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A Clearing In The Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century (Anglais) Broché – 5 juillet 2000

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Chapter One: "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

Revue de presse

Suzannah Lessard The New York Times Book Review Excellent...thorough and respectful, yet easeful in a way that is reminiscent of Olmsted himself.

Stanley Weintraub The Wall Street Journal Mr. Rybczynski meshes what is close to a history of urban landscape architecture in America in the nineteenth century with a life of Olmsted. By doing so, he has produced a biography that communicates, with feeling, the ups and downs of Olmsted's career as well as of the profession he helped to invent....A book that defines and evokes Olmsted as an American original.

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Amazon.com: HASH(0x91805c8c) étoiles sur 5 37 commentaires
52 internautes sur 53 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x910099c0) étoiles sur 5 how'd that park get there in the first place? 1 octobre 2000
Par Orrin C. Judd - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
If I told you that I've just read an excellent biographical memoir about an American original where the author is a looming presence and sections of the book, which masquerade as primary resource material, are actually fabricated by the biographer, you would probably assume that I'd broken down and bought the Edmund Morris book, Dutch. In fact, Witold Rybczynski's biography of the great American landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), includes imagined thoughts and dialogue that the author himself crafted. As he told Brian Lamb on Booknotes, he doesn't much like docudramas but found the technique could be valuable. Indeed, the author is a character in the book, sharing his opinions and walking through Olmsted's parks, sharing his observations.
I mention this, not because it takes away from the book, but because they are fairly typical techniques. Actually, the biographer is a presence in virtually every biography, starting with the choice of whom to write about, but then continuing with the editorial judgments about how to play incidents and what to put in and leave out. If authors like Morris and Rybczynski are more open about it than most, more power to them.
Meanwhile, Rybczynski's subject here, in addition to designing and building Central Park, Prospect Park, etc., was also a sailor, farmer, journalist, founder of The Nation, author of several still pertinent books on the functioning of slavery in the South, and remained throughout his life an honest and honorable public servant. The author tells his story well and offers one important theme of Olmsted's work that retains its relevance. Olmsted, whom we perceive as a naturalist and environmentalist, believed that wilderness, open spaces and nature itself should serve humans. We look on Central Park today and mistaken think of it as a preserved piece of nature in the midst of development. Actually, the only part of the Park that remains unchanged may be the granite outcroppings that helped make the land cheap. He truly built parks and he did so in order that they might serve as restorative or recuperative sanctuaries for modern man.
This is a very interesting book and it is particularly useful as a counter balance to Robert Caro's great biography of Robert Moses (The Power Broker : Robert Moses and the Fall of New York). Caro makes a pretty convincing case that Moses ended up using his enormous powers to impose his own will on the geography of New York, regardless of the impact on the human beings living there. Olmsted, on the other hand, remained reticent about using his power and always built with the ultimate users in mind. He emerges as a great American visionary and a really admirable figure.
20 internautes sur 20 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x91ca5f18) étoiles sur 5 a big life in a small book 18 mai 2000
Par William Chaisson - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
Witold Rybczynski has made Frederick Law Olmsted's life look a little easier than it must have been. This is largely caused by the laminar flow of Rybczynski's prose. We are swept through the 19th century so smoothly that even the Civil War seems like a mere rock in the stream. I have not read any of the author's other books, but his prose style here seemed to be imitating the sweeping lines in an Olmsted design. In terse introductory paragraphs the broader events of a given historical period are sketched out and then Olmsteds trajectory through them is presented in more, but not great, detail. The result of this approach is to make the reader feel both informed and curious to know more. As other reviewers have remarked and the author points out in his closing chapter, much is available. Olmsted was a pack rat who saved all his correspondence and his legacy was carried on into the middle 20th century by his son Rick, who only retired from practice in 1950.
I grew up near New York City and always considered Central Park to be a wonderful place, even in its worst times through the 60s and 70s. I am lucky enough now to live in a city with three Olmsted-designed parks (they were initiated by the old man, but designed and built by his sons). Their maintenance has been spotty, but they are still beautiful places, and I do wonder if they still have the power to civilize.
19 internautes sur 19 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x910edcb4) étoiles sur 5 An Informative Introduction To An American Innovator 3 novembre 2000
Par Michael Lima - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché Achat vérifié
To me, a biography is successful if the author conveys both the subject's accomplishments and the influences that helped to shape these deeds. Rybczynski easily meets these standards in this entertaining, instructive study.
Rybczynski spends a lot of time discussing the significance of Olmsted's major projects, like Prospect Park and Mount Royal. The innovations that Olmsted brought to the field of landscape architecture in these projects are clearly laid out for the reader. However, these discussions were not the main point that I took from the book. Instead, I was enthralled with the discussions of the various jobs and travels that Olmsted undertook throughout his life, particularly in his formative years. Rybczynski does an excellent job of showing that these diverse experiences not only satiated Olmsted's curiosity, but also were essential to the development of Olmsted's views on landscape architecture. It is refreshing to find an example of the belief that a variety of experiences are necessary to bring out new talents, enhance existing skills, and create a well-rounded individual.
I highly recommend A Clearing In The Distance for many reasons. These reasons include a concise writing style and a multi-faceted subject. But, above all, the book brings attention to an individual deserving of such study. It is this quality that makes A Clearing In The Distance a "must-read" for not only admirers of Olmsted's works, but for anyone who is interested in the creative development of an innovator in their field.
14 internautes sur 15 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x910ed7bc) étoiles sur 5 Good book: Watch out for the historical fiction though 7 octobre 1999
Par Un client - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
The book is great, and should be read. Rybczynski's enthusiasm for this fascinating subject is infectious.
The biography is very personal, with lots of space devoted to growing up, family live, etc. I was surprised at this touch having only read Rybczynski's more analytical "City Life." It's a different side to this author.
Watch out for these italicized 2-4 page sections where the author writes historical fiction to supplement the narrative. I didn't like them at all. The preface warns you that they are based on Olmstead's letters, and aren't neccessarily real. I personally don't like any blurring between fact and fiction in a biography, and think that these sections unneccesarily insert the biographer's literary ego into the biography.
7 internautes sur 7 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x910ed6a8) étoiles sur 5 Landscape of Tea Leaves; The Vision of Landscape Design 13 juillet 2001
Par jack schaaf - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
One has the impression when reading Rybczynski's biographic sketch of the life of Law Olmstead there exist three problems for landscape architecture (or garden design in Europe) in America: 1) It is underappreciated; 2) It is underappreciated; and, 3) Something like the first two. Olmstead, who is best known for his developments upon Central Park, part of the Stanford campus and part of the immediate area near or around the Capitol grounds, is here shown in detail in a study which marks a departure from his earlier works: whereas the author's studies in the past centered around elements and observations of the minutae that went in making up the entirety (the part to the whole), here he focuses more broadly upon the designer himself and the varied phases of his life. Olmstead as a monumental (pun nonintended) historic American figure whose works were to influence lanscape in such a way as to mesmerize, even propheticly figure prominently in urban design and display (cf., Panama-Calif exhibitions 1900-1913 or the several Worlds Fairs); Here, it were as if a fortune teller took an enormous tea cup, spilled its contents onto the landscape and let all see the wonderous result and dream of still greater possibilities.
One had hoped there would have been far more illustrations, composites, sketches (even if by the author), documentary photos (Perhaps he could even have shown a series of transparent overlays detailing the before/after result of the development of Central Park in the way one recalls from childhood those spooky human diagrams in ancient Encyclopeda Britanicas). There are few illustrations, yet the whole holds up well. Recommend as a getaway book subsectional to American history.
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