Some people refer to Frederick Law Olmsted as the father of American landscape architecture, and while that’s OK with Justin Martin, the moniker doesn’t begin to tell you the whole story.
“I guess it’s perfectly fair to call him that, but there were landscape architects before him,” said Martin, who will discuss his 2011 book, “Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted,” at 7 p.m. on Thursday at the Saratoga Springs History Museum in the Canfield Casino.
“And, the thing that ultimately drew me toward him was that he was involved in so many things. If he hadn’t become a very successful architect, he would have become an accomplished journalist. He wasn’t just a dabbler or a dilettante. He did many different things very well.”
‘Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted’
WHAT: A presentation by author Justin Martin
WHERE: Saratoga Springs History Museum, Canfield Casino, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 584-6920 or www.saratogahistory.org
Coming to Saratoga
Most notably known as the designer of New York City’s Central Park, Olmsted also designed public parks in Buffalo, Chicago, Boston, Montreal and Louisville, to name a few. And in 1876, he came to Saratoga Springs and designed Congress Park, which is home to the Canfield Casino.
“What Olmsted didn’t do, and maybe what makes giving him the mantle of father of American landscape architecture so appropriate, is he didn’t concentrate on rich people’s homes. And his timing was perfect. This was an era where cities were growing rapidly. People in places like Buffalo, Chicago and Louisville, their cities were growing rapidly and they wanted Olmsted to help them make their cities a world city, like Frankfort or London. One of the cultural amenities to being an international city is a big public park, and they wanted Olmsted’s help before their cities got filled up with pavement and buildings.”
Born in Hartford, Conn., in 1822, Olmsted was preparing to enter Yale University, but because of poor eyesight he changed his mind and worked at various jobs, including seaman, merchant, journalist and farmer. In 1848 his father, a rich merchant, helped him buy a farm on Staten Island, but by 1850 Olmsted had landed a job at the New York Times. His first big assignment sent him to Great Britain for an article on gardening, and in 1852 he headed into the Deep South, writing a series of articles on life in the Antebellum Period just prior to the Civil War.
“He went down there with an open mind, but as he witnessed the institution of slavery first hand, it transformed him,” said Martin. “He got the job with the Times because in a five-minute interview he established two things. He was a farmer, which they wanted because he was going to be dealing with agricultural issues, and he was open-minded about slavery. They didn’t want a died-in-the-wool abolitionist down there writing stories for the newspaper.
“Olmsted initially shared the same view on slavery as Abraham Lincoln,” continued Martin. “He was a gradualist. He felt slavery was wrong, but that the institution should be unwound slowly. But throughout the course of his 48 dispatches he wrote some powerful stuff, and you can see the change taking place. He felt the institution was wrong, and after that experience you certainly could call him an abolitionist.”
During the Civil War, Olmsted became executive secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the precursor to the American Red Cross, but by 1863 he had headed west to become manager of a gold mine in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. In 1865 he returned to New York City and formed a business with Calvert Vaux designing parks, but he also helped create a magazine, The Nation, which remains in business today.
In 1883 he moved to Brookline, Mass., and began what is generally recognized as the first full-time landscape architecture business in America.
As successful and varied as his life was, Olmsted had a number of emotional struggles.
“He did not have a happy personal life, by any stretch,” Martin said of Olmsted, who married his brother’s widow in 1859. “He had a stable but probably loveless marriage, born out of some sense of obligation to his brother and a shared sorrow about that loss of his brother and her husband. By modern standards Olmsted might have been diagnosed as bi-polar. He would slip into these periods of depression when he couldn’t get out of bed, and then suddenly he would explode with all this creative energy and get these huge amounts of work done. What he did was jaw-dropping.”
Olmsted, who also dealt with the loss of three young children, died in 1903, and while he was financially comfortable, he was not a wealthy man. He left his business to a son, Frederick Jr., and a stepson, John Charles.
“He became a very famous man, but he actually did not make that much money,” said Martin. “He got paid a modest commission for his work, he was very much a middle class man, and he ultimately moved to Brookline, where he lived until his death. The house he lived in is still there and it’s a pretty modest house.”
Olmsted is the subject of Martin’s third biography. A resident of the Forest Hills Gardens neighborhood in Queens that was designed by Olmstead, Martin earlier produced works on Alan Greenspan and Ralph Nader. His next book will be on a group of writers from the 1850s who met regularly at a saloon named Pfaff’s in New York City.
Included in the group are Walt Whitman, Artemus Ward and Union College grad Fitzhugh Ludlow, the author of “The Hasheesh Eater” and the individual coerced by Union College president Eliphalet Nott to compose “Song to Old Union,” the college’s alma mater.
“Fitzhugh definitely didn’t behave himself at Union, but Nott liked him and asked him to write an ode to old Union,” said Martin. “The book’s about America’s first bohemians, and the group that he hung out with included a young Walt Whitman and Ward, often called America’s first stand-up comic.”
A native of Overland Park, Kan., Martin went to Rice University in Houston, and after graduation immediately headed to New York City.
“A week after graduation I was pounding the pavement in New York looking for work,” he said. “I wanted to be a writer, and my story is typical. It was hard and it took a while, but my parents gave me some money to get me started, and I ended up doing freelance work and got a job at a business magazine, Across The Board.”
Martin later landed a position with Fortune Magazine and after a while produced an article titled “Take Control of Your Careers.”
“They wanted me to do a story on the freelance economy, and one of the people I talked to told me that you can have 10 careers in the course of your life, but what you should do is take control of your own life,” said Martin.
“Just don’t sit there and wait for the gold watch at 65. Well, I guess I believed in my own reporting because I took the leap and took charge of my own life. I entered the freelance economy and started writing biographies.”