"Tough as Nails"
With his high forehead, wide-set blue eyes, and unruly hair, the young Frederick Olmsted made a strong impression. A boyhood friend described him as "a vigorous, manly fellow, of medium height, solidly built with rather broad shoulders and a large well formed head. If athletics had been in fashion he would have been high up in foot-ball and base-ball." In midlife he suffered a carriage accident that left him with a pronounced limp, but he remained a skilled small-boat sailor and an experienced horseman. He was a seasoned outdoorsman who hunted and fished, though not for sport. Later photographs usually show him pensive. He rarely looks directly at the camera, which gives him an air of self-containment, almost detachment. "His face is generally very placid," wrote his colleague Katharine Wormeley, "with all the expressive delicacy of a woman's, and would be beautiful were it not for an expression which I cannot fathom, -- something which is, perhaps, a little too severe about it." But she added, "I think his mouth and smile and the expression of his eyes at times very beautiful...there is a deep, calm thoughtfulness about him which is always attractive and sometimes -- provoking."
An odd choice of word -- "provoking." Olmsted's close friend Charles Eliot Norton likewise discerned this quality. "All the lines of his face imply refinement and sensibility to such a degree that it is not till one has looked through them to what is underneath, that the force of his will and the reserved power of his character become evident." When I asked the landscape architect Laurie Olin how he would characterize Olmsted, his immediate answer was "Tough as nails." Olin is right, of course. Although the modern image of Frederick Law Olmsted is of a benevolent environmentalist, a sort of Johnny Appleseed scattering beautiful city parks across the nation, he had indomitable energy and iron determination. As a mine manager in California, he once faced down a crowd of striking miners. (They were understandably upset because he had reduced their wages.) "They tried a mob but made nothing of it," he laconically wrote to his father, "and I have lost no property only time. I shall hold out till they come to my terms and dismiss all who have been prominent in the strike." He did just that. His obstinacy often got him in trouble. Many times he chose to resign positions rather than continue on a course of action he disapproved. His most famous resignations -- there were several -- occurred during the long and often frustrating construction of Central Park. But there were others. Leland Stanford, the railroad magnate, engaged him to lay out the grounds of what would become Stanford University. Olmsted prepared the plans on the understanding that, as was his practice, he would also hire his own staff to supervise the work. When Stanford, who had been governor of California and was used to getting his own way, reneged on the agreement, Olmsted walked away from the job. The university was completed without him.
Another battle of wills occurred during his tenure with the United States Sanitary Commission. The Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross, was a private organization established after the outbreak of the Civil War to administer volunteer relief efforts to the Union troops. Olmsted spent two years as its first general secretary, in charge of day-to-day operations. As fund-raising efforts intensified, hundreds of thousands of dollars flowed to the Commission, whose board felt the need to exert more direct supervision over the activities of its chief executive officer. He characteristically bridled at any attempt to curtail his freedom, and a sometimes bitter struggle ensued. One of those with whom he had run-ins was the treasurer of the Commission, George Templeton Strong. Strong, best known as the author of an exceptional set of diaries, was a prominent Wall Street lawyer and civic leader. He knew Olmsted well: both men were involved in the Union League Club and in the establishment of The Nation magazine. Some six months before Olmsted's resignation, Strong noted in his journal: "He is an extraordinary fellow, decidedly the most remarkable specimen of human nature with whom I have been brought into close relations." Then, in obvious exasperation, he added: "Prominent defects, a monomania for system and organization on paper (elaborate, laboriously thought out, and generally impracticable), and appetite for power. He is a lay-Hildebrand."
The last strikes me as a shrewd characterization. Hildebrand, or Gregory VII, was an eleventh-century pope who is remembered for his lifelong attempt to establish the supremacy of the papacy within the Church -- and the authority of the Church over the state. Olmsted, too, was trying to establish an ascendancy. He was doing it with what sometimes seemed to others religious zeal, but he did not seek personal aggrandizement. Strong commented on his colleague's "absolute purity and disinterestedness"; he recognized that Olmsted wasn't empire-building. The supremacy that Olmsted was trying to establish was that of the technician -- the organizer; the authority was that of The Plan. But he was ahead of his time. His obsession with organization and planning on paper may sometimes have been clumsy, and it was certainly laborious -- this was before telephones and typewriters, let alone computers and fax machines. But it was not, as Strong thought, ineffective. Olmsted successfully coordinated the operations of the Sanitary Commission, with its thousands of contributing private aid societies, and its scores of nurses and doctors. He deployed convalescent shelters, field hospitals, and hospital ships and distributed food and medical supplies over a battlefront that extended for hundreds of miles. Strong had also forgotten that it was precisely "monomania" that had enabled Olmsted to organize the labors of several thousand workers in what was then the largest public works project in the nation: Central Park.
Olmsted was one of the first people to recognize the necessity for planning in a large, industrializing country -- whether in peace or war. This recognition was not yet widely shared, which is why he was often misunderstood. "He looks far ahead, & his plans & methods are sometimes mysterious," wrote Rev. Henry Whitney Bellows, founder and president of the Sanitary Commission, of his willful protégé. "[His critics] think him impracticable, expensive, slow -- when he is only long-headed, with broader, deeper notions of economy than themselves, & with no disposition to hurry what, if done satisfactorily, must be thoroughly." Long-headed is good. It was the future that concerned him, and he had the rare patience to successfully project his plans years ahead. I think that was one of the things that finally attracted him to landscape architecture. It is a field where a long time -- sometimes generations -- is required for the full realization of the designer's goal.
A small incident illustrates his foresight. Once, five years after the end of the Civil War, when he was already an established landscape architect in New York, he received a letter from the quartermaster general of the U.S. Army, Montgomery Meigs. Meigs had a high regard for Olmsted, with whom he had worked during the war. The general wrote to ask advice on the landscaping of national cemeteries, for which purpose Congress had just appropriated funds. Olmsted was preoccupied with the construction of Prospect Park in Brooklyn; nevertheless it took him less than a week to draft a careful and detailed reply. As to the general design, he wrote, "the main object should be to establish permanent dignity and tranquillity." He warned Meigs that any attempts at elaborate gardening should be avoided. "Looking forward several generations, the greater part of all that is artificial at present in the cemeteries must be expected to have either wholly disappeared or to have become inconspicuous and unimportant in the general landscape." Olmsted recommended doing only two things: building a simple enclosing wall, and planting trees. The effect would be of a "sacred grove" for the war dead. What a beautiful idea!
Olmsted's artistry was always underpinned by sensible considerations, and this was no exception. Since the war cemeteries would be built in different parts of the country, he advocated using trees indigenous to each region. He also warned against the temptation to plant fast-growing species (they would be short-lived) and listed those to be avoided. Instead of buying expensive large trees, he suggested establishing nurseries next to the cemeteries where seedlings could be cultivated and transplanted after ten years or so. What if land for a nursery was unavailable? His novel suggestion: "nursery rows could be planted between the tiers of graves. They would be harmless for the time being and would disappear after a few years" as the trees matured and were relocated.
Copyright © 1999 by Witold Rybczynski