Frederick Law Olmsted May Be the Most Important Historical Figure We Know the Least About
Frederick Law Olmsted, or “FLO,” best known as the designer behind New York City’s Central Park, may well be “the most important American historical figure that the average person knows least about,” writes Justin Martin, author of Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted (Da Capo Press). Martin researched Olmsted’s letter collection (both to and from), and found within an unconventionally ambitious man. After dropping out of Yale to become a farmer, a friend wrote that Olmsted was indeed “an enthusiast by nature, and all the Greek and Latin in the world wouldn’t have driven that out of him.” Olmsted’s enthusiasm manifested as a true American renaissance man who would become an early environmental pioneer partly responsible for preserving Yosemite National Park, a journalist for what is now The New York Times, a Civil War abolitionist and a world traveler.
On a trip to England, Olmsted got the chance to “walk the manicured grounds of Chirk Castle” and wondered, “Was it really right for this beautiful place to be set apart for the enjoyment of the privileged few?” Driven by his country’s founding values of democracy, Olmsted’s “newfound idealism about agriculture” would lead him to not only design Central Park, but also the U.S. Capitol Grounds, Prospect Park, Stanford University, the University of Chicago, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, Niagara Falls and many other American landmarks.
But Genius of Place offers more than the legacy of a man who accomplished “more than most people could in three lifetimes.” Martin provides an intimate portrayal of man himself, whose life was both blessed with genius and plagued by tragedy.