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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  ·  Rating Details ·  341 Ratings  ·  60 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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Apr 29, 2011 Dan rated it really liked it
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
Mar 14, 2016 Elizabeth added it
Shelves: 2016
After hearing Olmsted's name come up repeatedly in other books, and in life in general, I was very eager to read about this "Landscape Architect" who has a fingerprint in every corner of the US. I'm interested in city planning, so this felt in line as well.

Totally fascinating! I'd recommend this biography not only for it's interesting human subject, but also for a general refresh of American history before, during and after the Civil War. It gets into antebellum South, America's cultural inferi
Mar 24, 2012 Ryan rated it liked it
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
Apr 21, 2016 Carol rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
4.5 stars. I truly enjoyed this book, and reading more about FLO as a person.

Makes me think that in this day and age, we are encumbered by resumes and degrees too much - that so many talented and intelligent people are overlooked by employers because they don't didn't go to the right school ( or any school at all) and don't have the precise code-words on their resumes to get through the first (oftentimes computerized) read. How many FLOs and other geniuses are discarded/held back due to our curr
Katharine Ott
Feb 05, 2016 Katharine Ott rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography-memoir
“Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted” – written by Justin Martin and published in 2011 by Da Capo Press. This was such an interesting chronicle of the life of “a park maker, environmentalist and abolitionist” who left his imprint on many of our country’s scenic wonders. I was surprised at all the endeavors Olmsted was involved in, although he is rightly most recognized for his skills as a landscape architect, “…he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and fores ...more
Jan 26, 2013 Melissa rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
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
Matt Falber
Dec 29, 2014 Matt Falber rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 24, 2014 Gay rated it it was amazing
Fabulous! Parks for the general public; design of public spaces.
Feb 03, 2016 Eve rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this - I learned a lot about Olmsted and certainly gained a tremendous appreciation for his impact in many areas of American life - literary, public health, conservation - as well as landscape architecture. For all that, I don't think that it was especially well written - it was fine, but nothing special. At times, the language seemed anachronistic and that pushed me away from immersion in the 19th century. I think that I would give this 3.5 stars. A very good book, but not a great one ...more
Apr 10, 2012 Louise rated it liked it
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.
Jan 30, 2016 Charlotte rated it it was ok
didn't really get into the topics i was really into, like the reception of the emerald necklace, parks as democratizing social spaces in 19th c., details about landscape architecture. obviously well researched about FLO's life, but not that well written. Had a lot of lines that were kind of like "This prescient moment would later..." or "Once again, he was haunted by his old demon, insomnia" or things that seemed like lazy/cliché writing and editing. That said, it wasnt horrible or anything. Pre ...more
Aug 04, 2013 Anne rated it really liked it
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 really liked it
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
Aug 04, 2012 Thomas rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 10, 2014 David Dort rated it really liked it
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
Aug 07, 2013 Sara-Ellen rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 05, 2015 Laura rated it it was amazing
Hands down, the best biography I have ever read--and I like biographies. Martin doesn't just give us a chronicle of Olmstead's life, he so successfully locates Olmstead's place within American history, that the book can be read as an mid-19th century American history book from the perspective of landscape gardening, much in the way that one might read a history of the Civil War, say, from the perspective of medicine or agriculture. The subject matter is made interesting by excellent writing--exc ...more
Harry Lane
Mar 24, 2013 Harry Lane rated it really liked it
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
Aug 30, 2014 Becky Smith rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
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.
Sep 13, 2014 Donna rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 27, 2015 Robyn rated it liked it
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.
Joshua Barton
Sep 11, 2016 Joshua Barton rated it liked it
The life of Frederick Law Olmstead is one of the most interesting and impressive lives I have ever read about. Sailor, farmer, journalist, and father of landscape architecture; his life is full of triumph and tragedy. This book was interesting and read like a good introduction, but I felt the author was too casual and sometimes it felt more like a longer editorial. I know the Justin Martin's background is in newspapers, so that would make sense. It was a solid intro that focused on the major eve ...more
Sarah Duggan
Jan 06, 2015 Sarah Duggan rated it really liked it
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.
Jan 22, 2012 Tom rated it it was amazing
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
May 30, 2012 Chuck rated it it was ok
Shelves: niagara-falls
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
Feb 08, 2015 Roland rated it it was amazing
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.
Apr 20, 2015 Ellen rated it liked it
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.
Apr 28, 2013 Ed rated it really liked it
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
Feb 18, 2013 T. Carter Ross rated it it was amazing
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
So readable. Loved the history and learning about a multi-talented man
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I'm currently at work on A Fierce Glory, to be published in September 2018 (Da Capo Press). This will be a group biography treatment of Antietam, the Civil War's pivotal battle, still America's single bloodiest day. The rich cast includes: Robert E. Lee, pioneering war photographer Alexander Gardner, and Jonathan Letterman, the father of battlefield medicine. Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamat ...more
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