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

3.94 of 5 stars 3.94  ·  rating details  ·  421 ratings  ·  67 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...more
Hardcover, 480 pages
Published June 8th 1999 by Scribner (first published January 1st 1999)
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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
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
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...more
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...more
Helen Mccarthy
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...more
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
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.
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,...more
Marcy Gessel
Dec 01, 2008 Marcy Gessel rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  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
Stephen Rifici
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.
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...more
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
Reading this book established Frederick Law Olmsted as one of my favorite design heroes. Historical. Moving. I loved this book.
I'm a fan of Rybczynski's writing and Olmsted's parks, so this was pure bliss to me.
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
Rybczynski is as always wonderful at spinning design in to a narrative. I love that about him. The early part of the story, when FLO is a young man searching for himself, is a little slow going, which is odd because he does amazing things like sail to China and explore "wild" southern and western parts of America. Once we get in to more of the landscape work, however, the spinning of design in to narrative kicks in. I also found it fascinating how Olmsted's life intersected with so many other fa...more
I wanted this book to be great. It was fascinating; I had no idea about most of Olmsted's life, just the basic famous stuff. He was far more of a renaissance individual than I had known. Having said that: the writing makes it feel like a lot is left out. Some parts of his life are just skimmed over. Some seemingly interesting storylines are covered in three paragraphs and then disappear. Also, the author interjects at various points with his own completely unnecessary versions of possible experi...more
Ian Colby
About as fun to read as an obituary. Disorganized, poorly written, and BORING. I didn't find the author's insertion of himself charming.
Austin Booth
The latest step in my effort to understand the culture and history of nineteenth century New England (and America in general). A good, informative book. Olmsted, a mariner, farmer, journalist, organizer, abolitionist, traveler, man of letters, and, of course, landscape architect, is well worth knowing about. This book does a pretty good job of tying these various aspects of Olmsted's life together, and also includes a kind of portrait of the socio-economic climate of 19th century America. Enjoya...more
Aug 16, 2007 Jenny rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: park and american history enthusiasts, residents of boston, nyc and buffalo, ny
a clearing in the distance is a nice and very readable biography of frederick law olmsted, who i learned was an odd jobs man and a bit of a loose cannon in the profession department. in other words, it was no straight line from birth to landscape architecture. buffalo (my hometown) was laid out park-style by olmsted, and my other hometowns (boston and new york city) are heavy on the olmstead parks themselves. then again, lots of places are, which i also learned from this book.
Nicky McHugh
As a frequent visitor to Central Park I was quite curious to learn more about the man largely credited with its creation. And reading his story I was more than impressed with the many careers Olmstead undertook and the vast contributions he made to a number of social causes. The is no dearth of information in this book and that is it's tragic flaw. It reads like a collection of facts and information -- impressive nonetheless -- that come across in a rather dry way.
I purchased this book years ago and never got too far into it. A recent trip to Oakland,CA to the Mountain View Cemetery inspired me to reread this. What an amazing man with so many ideas. His failing mental health at the end of his life was very sad - he had so many projects left to do! Rybczynski writes some very thought provoking books on urban planning/architecture; I have several which I enjoyed.
wonderful book about a man and a vision. his varied experiences led him down the path to creative large scale landscape architecture. It took him half his life to figure out what to do with himself and then he was propelled into this visionary of the park system and more. I live with his vision every day as i traverse Prospect Park and marvel at scale of what he did.
Interesting read, but dry. If I wasn't a landscape architect, I probably wouldn't have finished it. As it was I only did through fits and starts over a year. Plenty of interesting things to be learned about Olmsted, though. Well worth it for anybody interested in the founding father of landscape architecture and the architect of Central Park.
I'm rarely into non-fiction, especially biographies -- but when your ancestor was the pioneer of landscape architecture and designed so many historical landmarks (Central Park, the Washington Mall, etc.), you just have to do it! I loved reading about all the great things he did... but it was still a pretty dry biography in my opinion.
A decent broad-stroke introduction to the life of Olmsted. I enjoyed learning about the many hats FLO wore over the course of his life--seaman, farmer, travel writer/journalist, abolitionist. As a biography it does the job, but I didn't get enough of what I needed in terms of his philosophy of landscape architecture.
Olmsted's life makes for such a good story it'd be hard to fuck up the biography, but I kept getting annoyed by Rybcynski's little italicized experimentations in creative non-fiction/biography/historical fiction. Good book, well researched, good story, it's just too bad the author tried to play the post-modern game.
I liked it, especially how the story details the very convoluted path that Olmsted followed to get the point where his ideas really had a lasting impact on our parks and our understanding of and relationship to nature, particularly with respect to population. Key take away is to keep faith in one's own vision.
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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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