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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

June 25, 1995|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

OLMSTED'S AMERICA: An "Unpractical" Man and His Vision of Civilization by Lee Hall (Little, Brown: $40; 288 pp.) Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) was indeed a supremely unpractical man, although in 1857, when he was appointed superintendent of the Central Park project in Manhattan, the term had several meanings. First and foremost, it meant that he was not a slick politician; he did not know how to work the machinery and had neither political debts nor powers of patronage. Secondly, the term referred to his literary background: Olmsted began his working life with the publication, in 1852, of "Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England," a book of delightful ruminations. His next book, provoked by his outrage over the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (legislation that required the return of escaped slaves to their owners), was based on a series of articles written for the New York Daily Times, and was called "A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States." Olmsted began as a journalist and author, tried his hand at several expensive and embarrassing business ventures (from a failed publishing house to a failed mining company in California), was a successful if slightly tyrannical administrator of public works projects, a gentleman farmer and, though it took him a few decades to settle on the title, a supremely practical landscape architect. Central Park, Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove, Prospect Park in Brooklyn and parks and college campuses all across the country; Olmsted's kind instincts have softened urban lives in almost every state. He civilized our cities. There are several biographies of Olmsted that emphasize his many roles in our culture: conservationist, abolitionist, ruminator. "Olmsted's America" neatly traces the evolution of his thinking "about the nature and responsibility of citizenship in a complex postindustrial society, and about the power of design to preserve natural beauty and to create oases of nature within the cityscape." The man's true nature still eludes, but we are grateful for his workaholic nature.

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