In his new book, Genius of Place, biographer Justin Martin says that Frederick Law Olmsted “may well be the most important American historical figure that the average person knows least about.”
If the average person, indeed, knows him at all, it’s most likely for Olmsted’s famous design of New York’s Central Park or possibly the U.S. Capitol Grounds. But as Martin, a former Kansas Citian, shows, there was a lot more to Olmsted than his green grounds.
“Fred-Law” (as his family sometimes called him) was born in Hartford, Conn., in 1822 – a time when Missouri was the westernmost state and middle names were fairly uncommon. The first three decades of his life would take him through a series of wildly divergent and fascinating careers before he more or less fell into the role of America’s premier landscape architect.
This Wednesday, September 7, 2011, at the Central Library, Martin returns to Kansas City to discuss not only Olmsted’s impact on the urban American landscape (and, by extension, its psyche) but also Olmsted’s other lives – as sailor, farmer, journalist, abolitionist, Civil War medic in an early version of the Red Cross, environmentalist, and, above all, reformer. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. following a 6 p.m. reception. RSVP now.
As Martin's briskly written yet extensively researched biography proves, Olmsted’s influence on the country is paralleled by few other 19th century figures. Even the Kansas City area was touched by Olmstead – in more ways than one. First and foremost, he was mentor George Kessler (1862-1923), the German-born landscape architect who transformed Kansas City in the 1890s from a half-developed slumland into an arena of parks and boulevards through application of the City Beautiful urban design philosophy. It was Olmsted who gave Kessler his first local commission: a pleasure park for the Kansas City, Fort Scott, and Gulf Railroad in Merriam, Kansas.
But even before Olmsted dreamed of grassy slopes and byways, he impacted the area in an arguably more extreme way – by raising money for a cannon to be used against pro-slavery guerrillas.
As a reporter for the New York Daily Times in the 1850s, Olmsted traveled through the South, sending “provocative yet balanced” dispatches showing how slavery was as damaging to whites as it was to blacks.
His Times articles were later compiled in the book CottonKingdom, which, when it came out in the U.K. during the Civil War, went a long way to persuading the English not to back the South.
Another result of his travels: Olmsted became a staunch abolitionist, and during the Bleeding Kansas conflicts of the ‘50s, he helped raise money to buy a cannon, have it smuggled across the country, and installed in Lawrence to defend the free-state forces.
The “Abbott Howitzer” saw quite a bit of use on both sides in the Kansas-Missouri conflict. You can see it at the Kansas Museum of History.
You can also see Olmsted’s more peaceful contributions to American history – his parks and greenways all across the country, from Boston, New York, and D.C. to right here in the Midwest (check out this recent Times travelogue featuring Martin visiting Olmsted parks in these parts).
Learn more about the fascinating and frequently inspiring life of this most shapeshifting of Americans when Martin discusses his book, Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, Abolitionist, Conservationist, and Designer of Central Park this Wednesday at Central.