Flowers in His Trousers

Christopher Benfey

  • Frederick Law Olmsted: Writings on Landscape, Culture and Society edited by Charles E. Beveridge
    Library of America, 802 pp, £30.00, November 2015, ISBN 978 1 59853 452 8

During the 1870s, the decade he turned fifty, Frederick Law Olmsted, the creative mastermind of New York’s Central Park, looked back on his career as a landscape architect, the compound profession he had virtually invented from elements of gardening, agriculture, architecture, landscape painting and civil engineering. Olmsted ascribed much of his success to serendipity, the ‘successive unpremeditated steps’ that had led him to embrace (after forays in turnip farming and investigative journalism) such an unusual calling in the first place. During his long life – he was born in 1822 and died in 1903 – Olmsted helped design Central Park and Brooklyn’s equally magnificent Prospect Park, Stanford University and many other American colleges, and the public grounds at Niagara Falls, the US Capitol in Washington and, late in life, the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. It was a chance encounter at a seaside inn in New England that brought him to consider the notion of the great park in the first place, even if in retrospect he seems to have been the perfect – almost the inevitable – man for the job.

In Olmsted’s line of work, serendipity was a principle of design. ‘The artist in landscape gardening can never have, like the landscape painter, a clean canvas to work upon,’ he noted. ‘Always there will be conditions of local topography, soil and climate by which his operations must be limited.’ A cemetery in a dry and flat part of California should not be forced to mimic the ‘shade, gloom and seclusion’ characteristic of the rural cemeteries of New England. In landscape design as well as the management of people (in which Olmsted also excelled) an effective plan must be ‘made to meet the suggestions of the ground’.

A new edition of Olmsted’s writings in the handsome Library of America series allows the reader to follow the twists and turns of his eventful life. His father was a merchant in Hartford, Connecticut; his mother died of an overdose of laudanum in 1826, when Olmsted was not yet four. He was farmed out to various teachers, and severely beaten by one of them, a minister. When he was 15 his father arranged for him to learn the surveyor’s trade, but it didn’t take. He went to sea in 1843 as an ordinary sailor (visiting China convinced him that Europeans did not have a monopoly on civilisation). On his return, he determined to become a gentleman farmer, and observed several progressive farmers before acquiring, with help from his father, his own farm on Staten Island. He visited his younger brother, John, at Yale, making friends with some of his high-minded circle, including Charles Loring Brace, who later founded the Children’s Aid Society. Brace and the Olmsted brothers travelled to Europe in 1850, walking through the English countryside and visiting farmers there and on the Continent. A trip to Birkenhead Park, opened only three years earlier, which ‘the poorest British peasant is as free to enjoy … in all its parts, as the British queen’, was an epiphany for Olmsted, who, in an article published the following year, wondered why the US, with its democratic aspirations, had no comparable public parks.

And then he travelled to the American South to examine the workings of agriculture in a slave economy. The resulting series of fifty letters, published in the New York Times in 1853 and 1854, made his reputation as a journalist. He had thought, naively, that slavery would be peripheral to his analysis, but his pieces describe the inefficiency of the system: he writes of farms on which slaves were reluctant to work and prone to destructive ‘rascality’, not because they were inherently degenerate (as many Southerners claimed), but because they had no stake in their overseers’ success. Olmsted, who had heard a great deal about the supposed refinement of the Southern aristocracy, was disappointed by the cultural shortcomings of the planters he encountered and appalled by the living conditions of white labourers. He had been led to believe that housing would be on a par with that in New England:

Nine times out of ten, at least … I slept in a room with others, in a bed which stank, supplied with but one sheet, if with any; I washed with utensils common to the whole household; I found no garden, no flowers, no fruit, no tea, no cream, no sugar, no bread (for corn pone – let me assert in parenthesis, though possibly, as tastes differ, a very good thing of its kind for ostriches – is not bread …); no curtains, no lifting windows (three times out of four absolutely no windows), no couch – if one reclined in the family room, it was on the bare floor – for there were no carpets or mats. For all that, the house swarmed with vermin.

Olmsted’s letters on the South, first published in three volumes and then, in abridged form, on the eve of the Civil War, in a single volume called The Cotton Kingdom (1861), were widely praised on both sides of the Atlantic. His Hartford friend Harriet Beecher Stowe commended them as ‘written in a style so lively and with so much dramatic incident as to hold the attention like a work of fiction’. The letters included in the Library of America volume, which are mainly concerned with the economic impact of slavery, don’t live up to Stowe’s comments, though Edmund Wilson, in Patriotic Gore, was too harsh in claiming that ‘Olmsted, in the literary sense, was a very bad writer.’ But he certainly wrote better about things like trees, rocks and streams than he did about economics.

In the late summer of 1857 Olmsted took refuge in a quiet seaside inn in Connecticut to revise his book on the South. It was there that he happened to meet an old acquaintance, Charles Wyllys Elliott, who had recently been appointed as one of the commissioners for a new park to be developed in Manhattan. The park already had a long and contested history, as a result of city politics – labour, real estate and the police – rather than aesthetic concerns. As early as 1844, the poet and newspaperman William Cullen Bryant had proposed a large public park for New York, and the state legislature had bought the land in 1853, at a time when it could hardly be deemed central to anything, since it was several miles from the existing city in lower Manhattan. The job of superintendent, which the commissioner urged Olmsted to apply for, would primarily be to oversee the policing of the parkland and the workers who were finally to begin to bring some order, through drainage and tree planting, to its forbidding swamps, squatters’ shanties and brambles.

At this decisive juncture, Olmsted charmingly admitted to his friend that he might be persuaded to accept the position. ‘I’m not sure that I wouldn’t if it were offered me,’ he said, in genteel New England fashion. ‘It will not be offered you,’ the tough-talking New Yorker countered. ‘That’s not the way we do business.’ So Olmsted, fully aware that he was known as a journalist rather than a practical man, made the case that his experience as a surveyor, a farmer, a student of the economics of agriculture, an orchard-keeper and so on, made him ideally fitted for the job. Meanwhile, he lined up supporters among his influential friends, including Bryant, Washington Irving and the painter Albert Bierstadt – all of whom had helped instil in Americans an appreciation for their own landscape. After he was appointed, he told his brother: ‘The strongest objection to me, that I am a literary man, not active; yet if I had not been a “literary man” so far, I certainly should not have stood a chance.’

The responsibilities of the superintendent did not include landscape architecture, and a separate competition was held for the design of the park. Olmsted was approached by the architect Calvert Vaux to collaborate on an entry. The result was their Greensward Plan, which is included, along with their seductive before-and-after drawings of selected sites in the park, in this new volume. With its sunken, all but invisible transverse roads (vigorously opposed by two of the commissioners, who argued that there would never be enough cross-town traffic to warrant the expense of blasting the required passages), its looping walkways that never intersect the traffic routes, and its handsome bridges of Nova Scotia sandstone and Philadelphia brick designed by Vaux (who also created such whimsical buildings as the Belvedere Castle and the casino), the plan is justifiably celebrated. What becomes abundantly clear from Olmsted’s writings is how much imagination, grit, political finesse and hard work – by the end of 1858, Olmsted was supervising more than 2300 gardeners, artisans, engineers and other labourers – were needed to bring the park to completion, as well as to resist the commissioners’ efforts to curb expenses or persuade him to hire their cronies.

In the case of Central Park, the ‘suggestions of the ground’ included massive rock outcrops and meandering brooks, which Olmsted was bent on ‘improving’, as he liked to say, by the careful enhancement of naturally occurring and visually striking ‘effects’ and ‘prospects’. What such improvement meant in practice was the excavation, by manual labour, of hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of granite, and the installation of a huge system of underground pipes to drain swampland and make it fit for trees and shrubs. ‘Natural style’ was not oxymoronic for Olmsted, who looked askance at the artificial rock, made of cement and water and ‘pinned against the landscape’, in Napoleon III’s hurried redevelopment of the Bois de Boulogne. While the work was going on, Olmsted married the widow of his brother, John, who had died while abroad. The following year, 1860, Olmsted himself was almost killed in a carriage accident in the park, which left him permanently lame.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, still hobbled and sickly, Olmsted applied for the job of overseeing ‘contraband’: the slaves freed in battle zones in the South. When the job went to someone else, he was approached instead to run the new United States Sanitary Commission, a relief organisation modelled on Florence Nightingale’s in the Crimean War. ‘He works like a dog all day and sits up nearly all night,’ wrote the diarist George Templeton Strong, a fellow member of the commission. He ‘sleeps on a sofa in his clothes, and breakfasts on strong coffee and pickles!!!’ Olmsted reported on the ‘avalanche of suffering’ he witnessed on the hospital ships he commanded along the Virginia shore: ‘The little room was as full as it could be packed of sick soldiers sitting – not lying – on the floor; there was not room for that. Only two or three were at full length; one of these was dying – was dead the next time I looked in.’

Writing to his wife after the shocking Union defeat in the first battle at Bull Run in July 1861, Olmsted told her: ‘I could not flinch from this now if it starved us all to stay.’ But before the war was over, Olmsted, amid disagreements over the running of ‘the Sanitary’, as it was known, accepted a position in California overseeing a mining interest near the Yosemite Valley and the stand of sequoias known as the Mariposa Big Tree Grove. This too was serendipitous, for Olmsted found himself enlisted in the struggle to preserve what eventually became Yosemite National Park.

Some years later, urged by the landscape painter Frederic Church to take a hand in protecting the banks of Niagara Falls from tawdry commercial establishments, Olmsted won international support for his preservationist plan. He drew on the wording of the Declaration of Independence to pick out a key principle relating to government responsibility for such sites: ‘It is the main duty of government, if it is not the sole duty of government, to provide means of protection for all its citizens in the pursuit of happiness against the obstacles, otherwise insurmountable, which the selfishness of individuals or combinations of individuals is liable to interpose to that pursuit.’

And yet, for all his love of rural scenery, the sublime – that aesthetic doctrine, developed by Kant and Burke, which held that nature presented, in addition to the reassuring face of beauty, a terrifying and awe-inspiring power, embodied in thunderstorms and craggy cliffs – never appealed to him. Amid the overpowering Sturm und Drang of Yosemite, he paused to admire instead a meadow divided by a meandering stream: ‘The stream is such a one as Shakespeare delighted in, and brings pleasing reminiscences to the traveller of the Avon or the Upper Thames.’

He preferred the picturesque, a word that permeates all of his writing on landscape. As defined by 18th-century theorists like William Gilpin, the picturesque often suggested, discreetly, the presence of humanity. Dilapidated farm buildings, caved-in thatched roofs, sheep on a fenced hillside – these scenes were picturesque, and ripe for landscape painters nostalgic for an earlier, simpler time. Olmsted’s favourite park was the English Garden in Munich, with its open-air beer gardens and fanciful faux-Eastern or Greek Revival buildings.

It’s possible that even to the design of Central Park Olmsted brought too many of the ‘civilising’ elements he preferred, although Henry James’s assessment in The Bostonians (1886) seems mean-spirited:

The long, narrow enclosure, across which the houses in the streets that border it look at each other with their glittering windows, bristled with the raw delicacy of April, and, in spite of its rockwork grottoes and tunnels, its pavilions and statues, its too numerous paths and pavements, lakes too big for the landscape and bridges too big for the lakes, expressed all the fragrance and freshness of the most charming moment of the year.

It’s true that there is something a little too busy about the Greensward Plan. When a larger scale of design was called for, as in the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, Olmsted fell back on already dated Beaux Arts sensibilities, collaborating on an over-elaborate White City that was more a glittering ghost than a harbinger of the skyscrapers and industrialised urban cityscapes of the 20th century. In 1881, never a city-dweller at heart, Olmsted himself had left New York for the relatively rural Boston suburb of Brookline.

Olmsted believed that in bringing the so-called ‘dangerous classes’ – recent immigrants, the poor, criminals – in touch with more refined citizens, Central Park would help civilise American society. ‘The poor and wicked need more than to be let alone,’ he had written to his friend Charles Loring Brace in 1853 soon after that first visit to Europe; the best approach was to ‘get up parks, gardens, music, dancing schools, reunions which will be so attractive as to force into contact the good and bad, the gentlemanly and the rowdy’. For overworked businessmen, he believed, the fresh air of the park would be restorative. Others, he added, were even more in need: ‘Women suffer more than men, and the agricultural class is more largely represented in our insane asylums than the professional, and for this, and other reasons, it is these classes to which the opportunity for such recreation is the greatest blessing.’

Not surprisingly, for a man with such progressive (if genteel) views on the healing properties of nature, Olmsted was hired to design several asylums for the mentally ill during a time when it was felt that outdoor recreation might be effective in treating people who had until this period been locked up in prison-like conditions. It was in 1895, while advising the multi-millionaire George Washington Vanderbilt on the landscaping of what became the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, that Olmsted first recognised the unmistakable symptoms of dementia in himself.

That same year Olmsted posed for a portrait by John Singer Sargent, which serves as the cover illustration for the Library of America volume. It depicts Olmsted, in a brown coat, ambling through the Biltmore woods with a long cane. Flowers appear to bloom from his grubby trousers, and his flourishing beard, like that of Pan himself, seems an outgrowth of the moss on the nearby trees. In 1898, paranoid and increasingly unmanageable for his family, he was committed to the McLean Asylum in Massachusetts, where he spent his miserable last five years. He had selected the site for the asylum himself.