted as realistically as he can. He expertly sorts through an unprecedented amount of material to write a concise, yet thorough, and utterly interest ...more
what an incredible story about the life of an amazing man. Read it afyer visiting Biltmore estates in N.C. he designed the grounds there. ALSO So Central Park in NYC. Delaware pk in Buffalo and much more However that was only part of what he did in his life time
My husband bought me this book at the gift shop at Biltmore. Olmsted is one of those people I've always wanted to know more about. This book is okay. I wanted more about the places he designed and what made them unique. Perhaps almost more of a narrative.
Sarah Duggan
Like many, I found this biography via Devil in the White City. It's amazingly readable, easily covering the wide scope of Olmsted's life without making the reader feel lost. Olmsted's accomplishments and adventures range far beyond his Central Park masterpiece, and this book taught me a lot about them. I only wish there had been more images of his work. It doesn't present too much of an analytic historical argument, but it's a very enjoyable resource about this influential American legend.
I can't remember when I have enjoyed a biography as much as Justin Martin's "Genius of Place." If all you know about Frederick Law Olmsted is that he designed some of America's greatest urban parks, you don't even know half of the story. Olmsted helped re-arrange the American landscape in more ways than park design. His efforts as a journalist, abolitionist, and health care advocate for troops during the Civil War all attest to his never-ending quest to better himself and the world. He was clear ...more
I hate biographies. I hate the way they're written actually. But this was a really well written biography. But I still hate biographies. Actually, though Olmstead is my personal hero and this is the first in depth thing I have read about him, I was agitated to find that the author didn't go into enough detail as to his thought process. Though it was interesting to learn all the tragedies in his life and the timeline in which he designed his parks and the circumstances surrounding the designs, I ...more
One of my favorite books i have ever read. Such an interesting story. What a life. To think his life left us central park, and many other great spaces. So interesting.
The first few chapters were hard to get through because of the idiosyncratic and highly informal writing style. It eventually evened out into an interesting, if repetitive and choppy, book about one of America's first and foremost landscape architects. Having worked in two Olmsted-designed parks it was great to learn more about the man behind the myth.
This is a very engaging biography, though I think that those who are more interested in his projects than in his life might be disappointed. What interested me most was Olmstead's perpetual shifting from one way of life to another. He sails to China, becomes a farmer and then a journalist. He got into landscape architecture almost by accident. This bouncing around makes the early part of the book quite interesting. Later when the author recounts his many projects the story becomes a slower read. ...more
T. Carter Ross
In reading different histories of the 19th Century -- be it the Civil War; the opening of the West; the growth of DC, NYC, Chicago; etc. -- Olmsted kept popping up in seemingly discongruitous places. It turns out, it all makes perfect sense that the guy who designed iconic parklands also helped set the stage for both the national park system and the American Red Cross. Martin's biography of Olmsted is a pleasure to read. It's engaging and informing and, while never getting bogged down by anyone ...more
Jun 14, 2015 Cq added it
Even though Olmsted had influence on our local (DC) design, I never knew about him (my loss). He was a total loser at almost everything (so far). But like so many other lives, all of his attempts at a "career" (thank goodness daddy had money to help when he fails, yet-again or gives up) is all influencing how he sees the world and what his contribution to it may be. As mentioned in a previous review, I love historical novels, especially from the 1800s through early 1900s. This one adds another p ...more
very intersting and easy read. i didn't know he was that much of a wanderer.
Judith Cartisano
Excellent. Very readable biography, not a dry one, and full of fascinating details about Olmsted's life.
Jul 28, 2011 Simone added it
An engaging yet thorough, admiring yet objective life story of an utterly remarkable man. Olmsted is responsible in so many ways for shaping modern America, from the beauty and accessibility of New York's Central Park to the good work of the American Red Cross, from the continuing conservation of national parks like Yosemite to the enduring journalistic integrity of the New York Times. Frederick Law Olmsted was a fascinating visionary who lived during a thrilling time when all things were possib ...more
Marilynne Crawford
Excellent and detailed understanding of this man.
Elaine Langer
This book was amazing on so many levels. First of course the biography and step into the life of Olmstead was amazing. But I also enjoyed the parallels of history.

I never knew how Olmstead came to be. He was a true man of genious. Eccentric and brilliant. He designed parks the way he saw, a way no one else could have seen it. I have recently been to a few of his parks, and have visited a few in the past. I am totally amazed at what he accomplished and the lasting effects of these places. He trul
I thought this book was terrific. I had no idea about Olmsted's early life or even about all the other wonderful projects he was involved with. The book was very readable and brought Olmsted to life in a way few biographies do.
Kate Buford
I learned so much in this wonderful biography not only about the remarkable number of projects Olmsted is responsible for, but also about the America he lived and worked in. He was one of those 19th century figures who seemed to live many lives and with a level of accomplishment that can only be called prodigious. I'll never look at Central Park or Stanford University, to name only two of his legacies, the same way again.

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My latest book is Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians (Da Capo Press). This is the first book ever written about a decadent and incredibly influential artists’ circle that hung out at Pfaff’s saloon in NYC during the 1850s. Among its members: a young Walt Whitman; Artemus Ward, America’s first standup comic; psychedelic drug pioneer Fitz Hugh Ludlow; and Adah Isaacs Menken, an ...more
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