Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Things I never knew about Frederick Law Olmsted

As I mentioned the other day, I’ve been ensconced in a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, known to many as the father of American landscape architecture. I purchased two books, both of which are listed below, and have finished one and just started the second. Some things I never knew:
  • He was a late bloomer.
  • His father helped to support him financially - well into his thirties.
  • He married his brother’s wife.
  • He was a surveyor, a clerk, a sailor, a writer, a farmer, the owner of a magazine, and a gold-mine operator – all before he became what would be his claim to fame – a landscape artist.
  • He was a self-taught landscape artist.
  • He had much sadness in his life and at times suffered greatly.
  • His namesake, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., was christened Henry.
  • A carriage accident in the early days of Central Park left Olmsted crippled for the remainder of his days.
  • And he was tough as nails.
OlmstedThe books I’m reading are:
Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin 
A Clearing In The Distance by Witold Rybczynski

I have no idea what got me so riled up about FLO, but it could have occurred was when I was looking for vacation rentals in Maine, and remembered that the Olmsted family reportedly summered on Deer Isle. I had always thought the family had spent plenty of pleasant summers there on the Sunset side of the island . . .

Well, I was wrong about that. There is a house on Deer Isle that long ago was owned by the Olmsteds, but wife Mary purchased the property (46 acres) and had the house built in 1896 as a place to take her husband to convalesce who, in his old age, was suffering from depression or dementia, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. I don’t think he had any say in how the house was to be built or how the grounds were to be landscaped. The house was (and still is) called Felsted, and has appeared in two movies, Mel Gibson’s The Man Without a Face, and a movie called Finding Home. Olmsted lived there less than two years.

FLO was a late bloomer. When he was in his thirties, his father was still sending him an annual stipend, just so that he could survive. He married his brother’s wife, Mary Perkins, in 1859 after said (beloved) brother, John Hull Olmsted, passed away from tuberculosis. John left several children, all very young. FLO’s mother died at a young age, and he experienced much sorrow in his life. He was many things before he became the great man that we know him to be and everything that he did and everything he experienced helped to form the man that he would become. When the board of directors for Central Park was looking for a person to supervise workers to clear debris before the park could be built, Frederick Law Olmsted applied for the job after hearing about it from a person he’d just met. He knew he was terribly under-qualified to be the boss of so many men, but he desperately needed the work and it sounded interesting to him. And the rest, I guess, is history.

Frederick Law Olmsted went on to design landscapes for the Capitol building in Washington, DC to universities, parks, other schools, and some private residences (including Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in North Carolina). Olmsted was a visionary, a truly gifted genius when it came to design and future use of an area.

“I have all of my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future.” ~Frederick Law Olmsted
“Genius is no more than a greater aptitude for patience.” ~George Louis Leclerc

Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (Rick) was christened Henry Perkins Olmsted. When the boy was about 6 or 7, his father changed his name as “a gift”. He hoped that someday his son would carry on the family name and the profession. And he did. Even after Rick died in 1957, Olmsted Associates continued to thrive until the year 2000.

I think it’s time to get off my soapbox now. But I also think you can tell I’m addicted. I love history, and there’s much of it in each of these books.

123 Signature[5]


Sheila said...

Thanks for sharing all of this great information. I love to read biographies and I think these will be added to my list.

Hilary said...

wow, you did get into it.
I love history, too.
It sounds like a very interesting story.
I should have known it was connected to Maine, somehow.

Country Gal said...

Great info ! I have heard of him before as I to enjoy history . Glad you are enjoying his books ! Have a great day !

Cloudia said...

you are a well seasoned container of all you choose to savor. Within you it mellows, and is later poured into photos and words like fine brandy. You have a voice, and instinctively recognize genius in others. . .


Aloha from Honolulu
Comfort Spiral
> < } } ( ° >

Caroline said...

Wow...so parents supported their kids in the old days too... interesting! LOL...sorry I could not help myself. Actually, it would never in a million years occur to me to read this book...but you actually made this very interesting! Cool!

Reena said...

You make history actually interesting! Although I probably would never read this .... I agree with Caroline, you make it enticing! Very well written and reviewed my friend!

The Weaver of Grass said...

This man is not really known here in the UK but I do appreciate how figures in history can take over one's life.

Karen thisoldhouse2.com said...

Biographies are some of the best reading material... real life triumps and tragedies are fascinating!... I haven't paid much attention to his "story" before..thanks for the info!

Daryl said...

so now there's less than a 'Six Degrees Separation' connecting Maine and NYC .. cool

Connie in Hartwood said...

I can understand why you got so caught up in this story ... real history has it all over fiction any day. For a while I was totally enamoured with Andrew Jackson Downing, who I believe consulted with Olmstead on some of his country projects.

Kerri Farley said...

What an interesting man!!

altar ego said...

My brother, a remodeling contractor, has been greatly influenced in his work by FLO. Jamie doesn't remodel so much as he inspires his clients to think in new ways about how we use and live in our domestic space, and how that space fits into the broader context of our environment. He's also an excellent designer and can't brag about him enough (www.homesthatfit.com). My best friend, now deceased, had Law genes. Can't recall at this moment how she was related to FLO, but because of her connection, and the influence on my brother, FLO has always held a special place in my heart. I suppose I really should read his story rather than have others tell me about it!

thotlady said...


Dawn Gross said...

Interesting! I learned something new today!

Anonymous said...

You are addictged to this as I am to Tolstoy. Right now, thinking about reading Anna Karenina again in prep for the movie in November. Interesting post!

Anonymous said...

I believe he was also involved in the planning of the Chicago World Fair. I read "Devil in the White City" quite a while ago, and I am pretty sure he is mentioned quite a bit in the book with regards to the landscaping.

Country Girl said...

I read that book too. Great book, btw. And creepy with the serial killer, which was a true story.

Yes, he designed much of the grounds at the fair. The midway, all around the lake and that special island - all of it.

(GBS) NewsFromTheHill said...

I didn't know that he came to landscape design later in life.... now I'll have to read the book to see what got him started!

Anonymous said...

Wow--I can't think of a single brother-in-law I have I'd want to marry! This guy was a real go getter in more ways than one! I've fogotten how to sign in , it has been so long--my computer is fried. Blue bbird49-Trudy

Lili said...

I too am fascinated by history...especially as it relates to Maine! Thanks for including all these details that I did not know. xo ~Lili