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A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century
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A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century

3.95  ·  Rating Details  ·  560 Ratings  ·  83 Reviews
In a brilliant collaboration between writer and subject, the bestselling author of Home and City Life illuminates Frederick Law Olmsted's role as a major cultural figure and a man at the epicenter of nineteenth-century American history.
We know Olmsted through the physical legacy of his stunning landscapes -- among them, New York's Central Park, California's Stanford Univ
Hardcover, 480 pages
Published June 8th 1999 by Scribner (first published January 1st 1999)
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Czarny Pies
Nov 15, 2014 Czarny Pies rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Those interested in American Architecture.
Recommended to Czarny by: Allan Williams
A Clearing in the Distance is a highly enjoyable book about Frederick Law Olmsted who is commonly held to be the greatest Landscape Architect in American history. Central Park is his most famous project but he also built Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Mount Royal in Montreal, Chicago's Riverside parks; the park system for Buffalo, Wisconsin's grand necklace of parks; and the Niagara Reservation at Niagara Falls. Rybczynski provides a wonderful life story of multi-faceted individual, a thorough revie ...more
Sara Van Dyck
Olmsted turns out to be a fascinating man, with aspects to his character I had never heard of. I would give this a five except that the information about the people Olmsted worked with, and about details of various parks may be too detailed for the casual reader such as myself. I gained an understanding from this book, perhaps not be quite what the author intended but highly valuable, something I hope I will become part of my awareness: I now find that I am looking at landscaping and parks with ...more
May 04, 2014 Stephen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A wonderful look into the life of one America's early most successful landscape architects. An amazing and illustrious career. Seems that every where ones goes in the US his influence lives on. I have a new appreciation for parks and public gardens.
Sep 12, 2015 Katie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was my loooong, involved summer read. I try to do one of those each summer, because I have a really hard time with long books: no matter how good they are, I start drifting near the end. This wasn't easy to get through, but totally worth it and I recommend it.

Rybczynski does his best work in the sections about Olmsted, the Man, and not Olmsted, the Landscape Architect. Olmsted truly comes off, throughout the book, as just a great guy - someone I'd genuinely like as a human being and want to
Oct 15, 2007 Stephanie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Jointly a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted (Senior - not whom many think of -- that one is his youngest son) and a portrait of 19th century America, this book clearly demonstrates the milieu in which Olmsted operated and the far-reaching effects that his thought and work had - not only on landscape architecture, but on other kinds of planning, too (National Forest Service, for example). Without calling it such, the author illustrates this time as a golden age of American architecture as well a ...more
George Siehl
A compelling biography of Frederick Law Olmstead, one of America's pioneer landscape architects, portraying the man, his accomplishments, and why those accomplishments matter today. His works include New York City's Central Park, Brooklyn's Prospect Park, numerous private commissions such as the Vanderbilt Biltmore estate in North Carolina, and many others parks and projects across the country.

While long in deciding what to do with his life--doing turns as merchant seaman, farmer, writer--Olmst
Mar 21, 2014 Callie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Reading this book established Frederick Law Olmsted as one of my favorite design heroes. Historical. Moving. I loved this book.
Mar 01, 2011 Brittany rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, biography
This book provides a look at the life of Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who contributed to most of America's famous places (Central Park, Prospect Park, the Capitol, Stanford, Berkley, Biltmore) and some less famous places (Chicago's Columbian Exposition, Mount Royal in Montreal). He was a landscape architect who detested the term. (He preferred "sylvan artist.") Regardless what you call it, he's a fascinating person with extremely interesting thoughts. I got interested in him while reading The ...more
Oct 13, 2008 Michael rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a great bio of a man who had six or seven careers--each one worthy of its own book. FLO was of course the landscape architect of Central Park, but also a key figure in abolition, military medicine (he organized the Union medic system during the Civil War), the California Gold Rush, Chicago World's Fair of 1893, and establishment of the National Park System. Like "Team of Rivals," this book is seeped in the hardships of life in the 19th century, which makes you appreciate FLO's accomplish ...more
Rybczynski's books is a straightforward mix of biography and a somewhat involved appreciation of Olmsted's work as a landscape architect. Olmsted's lack of direction is emphasized in the early years, and his facility as an administrator and visionary artist, and an important public figure, as all men of the 19th century seemed to be, are dealt with in the second half of the book. While I would've liked more detail on his travels in the southern United States and California, and more visual descr ...more
Oct 21, 2013 itpdx rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Olmsted name come up many times as I grew up. This book has clarified for me that the projects closest to my home--the Lewis and Clark Exposition, the Forty Mile Loop, the Seattle Park System and University of Washington campus were projects of this man's son (Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.).
The subject of this biography, F.L.O., was a very interesting man and had a big impact on this country. This book tells of his eclectic education and experiences that contributed to his background as a lands
For those of you who may not be familiar with Frederick Law Olmsted, I must assure you that you probably are and don't know it. He was one of the country's foremost landscape architects -- a trail blazer. He was responsible in part for the design of Central Park in New York City. He designed the Capitol grounds and the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. He designed Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

The most surprising aspect of Olmsted's biography is learning that he was a true rolling stone. He didn't f
Jean Cole
Here is the story of one of our unsung national heroes -- Frederick Law Olmsted -- who, among other things, is partially responsible for the national park system we all take for granted. His body of work includes Central Park, the U.S. Capitol grounds, the grounds of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, and of course the Biltmore estate. These are only the best known of his projects -- there are literally dozens more. This volume traces Olmsted's life from his youth to his death. We get a r ...more
Helen Mccarthy
Jan 25, 2013 Helen Mccarthy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a very interesting book about Fredrick Law Olmsted, who became one of the earliest park and public landscape planners in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. It details his planning of Central Park, N.Y., Prospect Park, Brooklyn, The World's Fair in Chicago, involvement in planning Yosemite Nat'l Park, and many other public landscapes. The author details the various struggles and conflicts involved in the planning and execution of these large projects. He was also a leader in urban ...more
I purchased this book as a souvenir of my visit to the Biltmore Estate, part of the Olmsted legacy. True biography, by virtue of its need to adhere to rigid documentation requirements, can be a lot of dry factual information cluttered with footnotes. This wasn't.

I had read other Rybczynski books before and knew him to be eminently well qualified in the architectural field. His professional insights, as well as his personable writing style, really served to bring Frederick Olmsted to life.

Mr. O
Nov 25, 2012 Hope rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Picked up this biography on a visit to the Biltmore House. It wasn't quite what I expected- there are only a couple of pages out of the entire book devoted to the Biltmore House grounds; however, the book is still an interesting portrait of an amazing figure in 19th Century America. Mr. Olmsted, probably best known as the landscaper & designer of Central Park, came to his career as a landscape architect after several attempts at other careers. He was an accomplished writer and journalist, wo ...more
Feb 20, 2014 Eric rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Olmsted wrote: Less wilderness and disorder I object to. This book makes me want to visit every place Olmsted designed, especially Mount Royal in Montreal and Yosemite.
I particularly enjoyed the stories about Stanford (the rich guy who started the California college). Olmsted said that Stanford paid but was the worst kind of client. Olmsted quit/got fired and was not invited to the opening ceremony.
May 24, 2013 Leah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very well-written and researched. I really enjoyed reading this, though it took me awhile. These 19th century gentlemen certainly had fascinating lives. They just decided, "Well, I guess I'll learn some engineering," or "I guess I'll be an architect." And then they did, no four year degree required.

Olmstead was a fascinating character, and the other fascinating character in the book was, as the title suggests, America in the 19th century. I frankly could have used more of 19th century America,
Marcy Gessel
Dec 01, 2008 Marcy Gessel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Marcy by: Marti Roelandt
This book, borrowed from a friend, has been sitting on my bedside table for 2 years and I finally picked it up. I am so glad I didn't give it back without reading it! What am amazing story. I had known Olmsted as a prominent landscape architect, but I had no idea he had been a journalist and chronicler of the slave-holding South, one of the founders of The Nation, and one of the most important thinkers of the 19th century. He also was an incredible packrat, which helped Rybczynski piece together ...more
Aug 29, 2014 Christie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It was a joy to read about one of my heroes of "green space," Frederick Law Olmsted. Interesting to learn how many occupations and studies Olmsted went through on his oblique journey toward becoming the renowned designer of some of our best parklands.
Matthew Roche
An interesting story about the guy who created the profession of landscape architect/designer through unbelievable projects like Central Park and the Chicago Worlds Fair.

But much more interesting is the story of Olmstead the journalist who travelled three times through the South prior to the Civil War to document the facts on the ground about slavery. He was not really a reformer, but came away with the simple conclusion that slavery was not economically viable - the cost of slaves was higher th
Mar 24, 2015 Stephen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
well written account of the life and work of Frederick Law Olmsted. I will never look at Central Park, or any urban park the same way. Oh, to have that vision today.aut
Jul 24, 2015 Dot rated it it was amazing
Hard to imagine how one man shaped today's public and private landscapes, our attitudes towards the need for public parks to unwind and relax in.
Mark Brucker
Read like the author's doctoral thesis. Dry as a bone biography about a fascinating American.
Dec 28, 2015 Jonathan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Very enjoyable read. Olmstead's life is a study of being smart but not brilliant at a few things and pushing ahead to make a new vision of how he wanted things to be and pushed for the ideal yet compromised to get the job done. Many examples of how others helped him along the way. Also, many examples of how he made life-long relationships even though he was not a social person, but a workaholic. All interesting. Olmstead was against slavery, but disliked the abolition cause. Traveled through the ...more
Jul 08, 2014 Kaethe rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
I'm a fan of Rybczynski's writing and Olmsted's parks, so this was pure bliss to me.
Marcia Miller
Fascinating subject, well-researched, but a slog for me. I only made it halfway through. Too much time spent on Olmsted's young life, when what I really wanted to read about was the creation of Central Park in NYC.
Kyle Horton
Great biography, slow at points, but very detailed
Nov 03, 2008 Amy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Rybczynski is a good writer, though I'm still getting used to the occasional first-person interjections. This may seem shallow, but I like the short chapters; it makes it good for breakfast reading, and it helps make the largeness of the volume more handle-able. I am finding out a lot about Olmstead that I didn't know, like his involvement with abolition movements and his connections to other famous people. I'm frustrated a bit by the lack of some other facts I do know... but I'm enjoying it ove ...more
Jan 11, 2015 Cindy rated it really liked it
Interesting book on Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park as well as dozens of other public and private landscapes. I didn't know much about him or about the history and theory of landscape architecture. Impressively well-researched.
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Witold Rybczynski was born in Edinburgh, of Polish parentage, raised in London, and attended Jesuit schools in England and Canada. He studied architecture at McGill University in Montreal, where he also taught for twenty years. He is currently the Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also co-edits the Wharton Real Estate Review. Rybczynski has ...more
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