Even New Yorkers aren’t generally aware that Central Park, the green rectangle in the middle of Manhattan, is as much a work of epic architectural imagination as the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. It was started in the 1850s out of swampy wasteland by Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) and his sometime partner Calvert Vaux. Olmsted went on to design parks in Brooklyn, Chicago, Boston, Montreal, Buffalo, and Detroit, the parklands around Niagara Falls, and so much else that when you read A Clearing in the Distance, a sparkling biography by architecture writer Witold Rybczynski, you keep expecting to turn the page and discover that Olmsted also designed the Appalachian Mountains and California.
The problem for Rybczynski was to avoid making this monumental figure look like a solemn, dignified 19th-century statue in one of his own parks. He succeeds not by revealing Olmsted’s dark side — apart from a few spells of depression, he never developed one — but by seeing him as an artist with a consistent vision and a knack for solving problems others hadn’t even noticed. The other proposals for Central Park were conventionally formal. Olmsted spared no artifice to get a natural look. He took advantage of the massive outcroppings of dark, primordial rock, turned bogs into lakes, and created an elegant enchantment of woods, meadows, and half-hidden paths. His art was all about concealing itself.
You get a nice view of the 19th century from the book, which also serves as an inspirational guide for kids who plan to drift for a decade or two before stumbling on their true vocation by pure chance. Olmsted, among other things, was a sailor on a China-bound merchant ship, ran an unprofitable Staten Island farm for seven years, and did a journalistic tour of the South before friendship, politics, and luck brought him the Central Park commission at age 35. Rybczynski dramatizes the remainder of Olmsted’s project-filled, far-flung life with italicized semi-fictional passages picturing him in assorted places and giving him plausible musings. But the real drama is simple: Olmsted, determined to preserve and create natural beauty in an industrializing society that translated everything into money and utility, saved something for posterity — or, in other words, us. A