National Geographic : 2005 Mar
Illinois), the reports demanding that Yo semite Valley and Ni agara Falls be saved from the spoilers at a period in our history when commercial van dalism was even more in vogue than it is today. Among the many tributes to this body of work, Olmsted might have remembered snatches of an editorial in Garden and Forest magazine hail ing him, in the year of the Chicago exposition, as "the foremost artist which the New World has yet pro duced." Still, though "mil lions of people now unborn will find rest and refreshment in the contemplation of smiling landscapes which he has made," the "memory of his name and personality may be dimmed in the pas sage of years, for it is the fate of architects to be lost in their work." Within a half century of his death in 1903, the name of Frederick Law Olmsted was Working with various partners, Olmsted proposed and created parks, communities, and private estates across North America. 1. Boston Park System 2. Fairsted Farmhouse 3. Mount Royal Park 4. Central Park 5. Prospect Park 6. Rochester Park System 7. Buffalo Park System 8. Niagara Falls Reservation 9. U.S . Capitol Grounds 10. Biltmore Estate 11. Louisville Park System 12. Chicago: World's Columbian Exposition, Jackson Park 13. Village of Riverside 14. Yosemite Valley indeed largely forgotten, lost in works that had already lapsed "toward ruin" (in the words of one biographer) or yielded to the "vicissitudes of neglect" and the "mischief and caprice of cit izens and politicians" (in the words of another). Then, in the early 1970s, around the sesqui centennial of his birth, the name of Olmsted enjoyed a revival of sorts-a show at the Whit ney Museum of American Art in New York City, an increased interest in his long-restricted papers at the Library of Congress, the first of several contemporary biographies, the convening of conservancies to restore his neglected parks. But the revival failed to arouse much public interest beyond the ranks of a relatively small circle of historians and park preservationists. Olmsted? Oh, yes, some folks would say, wasn't he that fellow who did New York City's Central Park?-asif that were enough to define a man 38 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MARCH 2005 who had left his prodigious mark on at least one other calling before turning, with out either schooling or credentials, to his pre miere profession: land scape architecture. In my own time as a newspaper reporter in New York City, in those mid-century years preceding the revival, Olmsted's was a name not often invoked by the Press. Matter of fact, I'd never heard of him. Tab loid editors and gumshoe newshounds such as I were conditioned to see that great rectangular green in mid Manhattan not as a public pleasuring ground but as a killing field, where teenage gangs clashed by night, and daybreak brought detectives from the Central Park Precinct to ponder yet another taped off,blood-soaked crime scene. I lived on Staten Island then, across the bay. A local friend, a landscape architect named Bradford Greene, first intro duced me to the Olmsted story; told me how Olmsted had farmed on the island in his early years, later returned to prepare a report on the island's improvement (which pre dictably recommended no improvement at all to the natural scenery), and left behind a legacy that had hugely influenced Greene's own career in the shaping of landscapes. Another good friend, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, was about to become a force in the Olmsted revival and would later serve as Central Park administrator and first president of that park's conservancy. So it wasn't long before I felt obliged, out of self-defense, to get busy filling the gaps in my knowledge of this extraordinary man and his body of work. I'm still at it. "Following Olmsted's life," wrote his most recent biographer, Witold Rybczynski, islike "putting together a pic ture puzzle. All sorts of odd-shaped pieces are lying on the table."