We tend to believe that creative genius springs fully-formed into the minds of a select few. Take Frederick Law Olmsted as an example – the man who created Central Park with concepts of flow and nativity even though he had no training in the field and no examples of such organic and functional design for inspiration. Clearly he was born to be landscape architect.
Or was it sheer luck and a knack for self-promotion that made Olmsted successful in a field that didn’t exist until he defined it himself?
Olmsted certainly didn’t show signs of genius prior to the Central Park masterwork. Though full of curiosity about life’s components, he was a free-spirited boy who lacked the intellectual persistence to complete academic courses. His career as a surveyor’s assistant lasted for a season, and then he went to sea for a couple of years. None of these professions held his interest, and in his twenties Olmsted decided that farming was his best choice.
Fortunately, young Fred’s father had the means and the willingness to support his son, providing him with a farm in Connecticut and, a few years later, purchasing Tosomock Farm in New York. Like all the other experiments at livelihood, Tosomock Farm eventually lost its appeal - but during the brief time that Olmsted acted as a gentleman farmer there, he demonstrated an innate understanding of the principles that would later give the world’s first landscape architect a signature principle: he worked with nature rather than attempting to dominate it.
Travel appears to be the only activity for which Olmsted was truly well-suited. Just prior to the start of the Civil War, he landed a job as a writer for the New York Daily Times and went on assignment throughout the Southern states, sending reports back to the struggling newspaper about the region. Though initially tasked with writing an objective account of the condition of slaves in the South, Olmsted managed to incorporate details of the landscapes, cultures, and events he witnessed.
His articles, published under the pseudonym ‘Yeoman,’ drew thousands of new subscribers to the paper and apparently infected Olmsted with the writing bug. It also made him a respectable name in the literary community. When farming lost its glow, Olmsted used his father’s generous coffers to become a publisher.
Much of the space in Genius of Place is given to these early meanderings, and wisely so. Author Justin Martin has a keen eye for spotting the clues that point us toward what now seems the inevitable outcome – Frederick Law Olmsted was inadvertently training himself to create not only the breathtaking and alluring landscapes for which he’s known, but also to create the idea of designing space with intuition and fluidity.
Martin makes full use of a wealth of primary sources to bring life to his subject. Olmsted as presented in Genius of Place is more than an icon; his disappointments and failures, his breezy willingness to be supported by his father, his single-minded devotion to whatever endeavor captured his attention are all on display and equally important in the mix. To understand the man, of course, we must understand the times in which he lives. Martin incorporates the historical perspective so seamlessly that readers may not even be aware that they have been transported to 19th-century America. It would have been easy to focus on the Central Park project to the exclusion of all else, but Martin continues this biography with equal amounts of research and narrative given to the many successful ventures that followed. Olmsted’s life reveals itself as naturally as his designs, integrated with the setting and exposition of this outstanding biography.