Fredrick Law Olmstead: Unity Between Landscape, Social Order & Personality Development

The recognized indissoluble unity between geography and personality development is well attested to throughout the West.  The arrival of positivism in the late 17th century created a methodology (the scientific method) that sought to impose on reality the constraints of a myopic vision.  Artists, mothers, poets and statesman knew otherwise.

Fredrick Law Olmsteads creation of New York’s Central Park is testimony to an intrinsic catholic vision:  sacramental, personal and moral.  In a word:  aesthetic!  For he always saw a unity between landscape and social order.  For Olmstead, a park could be an emblem of freedom!  This was no idealistic social reformer but a real quotidian maverick wedded to his vision similar to Hopkins or Tolstoy in that the very soil itself shapes, challenges, even heals the wounds of time and encounter.  A place can be the very encounter (sacrament) where man shapes his/her destiny.

Born in 1822 in Hartford, Connecticut to a family of fabric merchants.  Olmstead was too restless for the family business.  He proved too restless for anything else, for he spent most of his adult life wandering between five professions and failing miserably at each.  Even a stint at Yale failed!  But his roster of personal calamities (think Lincoln) would eventually permit him the stimulant to succeed.

How did the author of Central Park (NY), Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Chicago’s Riverside Park, Yosemite National Park and scores of others achieve?  Olmstead simply committed himself to his craft.  This was not without personal or familiar consequence.  He ventured to Louisiana, mostly on foot, as well as Texas to scour the slave holding South while writing for the New York Times.  His anthology is still in print today as ‘The Cotton Kingdom’.  Nevertheless, he deeply appreciated the insight both Washington, Madison, Hamilton and Lincoln intimately knew:  slavery because of its sheer intrinsic inefficiency remained costlier.

Olmstead’s central personal conviction was an insight that there was an indissoluble reality, a unity between landscape and the social, economic order.  He witnessed a contrast of such conviction throughout the South in studying both slave and hired labor.  For Olmstead, a humane system of capital and labor (today they are the same, but in 1850 they were separate and different) produced a wealthier and ultimately sound social order.  Olmstead learned through failure that his insight regarding the intrinsic relation between character, personality and landscape rested in appreciating land as a practical, moral object.  Working to shape such a landscape would have broad social ramifications.

He performed tasks that no one ever asked of landscape.  Witness the roads throughout New York’s Central Park.  They are totally submerged out of sight except when they are being crossed by bridges.  Its visual effect is a continuous swath of land unencumbered by the effects of industrialization.  For Olmstead, he found moral meaning in these sweeping vistas.  It was a place where rich and poor could meet on equal terms.  It remained a place for the poor, whose physical world was otherwise constrained, a place, an embodied realm of physical and mental freedom.

His final achievement was Biltmore, the Vanderbilt estate in North Carolina.  Immediately before its final public commission Olmstead began to show signs of senility as witnessed in his portrait by John Singer Sargent.  He would die eight years later in an asylum outside of Boston whose grounds he had once landscaped.

To meet and appreciate this fine gentleman, try Witold Rybczynski’s biography of Fredrick Law Olmstead in his 1999 ‘A Clearing In The Distance’ or Justin Martin’s 2011 biography ‘Genius Of Place.’

Rest in Peace!

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About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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