Genius of Place The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin

Genius of Place

I will give you the blurb first because they say it much more succinctly than I can…

Frederick Law Olmsted is arguably the most important historical figure that the average American knows the least about. Best remembered for his landscape architecture, from New York’s Central Park to Boston’s Emerald Necklace to Stanford University’s campus, Olmsted was also an influential journalist, early voice for the environment, and abolitionist credited with helping dissuade England from joining the South in the Civil War. This momentous career was shadowed by a tragic personal life, also fully portrayed here.Most of all, he was a social reformer. He didn’t simply create places that were beautiful in the abstract. An awesome and timeless intent stands behind Olmsted’s designs, allowing his work to survive to the present day. With our urgent need to revitalize cities and a widespread yearning for green space, his work is more relevant now than it was during his lifetime. Justin Martin restores Olmsted to his rightful place in the pantheon of great Americans.

Okay, so I knew that Olmsted was the man behind Central Park, the Biltmore and had a hand in the 1993 World’s Expedition in Chicago. (thanks to The Devil in The White City) The rest, I had no idea about. The dude was a dynamo!

Part of me really wants to tell you all about Olmsted, but really, I need to focus on Justin Martin’s work. One of the greatest things a biographer can do is not only cover that particular person’s life, but give us an idea of the time that he or she lived in. I want to close the book with a better understanding of the era that the person lived in, so that I am not comparing their achievements to more contemporary people. I want to see the bigger picture, if you get my idea.

Martin does this in spades. You get a sense of the 19th century; the innovations, the turmoil, the way that people went about forging their own path, the basic feeling that nothing was impossible and that the American’s were leading the charge into a truly golden age. Olmsted was a man of his time. The title/job description of Landscape Architect hadn’t even been invented until he came along. The idea that places should be made beautiful and accessible to all people was unheard of for the most part.

Another thing that I really appreciated about Genius of Place was that Martin didn’t play armchair Psychologist. Olmsted suffered some great tragedies in his life and from various illnesses. While Martin did point these afflictions out, he wasn’t quick to confirm a diagnosis like many biographers are apt to do. So many writers are ready to slap a contemporary label on things and I really think that it leads us down an incorrect path when trying to understand a person and their period.

I learned so much, each chapter was a revelation. Not only do I have a better understanding of Olmsted and a larger view of his work, but it radically changed the image I had in my head about the Pre-Civil War South. Martin never went on and on about stuff that I couldn’t care less about or get mired in the minutia. He was a dynamo, just like his subject.

Genius of Place is my favorite non-fiction/biography read this year. Like the man it is about, the book was enlightening.

Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press (May 31, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306818817
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306818813
  • Comments (6)

    • Being from the Asheville area, Olmsted is of course the guy who designed the gardens at Biltmore for me.  I might have known about Central Park, but that’s New York, and I haven’t been there.  I became more aware of him (and his work in Central Park among other things) after reading The Devil in the White City.  I believe that Bill Bryson devoted some time to him in At Home as well.  So this is a long of way saying that I’ve been slowly becoming curious about him, and now you have recommended the perfect book!  Thanks for the great review!

    • Sold.  I am a big fan of the man, his legacy that his vision left for us and enjoyed his characterization in Devil In The White City as well.  I just discovered that his office and home in Brookline, MA is an historic site under renovation set to reopen soon.  I will look forward to visiting.  I will also enjoy diving into this book.  Thanks as always!

    • Darn it, I just gave up on At Home and donated it to the library, not knowing there was a section on Olmsted!

      I always knew about him tangentially, but after The Devil in the White City I wanted to know more too. This was perfect.

    • Color me green with envy that you get to visit Brookline! I am glad that his home is still there and that they are restoring it. This book will be a perfect introduction and explains so much of his behavior in The Devil in The White City. 

    • This book sounds awesome! One of the bloggers I met in New York is tangentially related to this fellow, so now I’m really curious about him. Make sure you remember this at the end of the year so you can nominate it for an Indie Lit Award 🙂

    • I put a big post it in my calendar for September to nominate it!

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