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Witold Rybczynski
Witold Rybczynski
A Clearing in the Distance
ISBN: 0684824639
A Clearing in the Distance
Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) is best remembered today as a landscape designer, well known for his plans for New York's Central Park and Prospect Park, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., and the campus of Stanford University, among other noteworthy sites.

But, writes urban studies professor and accomplished author Witold Rybczynski, Olmsted was an American original, a 19th-century success story who packed many careers and wide learning and travel into a long life. He spent time in China and Europe, managed a California gold mine, edited The Nation, commanded a medical unit in the Civil War, and crisscrossed the United States many times over, writing long reports and articles all the while. (One series of reports urged, for instance, that the then-remote Yosemite region of California be made a national park.) Olmsted, Rybczynski suggests, changed the face of America: he had a vision of the American landscape as a reflection of the national character, with its broad vistas and open skies, and he was concerned to make America's urban spaces livable, bringing "trees and greenery into the congested grid of streets." At Olmsted's urging, many American and Canadian cities adopted his system of parks, broad avenues, and greenways, which encouraged the appreciation and preservation of nature; his influence is felt today in the so-called urban ecology movement, and in dozens of public spaces across the continent.

Rybczynski's fine and illuminating biography of Olmsted shows him to have been a man of many parts, an important historical figure whose legacy remains strong nearly a century after his death.
—from the publisher's website

A Clearing in the Distance
Program Air Date: October 17, 1999

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Witold Rybczynski, author of "A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century"--where'd you get the idea for this book?
Professor WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI (Author, "A Clearing in the Distance"): I think it came from several places. I wanted to write a biography, and I suppose the normal thing would be to write a biography for--of an architect, since that's my original profession, but I'd lived in Montreal a long time, and he designed Mount Royal Park, which I was vaguely aware of, but not--had not given much thought to, but the park was--like all Montrealers, I enjoyed the park. I went there in the summer, in the winter; I lived very close to it. It's on a mountain in the center of the city.

And so when I--when I started reading again about Olmsted, it brought back those memories of what an important place this was, and I became curious about the man who created it. I was also struck when I--I read a little essay about his life, which explained absolutely nothing about him, because he has such a varied life before he starts building parks, which made me very curious. It made me curious as to what was it about him that--that enabled him to succeed at these enormous public works projects, coming out of a background in journalism and in farming. He founded The Nation magazine, he ran the United States Sanitary Commission during the Civil War. All of these things didn't obviously lead to Central Park, and so I became intrigued about the person himself, and--and what was it in his life that--that pushed him in that direction and that somehow formed him. He wasn't trained as a landscape architect at all. There was no such thing, anyway, at that time.

LAMB: What did he have to do for Central Park in New York City?
RYBCZYNSKI: Well, first he got the job as superintendent, which was essentially--he was in charge of hundreds, and later thousands, of workers. It was all, of course, done by hand, with very little machinery, and then the Central Park Commission decided they needed to hold a competition for the actual design of the park, and he--like many employees on the park, he entered the competition with Calvert Vaux, and they won. They--partly because they really had an original idea for their design, partly because Olmsted was very familiar with the park, having worked on it for about six months or more, so he knew the topography, he knew the terrain.

I think there was politics in it, too. He was a--he was a sort of non-political Republican, so the Republicans liked him because he was a Republican in sentiment. On the other hand, he wasn't a political man, so the Democrats felt that they could put up with him, and they won the competition, and then, basically, the rest is history. He--they went on to build it and design it. We say he built Central Park; he really built it. He was in charge of the nurseries and the workers, of actually doing--getting the engineers who designed the drainage systems. He was the general contractor of the park, not simply the designer.

LAMB: Born in 1822, how long did he live?
RYBCZYNSKI: He died in 1903, but really he suffered from, I think, Alzheimer's disease, some debilitating disease, because by 1895, he retired, and was really inactive professionally. He--he spent part of his time living up in Maine, and eventually they had to put him in an asylum, and--tragically, whose grounds he had designed himself: McLean Hospital, outside Boston.
LAMB: And when he designed Central Park, or when he was superintendent, how old was he?
RYBCZYNSKI: That was in--he was about 30, 32, 33 when he first got involved in Central Park. What's interesting is that, having built Central Park, you'd think that that would sort of steer him into that profession, and that was not the case. He actually still wasn't convinced that this is what he--he wanted to be a journalist, basically, and he kept getting pulled back into publishing, and magazine publishing, editing, and really it was only with Prospect Park when he was 41 years old that he made the--the real commitment to become a landscape architect and planner.
LAMB: Got a list in the back of it, the number of places that he designed, and here's a list of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux; Central Park's right up there on top, 1858 to 1876. What are some of the rest?
RYBCZYNSKI: The--the--there are--they really come in categories. There're the famous public parks, like Prospect Park, Mount Royal Park. He did parks--big parks in Chicago. Boston's Emerald Necklace was a whole series of public parks connected through the city, that he designed near--near the end of his life. He did--built the grounds of Biltmore House, which was the biggest house in the country and a beautiful estate, which he designed.
LAMB: Where?
RYBCZYNSKI: In Asheville, North Carolina; again, one of his last projects.
LAMB: Who owned that?
RYBCZYNSKI: B--Vanderbilt, George Washington Vanderbilt, the youngest brother of--hired Olmsted really to advise him whether this--what to do with this land. He bought this land in North Carolina because he liked the view of the Smoky Mountains, and Olmsted convinced him that he should not only--that it was a good place to live in the winters, but that he also should create a managed forest, and this was really the beginning of forestry in the United States. They brought a forester in, it became the first forestry school. It's today the nation--a national forest. Now the Pisgah National Forest is the result of that.

He was also the planner of Sanf--Stanford University in California, and perhaps the most important project--which we forget, because it was a fair--and that was the Chicago World's Exposition in 1893, which was, I think, the biggest public event at the end of the 19th century in this country. A huge number of people visited it, and it was the first chance, I think, people in the United States had to see of a planned, total environment, and this was a plan and a landscape designed by Olmsted himself, so that was one of his very important, I think, influences at that time.

LAMB: Where did he get the name `Frederick Law Olmsted?'
RYBCZYNSKI: `Frederick,' I think, was a family name, and `Law' was--was the name of the people who had raised his mother. It--her sister married a man called Jonathan Law, in Hartford, and we don't quite understand why, but his mother was raised by her sister and her husband, and obviously she felt great gratitude, because Frederick was the first son, and they named--they gave him the middle name after that--her almost-stepparents.
LAMB: What's this picture on the cover of your book?
RYBCZYNSKI: Now this is Prospect Park. It's--it's a picture I love for a number of reasons. It's a beautiful picture of--of an Olmsted landscape. It has that sense of depth which his landscapes have. A--as the title says, there is a clearing in the distance, and in his parks, there's always something that you see far off that pulls you into the park.
LAMB: Where's Prospect Park?
RYBCZYNSKI: In Brooklyn, in Brooklyn, New York. It's also a picture taken while he was still alive. It's a picture from 1901, which was in the Olmsted office archives. I don't know who took it, but it seemed to have that connection with him.
LAMB: In the book, there--you constantly refer to that you went to a lot of these places. When did you start writing the book?
RYBCZYNSKI: It was--well, actual dates I can't remember.
LAMB: I mean, when did you start, maybe, researching the book?
RYBCZYNSKI: I--three years ago. It was a three-year project, so it was basically four years ago I started researching, reading, basically, because he wrote so much.
LAMB: But where did you go, personally, what...
RYBCZYNSKI: I tried to see all the big ones, the major works, all of the public parks, like Prospect Park in Brooklyn; Central Park, of course; I knew Montreal; I went to Boston, Chicago...
LAMB: What did you see in Boston?
RYBCZYNSKI: Boston--he moved to Boston from New York, and he designed what is called the Emerald Necklace, which is a series of parks that starts at the end of Commonwealth Avenue, forms a kind of loop through the Jamaica Pond, the Fenway, and then finally ends up in Franklin Park, which is a big, 500-acre public park. I went to Biltmore to see the estate in North Carolina. I went to California to see both Stanford and Yosemite, where he lived for some time, in the--and which I think had an enormous effect on him, the landscape of Yosemite.

He--he was one of the early visitors to Yosemite; he was involved, actually, in studying how it ought to be turned into a public park, and that--what later became a national park. And he also--it was his first experience of the big western landscape, which--he knew Connecticut, he knew New England and he knew old England--he visited Europe several times--but in the--in the West, he saw this big American landscape, and I think that had a very big effect on him, because the thing about his parks and landscapes is they have this great sense of expansiveness, so that--they're big to begin with, but they actually look bigger than they are, and he does all sorts of tricks to--to take a--a meadow that's a mile and half long and to make it look, you know, infinitely long.

LAMB: Politics--he was once, you say, offered a spot on a ticket for vice president. What's that about?
RYBCZYNSKI: He was very involved in politics, and he threw himself into anything he did, and what--he got involved in--in the--before the Civil War he was hired by The New York Times to write about life in the South, and as a result of that, he got involved--he traveled as far as Texas, looking at slavery, looking at everyday life, interviewing people, and he got involved with the German settlers in south Texas, who were--who wanted to establish a free state, or perhaps a--partition Texas into partially free and partially slave states. He also got involved, as a result of that, in the fighting in Kansas, and in fact, bought arms. He bought a cannon for them, surrept--pretending he was sending it to Latin America, and shipped it off to Kansas, together with muskets and all sorts of other things.

And he was the sort of person at that time who--who you could count on, who--who would get involved, who was a public figure, and very reliable, very honest, and somebody who could obviously get things done, and I think that's why at one point they did, in fact, turn to him--he turned down, by the way, that nomination. He was not...

LAMB: Who--but what was it for?
RYBCZYNSKI: It was for a splinter party of the De--of the Republican Party. I can't remember now...
LAMB: There was a--he was interested in the Free Soil movement, at one point, but th--I think that this was even in the...
RYBCZYNSKI: This was even a bit later, and there was a splinter group formed at--in one of the presidential elections, and he--he--it was felt that he might be a suitable person to be a vice presidential candidate. He was also considered--George Templeton Strong, who wrote a famous diary during the Civil War, thought that he ought to have been secretary of the--of war during the Civil War. He was a--he was a great man to organize things, which--of course, politics is a lot of organization, and so people turned to him after Central Park and after the Sanitary Commission. And he was obviously somebody who could get things done, and--and organize large projects of different sorts.
LAMB: You have a photo here of him in 1860, where he would have been--38? What was he doing in 1860?
RYBCZYNSKI: In 1860 he was just sort of--he was in the middle of working on Central Park.
LAMB: Just a short time before the Civil War started.
RYBCZYNSKI: Yes. Yes, he--he started the Central Park, I think, in 1858, and then the war broke out. He got a leave of absence--everybody thought it would be a short war and he got the leave of absence to--to get involved--at that point he had a limp, so he couldn't, in fact--he was a patriot and I'm sure he would have wanted to serve, but he couldn't serve in the forces, and so he became--asked to become the leader of this Sanitary Commission, and--and to organize it and run it, which, of course, turned into a much longer project as the war dragged on.
LAMB: Where did he get the limp?
RYBCZYNSKI: He was in a carriage accident, actually a terrible accident. He was working on Central Park, and he fell asleep--he was driving with his family--he fell asleep, the reins slipped out, the horses went out of control, the carriage overturned. His--his wife and child were fine, but he broke his leg in several places, and it was a very bad break, and so they couldn't decide on whether they would amputate it. They were worried that gangrene would set in--there was no pharmaceutics in those days--so it was either a question of amputating, which they thought would kill him, or not amputating, which they th--they figured would kill him in the longer run, and they finally decided not to amputate, and he finally recovered, except that he always limped. But it was a--it was a very serious brush with death.
LAMB: Your name, `Witold Rybczynski,' comes from where?
RYBCZYNSKI: It's Polish. My parents are both Polish. I was born in England just before the end of the war. They were there because of the war; they were both in the Polish Free Forces, and so I was born there. They emigrated to Canada, and I emigrated to the United States six years ago.
LAMB: Are you a citizen?
RYBCZYNSKI: Yes, in fact, I am.
LAMB: Why did you come to the United States?
RYBCZYNSKI: That's a complicated question. I--I--I guess the Canadians always look south, and there is that great sense of--of--it's particularly if you live in Montreal, as I did--Montreal has a kind of affinity with Boston and New York, rather than with Toronto and the other Canadian cities, and finally I was offered a job at the University of Pennsylvania, and I'd always admired America, and so it was a kind of easy move for me to make. I had lots of readers here, too, I should say.
LAMB: You have written how many books?
RYBCZYNSKI: I c--I don't remember--eight, nine.
LAMB: On what subjects?
RYBCZYNSKI: A great variety of subjects--some of them about architecture, most of them about culture in a--in some way. I wrote a book about leisure, called "Waiting for the Weekend." My last book before this was "City Life," which was an examination of how American cities had evolved, and what was it that made American cities the way they are, because they're very different from cities elsewhere.
LAMB: What's "Paper Heroes?"
RYBCZYNSKI: "Paper Heroes" was my first book. It was a book about the now-forgotten appropriate technology movement, the `small is beautiful' idea, and it was something that I got involved in, interested in, and it was a--so it was a critique of the idea of creating smaller, kinder technologies.
LAMB: When did you leave Great Britain?
RYBCZYNSKI: 1953. I remember it was the coronation year.
LAMB: How old were you?
RYBCZYNSKI: Ten years old.
LAMB: And where did you go to your undergraduate school, and get your PhD?
RYBCZYNSKI: In Montreal, at McGill University. In--I teach at universities--I have most of my life--and the curious thing about Canada is, people go to the university that's closest to them, and unlike Americans, who tend to go to universities anywhere in the country, and there's a great sort of movement of students. Canadians go to the university in the city where they live, and so it was very natural for me to go to--to McGill, so I did my studies there, and then later taught there.
LAMB: Where--are your parents alive?
RYBCZYNSKI: My mother's still living in Ottawa.
LAMB: And how long did they live in Great Britain?
RYBCZYNSKI: Well, from roughly the '39--I guess r--in--in '39 or '40, they came from France to England when France fell, and so they must have stayed there the 13 years or so.
LAMB: What kind of work were they in?
RYBCZYNSKI: My father was an electrical engineer, so he--he was working--my mother was trained as a lawyer, but never practiced law once she left Poland.
LAMB: And there is a connection, though, between Mr. Olmsted and--and England.
RYBCZYNSKI: Very much so, in a number of ways. His idea of landscaping is obviously influenced most by the English picturesque landscape, and he tr--he went to England as a young man on a--really on a walking tour, long before he had any thoughts of landscape architecture, but published a little book about it and, in fact, wrote quite a lot about the landscape and was--was enormously influenced by this experience of the beautiful English sort of gardenlike landscape. And in fact, every few years, he would go back to Europe, not only England--he went to the Continent, and it--you got the sense that he was recharging his batteries. He--there wasn't much that somebody like him could learn in America. There weren't other people doing it. But there were people planning Paris, there were people building parks in England, and so these were the sort of touchstone of his profession, and he could--he knew these people, they knew him, and he would go--regularly go back and travel around, and--but very professionally, not so much as a tourist, but really visiting and revisiting the places that he'd seen. He had a great sense of time, so it was very important for him to see a park again and again and again, as i--as it changed, as the trees got bigger, as it--as it grew into itself.
LAMB: Who are these two people?
RYBCZYNSKI: The man on the left is his father, and a very important person in his life. His mother died when Olmsted was only two years old. He had the great fortune to have an extremely supportive father who tolerated his long sort of education, all these diverse careers, who supported him financially and psychologically, who never sort of forced him or pushed him or got--I think there was one exchange of letters where they were a little bit angry with each other, and they immediately made up. But he--he tolerated all these various careers that Olmsted had, and was very supportive of him, and gave him that freedom to be very experimental with his own life.
LAMB: Where was he born?
RYBCZYNSKI: He was born in Hartford. His f--his father was born just outside Hartford. He had been, originally--I think his--he was born into a farming family, had moved to Hartford, started a hardware store, and was a fairly successful dry goods merchant.
LAMB: And how many brothers and sisters did he have to his mother?
RYBCZYNSKI: Only one, one brother, who was--and they were very close, because, obviously--his father, when he remarried, there were more children, but the two brothers of the--of--the two natural brothers were very close, and tragically, his brother died of tuberculosis, I think when he was not yet 30, leaving a wife and several children, and his wife, who was the other photograph that you were pointing at, became Olmsted's wife. They--Olmsted married her about a year later. Some biographers feel that he was sort of doing his duty, because she, of course, had several children to take care of. I'm not so sure that's true. I think they really did fall in love. She--they had a very happy and long marriage, several children of their own. She was involved in his work; you can see that from his letters. He asks her for advice about his projects. He gives her responsibilities to do things when he's traveling, regarding his work. So they were very close.
LAMB: How important in all this is Central Park?
RYBCZYNSKI: It--it has a number of importances. It was the first thing he did, and remarkably, it was so good, given that he'd never--he or--nor Vaux had ever done anything of that scale before, and Olmsted had actually never done any design or park work of any sort.
LAMB: Who is Vaux, by the way?
RYBCZYNSKI: Well, Calvert Vaux was Olmsted's partner in Central Park. They later became partners for about eight years, and did a number of works together. Then they broke up and worked separately. But Vaux was a British architect who was trained in England as an architect, came to this country--or, in fact, was brought to this country by Alecjan--Alexander Jackson Downing, who was a famous landscape gardener, but who needed a person to help him with house design, because a lot of people came to Downing and wanted their estates done, but they wanted a house built, too, so Downing recruited Vaux, who was in his 20s, from England, brought him over, and Downing died, very tragically, in a steamboat accident about two years later. But Vaux was a--moved to New York City, established his practice there, and it was actually Vaux who invited Olmsted to enter the Central Park competition. Vaux was, in a sense, the more skilled of the two at that point.
LAMB: How big is Central Park?
RYBCZYNSKI: It's 700 acres. It's...
LAMB: And how big is that in comparison with other parks?
RYBCZYNSKI: It's a--it's a big park. Most of his parks are between 500 and 700 acres. It's striking--this is much bigger than European parks. Most European parks are much smaller than that and, of course, it has to do with the--the empty spaces that were available near American cities at that time.
LAMB: In 1858--and is that the year it started? Just...
RYBCZYNSKI: Around there, yeah, '57, '58.
LAMB: How many people lived in Manhattan?
RYBCZYNSKI: I think by then it was about 300,000, but they were all pretty much south of 20th Street, so the park was very far north, and one of the amazing things--and--and this is not just Olmsted, because by the time he got involved the park had already been set in terms of its size--was the foresight these people had, to set aside 700 acres which were really not even in the suburbs. They were somewhere on the fringe of the city, with a view to the idea that the city would eventually grow and surround the park.
LAMB: Now for someone who's never been to New York City, with the five boroughs--Manhattan being one of them, with--What is it?--a million or so people live there now--with--I--what--the figure is seven or eight million...
LAMB: ...that live around in all the boroughs. What's in Central Park, and--and have you walked the whole thing? And for--how--you know, I know it starts at 59th Street and goes north to what?
RYBCZYNSKI: A hundred and something, 101 or 102.
LAMB: And you have Fifth Avenue on one side and Central Park West on the other, which is--What?--Seventh Avenue or--two--two blocks?
LAMB: Well, what's in there?
RYBCZYNSKI: It's--it's really a magical landscape, because when you--first of all, we have to remember there was no--nothing there of consequence when he started. It's not--people look at Central Park and they imagine that they're seeing a kind of natural, non-urban part of New York, but in fact, Central Park was very rough and rocky ground. There was a lot of swamps. It was not very good ground, which is why it was empty and cheap. The city, of course, needed to buy inexpensive land, because they were buying so much, but this was not good agricultural land. It was--there were some rocky outcroppings, no--not many trees, and so everything we see other than the rocky outcroppings today, was created--the lakes, the--all the thousands of trees that were planted, the meadows--all of that was a creation.
LAMB: I've got your schematic in the book, and on the left there would be 59th Street...
LAMB: ...where the Plaza Hotel is, for in--for instance, and this is looking down from the top, and then you go all the way up to 110th or so--i--in those days, did it look just like this, or is this modern?
RYBCZYNSKI: No, there were so--there were changes. Tho--I'm sorry, the park--the drawing you're holding is the way it looked in the 1870s. What has changed today is that the big square reservoir in the middle, which was a city reservoir--it was a structure about 60 feet tall, a big box of masonry--that was demolished much later, and what--what is today called the great lawn is actually the site of that original reservoir, so they had a very tough job to do, because they had to create a park which had this big box in the middle of it. They--there was a new reservoir, which is the current reservoir lake that was going to be built to supply water for New York, and so they--the park was not only very skinny, it was cut in half by these reservoirs.

The city also insisted that some--three city streets cross the park, so that traffic wouldn't be completely interrupted, and one of the reasons, I think, Vaux and Olmsted won the competition was that they had the brilliant idea of sinking those streets below the park level so you wouldn't see the traffic, and thi--and that's what happens today. You--you--when you're in the park, there are bridges where you cross these streets, but essentially you're much--you're unaware that there's city traffic crossing the park.

LAMB: How political was this park to get built?
RYBCZYNSKI: It was very political. It was--during the process, particularly. One--the New Yorkers had decided on it; there was a lot of politics in--in choosing who was going to--which design would be built. The--essentially the--the city lost control of the park, and the state took over the park and founded this commission, which was essentially a Republican creation--there were a few Democrats on it--the Democrats tended to be Irish and German, and they wanted a very formal landscape, a sort of French type of landscape. The Republicans were--were more Anglo descent, so they liked the picturesque English tradition. What--what's interesting about Vaux and Olmsted is they did a little bit of both, because The Mall is a very formal French space. It's the great big American elms on each side, and it's--it's perfectly linear and formal, and--and they put this is the middle of this very British picturesque landscape, so in a way they were covering their--hedging their bets a little bit and trying to appeal to both sides.
LAMB: When they were at full force in this, how many people were working on that park?
RYBCZYNSKI: I think there was 5,000 or 6,000 workers. There was v--there was--it was really manpower and horsepower. There was no machinery.
LAMB: How long did it take to build?
RYBCZYNSKI: Extraordinarily short time. The first winter they had skating on the park already. So they worked very quickly. They went from the competition to actually construction very quickly. Part of this was political, too, because the--the Park Commission needed to show some results 'cause they were spending enormous amounts of money and they needed to show the public some fast results. So they were--there was a lot of pressure on Olmsted to get something down that would look like something. So the south end of the park got finished relatively quickly. The north end took much longer and that wasn't finished until sometime after the Civil War.
LAMB: South end near 59th Street?
LAMB: And the north end near Harlem.
RYBCZYNSKI: Which, of course, at that--at that point was simply a village. So the north end had the least, sort of, people living near it. So would--so they tended to treat it. Also, there's much less in the north end for that reason. It's--there is some meadows and some water and moun--sort of mountainous--small mountain, but it's--it's clear that right from the beginning, because of--everybody lived south of the park, that was the place where they had the--the skating pond and the--the music pavilion, the meadows where people could play games.
LAMB: I don't know if this is a fair observation, but in reading your book I kept thinking--as I read through Mr. Olmsted's connection with the park that he kept trying to keep himself involved and have a retainer, that th--he kept wanting money coming out of this park for--and I would ask you if that's true, and if he did, for how many years did he get money out of Central Park?
RYBCZYNSKI: Well, he was always employed on Central Park as a civil servant so that th--he was an employee of the Park Commission and an emp--which--and ultimately, an employee of the city of New York.
LAMB: You mean from 1858 to--to th--the end of his life?
RYBCZYNSKI: No, from 1858--there was in interruption of the war, then when Tammany Hall came in, they ba--basically fired Olmsted and Vaux 'cause they wanted their own men in there.
LAMB: What does that mean when Tammany Hall came in?
RYBCZYNSKI: When--when Boss Tweed essentially took over New York politics, the Democrats pushed out the Republican appointees, like Olmsted and Vaux, and installed their own men. We have to remember, of course, that the park was an enormous job creation project amongst other things. So there was a lot of pressure of people who wanted to get control over that. And that was also something that Olmsted always had to deal with, is that he wanted the best people but sometimes he had to hire somebody's relative because they came with some chit from their political boss and--and he had to take them on. So when Boss Tweed took over, Olmsted was out. So it was a number of years when he was not involved. Then he--then the Democrats came back and he was rehired as architect for Central Park and was in charge of sort of managing the park. And that continued, again, until there was another political change and he was finally fired. And--and that--it was shortly after that that he finally left New York and bo--moved to Boston. He had--he'd pretty much had it, I think, at that point.
LAMB: Do you have any idea how many people work in Central Park today?
RYBCZYNSKI: No, I don't. It would--it would be vastly less.
LAMB: How--how much money would it cost today if they had to do what Frederick Olmsted did back in 1858?
RYBCZYNSKI: Well, it would b--it would be so much money that--which is why--why the--why these parks would never be built today. There's--they're much too expensive. Amer--of course, New York was growing then, so there was a lot of money. These parks were not simply altruistic, they were also intended to raise property values and then--and pay for the park through increased property taxes. And that actually worked. You know, it worked in Brooklyn as well. So the city was in a different position than it is today. But Seattle recently wanted to build an 80-acre park--not 700, but 80 acres--and the--the voters turned it down. There was a--there was a referendum and they said, `No, we don't want to spend that much money.' And that--so--and that was for a relatively small park.
LAMB: Is it fair to say that the people that live on both sides of Central Park today are very rich.
RYBCZYNSKI: Yes, the property values, in fact, had that effect and--and of all the properties, I imagine the ones facing the park are among the most expensive.
LAMB: Is there any federal money involved today in the federal park--I mean, in the--in the--Central Park?
RYBCZYNSKI: I don't believe so. I think one of the g--important events in Central Park's history was the creation of the Central Park Conservancy in sev--1972, I think, which essentially put a lot of the management of the park in private hands i--in terms of both fund raising and getting things done. And be--b--essentially, the city hadn't--had not enough money to do it itself.
LAMB: You--and I don't know if I can find the date--maybe you can remember it, the first murder in the park was--and I can't find the date. Maybe it's--it's--I know I wrote it down here. Do you remember what it was?
RYBCZYNSKI: It's very early. It's, I think, 1867 or '68.
LAMB: And what--what impact did that have?
RYBCZYNSKI: Well, they were aware of crime from the beginning. Central Park was closed to the public at night, initially, so that those--the streets were open--the underground--the below ground streets were open, but the park--they had gates and they closed it up at night. You couldn't use it. There was a park police. One of Olmsted's pet projects was organizing park police. And this is a time when organized police forces were very rare. So there was a s--there was a great awareness of security issues. So I don't think it w--and--and New York in many ways was a more dangerous place in the 1860s than it is today. There were whole parts of the city where middle-class people would not go at all, neither police, nor public, that were really criminal areas. So I--I don't think they were shocked by it. I think it was something that they--they had--they had tried to prepare for.
LAMB: Who did Mr. Olmsted marry?
RYBCZYNSKI: He married his brother's widow. And, as I said earlier, he--he would--he...
LAMB: What was she like?
RYBCZYNSKI: She was very small, very--she was a very strong person, which you would have to be with Olmsted because he was always going off on these various interests. And she tended to keep him in line and--and there was a moment, for instance, where he said maybe he would like to go back to farming. This was after doing Central Park and--and she--she argued very strongly that this was not what he ought to be doing with his life. She lived a very long time, very strong person, and--and I think they had a very loving relationship. They--she also saw him through this very long debilitating illness at the very end of his life.
LAMB: How many children did they have together?
RYBCZYNSKI: They had two children that survived and I think two that died in--in childbirth--or one died in childbirth, one died very young. But hi--they had two survive, one of which was his s--his son who himself became a landscape architect, in fact, probably as famous if not more famous than his father in the '20s and--and the teens.
LAMB: His name was?
RYBCZYNSKI: His name was Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. And it's an interesting story because he was actually born Henry Perkins Olmsted. And when he was six years old, his father renamed him. Now Henry Perkins was his--was Olmsted's wife's father's name and he renamed him Frederick Law Olmsted. He gave him his own name and you get the sense that he's already somehow planning this infant's future. And--and th--later he actually wrote a letter to his son saying that I--`I'm not able to leave you enormous amounts of money, but I can leave you my name, which is actually worth a lot more than anything else. And if, you know, you can--if you're careful, you can make a career out of this.' And that's, in fact, what happened. I think there was a lot of people who mixed the two people up since they had the same name, the same profession. And the young Olmsted did work in Seattle, for instance, and I'm sure the people in Seattle thought they were getting the man who did Central Park because he n--he stopped using Jr. very quickly.
LAMB: What do you think of Central Park today?
RYBCZYNSKI: My favorite park is Prospect Park as a--as a work of landscape art because I think he was much more experienced when he did it. It's a much more--it's a much--sort of, squarish piece of ground. It doesn't have this long skinny shape of Central Park. But Central Park is--is so wonderful bec--today because of the way it's used. I mean, it's full of people. They're not doing the things that Olmsted imagined they were doing. He never thought of Rollerblades or skateboarding or bicycling. Bicycle was invented later, but somehow that richness of activity is exactly what he wanted in--in his parks. And it's--the other quality they have which he c--he re--he wrote about was that in New York, it's one of the few places where you get a real mixture of people. 'Cause you don't get it in Lincoln Center. You don't get it, you know, in the subway. But here, you actually get a total mixture of very rich, very poor, all sorts of people. And he wrote about this very clearly. He said that in a--in a park, everybody should be seen to be mixing together. And these were, for him, not simply aesthetic places. They were also social places which were intended to be a sort of safety valve for this industrial city that was just roiling around them.
LAMB: Did he design anything in Washington?
RYBCZYNSKI: Yes, he did. He did the Capitol grounds not far from us. It's an interesting project because he was asked to do it and he immediately proposed something more ambitious and Congress said, `No, you--we'd rather just do the Hill.' He wanted to replan the whole Mall, which at that point was unplanned. It was just a kind of rather messy area with train tracks and all sorts of things. So he--he did confine himself to the Hill. And Congress had voted some amount of money--I can't remember exactly how much now, and he actually spent all that money on sort of compost and underground work, preparing the site. And then he went back to Congress and said, `We need more,' that--so it shows the sort of person he was. He wouldn't go for sort of quick effects, for--for things that would look splashy. He knew that he was doing something for, you know, 100, 200 years. And so...
LAMB: So when you stand around the Capitol, th--both the east and west front were his design?
RYBCZYNSKI: The steps are his design. It's--it's ma--basically, that side, which--which he contributed to and then...
LAMB: Which steps, the...
RYBCZYNSKI: The Capitol steps, which is the...
LAMB: ...the e--in the east front where they do--where they used to do the inaugurations? Now--they now do them out looking down over the Mall.
RYBCZYNSKI: Right. So it's--it's the steps that are on the Mall side, which is--What?--east?
LAMB: It's west.
RYBCZYNSKI: It's the west side, sorry. That was his--his idea because the--essentially there was a mistake made, in my opinion, when the Capitol was built. And if you look at L'Enfant's plan, the Capitol is pulled away further east and there's a plaza in front of it on the west side. And so the entrance to the Capitol and the ceremonial place is actually facing what would be the Mall. And when they built the Capitol, for some reason they moved it to the edge of the--of the Hill and then the--the front is sort of facing east and--and when Olmsted was brought in it was the back of the Capitol that faced what was slowly becoming the Washington Monument. And he sort of reversed this by creating the steps and giving the back a sort of ceremonial design and kind of r--reorienting it in su--to a certain extent towards the west and the White House and the sort of logical place.
LAMB: Earlier you told us he was a Republican, but he f--co-founded The Nation magazine. If you look at The Nation magazine today, Republican is not the first thing that comes to mind.
RYBCZYNSKI: But, Lincoln was a Republican. He was--he was that kind of Republican. In--in those days, the Republicans were--were essentially the more progressive party and the Democrats were--were not. So it was--i--when--when I said he was a Republican, he was--he was a--anti-slavery, very supportive of President Lincoln and later what--what we would call a progressive.
LAMB: How did he start The Nation magazine?
RYBCZYNSKI: He--he was--he had been in publishing--he had worked as a managing editor and a publisher of Putnam's, which was a very important monthly magazine that published Melville and Emerson, an imp--important literary magazine, which--which eventually failed and he--and he was interested in getting back into publishing and he met a man called Godken, who was an--E.L. Godken, an Irishman, and they became very good friends and they came up with this idea of what we would really call a news magazine. It was--it's a weekly newspaper which would have a little bit about politics, a little bit about culture, about economics and various things. And they spent a number of years trying to get funds for this. And it was--eventually, Godken was successful at getting funds and when Olmsted returned to New York, Godken essentially worked as the editor and Olmsted was the publisher, and occasionally wrote for it as well and spent about a year or so doing that actively. And then finally his landscape work grew too big and he had to step down from sort of an active involvement.
LAMB: What was the Sanitary Commission?
RYBCZYNSKI: That was like the Red Cross. When war broke out, the Northern Army was essentially--consisted of volunteers. And it was hundreds of thousands--eventually--people and the Army didn't really have the means to provide medical attention and food for the wounded and so on, and so the--the--with the--with the collaboration of the government, this private organization was formed called the Sanitary Commission which, essentially, raised funds from volunteer efforts in all--throughout the states and then used that money to deliver medical attention, food, blankets to soldiers right on the battlefield. And s--and Olmsted organized it and then ran it for two years. He was involved in the Peninsula Campaign. He had hospital ships that ferried the wounded down from--from the peninsula all the way around to Boston and New York. And--and he actually commanded those ships. This was right at the beginning of the war. Later on, he toured--he was at Gettysburg a day after the battle with wagons, with hot soup and blankets and all this. You know, there was a lot of wounded in those battles. And the Sanitary Commission played a major role in keeping casualties down. So it was a--and it was an enormous undertaking. Th--there was hundreds of doctors, thousands of volunteers, a lot of women volunteers who were nurses. And this was all something that was under his coordination.
LAMB: How did he get into this?
RYBCZYNSKI: He was invited. He had done--he was involved in Central Park. Bellows, who was the man who actually founded the commission, needed somebody to be a kind of CEO and he knew Olmsted. He knew that he was good at organizing large things. And it--it's something you come across a great deal in the 19th century. There are no specialists. Instead, there are these people who are good at getting things done and who are given large jobs. And they're not necessarily trained for it, 'cause nobody is. They're these--all the special professions haven't--other than law and medicine, haven't arrived yet and so this was not unusual, that somebody would be given a very large responsibility in a field that they hadn't direct training for.
LAMB: You say that Abraham Lincoln didn't like the Sanitary Commission?
RYBCZYNSKI: Well, he had a lot of trouble with it. They were very political. The Sanitary Commission ha--had no confidence in the surgeon general of the Army and Olmsted and his colleagues at the Sanitary Commission really set out to get the surgeon general replaced. And so they--they were a kind of thorn in Lincoln's side because they were always lobbying him. They--they wanted somebody else in that job. They want--they needed more support. The Army was--while they accepted the Sanitary Commission, was also at the--especially at the beginning, was rather skeptical. They didn't like all these civilians messing around and they appreciated all the voluntary efforts, but they would rather have been just given the materials. And so there was--there was a lot of friction there and--and Lincoln, of course, had bigger problems than--than that. And so that--he--he actually called him his fifth wheel. I think looking back on it, however, it's clear that the Sanitary Commission was crucial to the success of the war and to--and to reducing casualties because the--the Army was simply not in a position to deal with this huge volunteer army.
LAMB: You say that h--he had a limp because he had fallen off the horse. What was the difference in the one foot from the--or the one leg from the other?
RYBCZYNSKI: I think it was a couple of inches or an inch difference, so it was...
LAMB: Was it a pronounced limp?
RYBCZYNSKI: Well, there was one description of--a person says he--it's--that he has this limp but you f--you forget about it. So he's one of those people that somehow ignores it and--and makes h--people around him not aware of it.
LAMB: In your book on page 70 you have an author's note and you say `I have not taken liberties with Olmsted's biography. His words are his own. His opinions are those that he expressed to others usually in letters. Yet, I also want to see the world through his eyes. The vignette that follows and there will be others'--I counted 11, maybe there are m--more than that--`is based on material evidence. Olmsted was writing a letter on that night and it was stormy. His thoughts and feelings are, of course, imagined.' And I'll show the audience, you use italics in order to show this part of your book. Why did you do this?
RYBCZYNSKI: Well, in many ways, I'm wri--I've wrote a very traditional biography. It--it starts with his birth and ends with his death. It's an inspirational book. It's not a book that is radical in any sense. But at the same time when I was--started writing it, I realized that I'm writing in 1999, one of the forms that's very popular are docudramas which I personally dislike 'cause they--they pretend to be history and yet they're really made up. But I did--I do see them as very effective. Turning history into fiction in a sense--or turning historical figures into live figures is a very effective way of telling a story. And I think that I was trying to bring in that quality that the docudramas have of being so good at telling stories. But at the same time, I didn't want to--to fool the reader the way docudramas do. The--you see an Oliver Stone movie and you think, `Oh, it's Kennedy who's really talking.' And maybe Kennedy never said those things. So I wanted to be very clear that when I was being the historical biographer and when I was being more impressionistic. So--and I hope that--that that works for the reader because I think it--it is important to bring the story to life. And I--and tho--that's the intention of those vignettes.
LAMB: Who are these gentlemen here in a photo that's right out near the front of the book?
RYBCZYNSKI: Well, the--Olmsted is at the bottom right-hand corner and the person leaning over him is his brother, who looks a bit like a movie star in that picture. The others are all friends of his brother and of Olmsted, but they were students at Yale. His brother studied medi--studied at Yale, later studied medicine. The m--the man on--on--to the immediate left of Olmsted is Charles Loring Brace, who was probably one of Olm--Olmsted's closest friends, who went on to have a very long and honorable career. He founded a--a--an organization that took care of lost children in New York City, and built sort of orphanages and asylums for young boys who were out on the street. And--and he played a very important role in Olmsted's life because they used to argue a lot about abolition. Brace was a very avid abolitionist. This isn't just before the war. Olmsted was against slavery but he was not an abolitionist. He was conservative by nature and it was Brace who convinced Olmsted to take the job for The New York Times. The New York Times was looking for somebody and Brace suggested Olmsted, and partly because he thought if Olmsted really travels around the South and sees what's there, it'll--it'll effect his opinion about slavery and make him a much stancher opponent.
LAMB: Who are these--well, obviously, one of them is Frederick Olmsted. Who are the other two gentlemen?
RYBCZYNSKI: Th--the man on the top is H.H. Richardson, Henry Hobson Richardson, probably the greatest American architect of the 19th century who was very good--close friend of Olmsted and a neighbor both on Staten Island and later in Brookline, when bo--Olmsted moved to Boston. And they collaborated on a number of projects. Richardson sadly died when he was not yet 40, so we--we--their collaboration was abruptly cut off. But they were--Richardson designed some of the structures in the Boston parks.
LAMB: What about the gentleman at the bottom, Mr. Norton?
RYBCZYNSKI: Charles Eliot Norton was a very famous scholar, an art historian at Harvard who also became friends with Olmsted, an intellectual friendship, as well as a personal one and who was a great supporter of Olmsted. They were--the two of them were leading figures in the effort to--successful effort to create Niagara Falls State Park and they lobbied internationally. Eliot Norton knew people everywhere. He knew all the great writers in England and so they got a very impressive list of signatories and it was as a result of that that New York state reserved the island and s--the land around Niagara Falls and created a state park.
LAMB: You kept saying throughout the book that--or not saying so much, you were reporting that Frederick Olmsted was sick a lot.
RYBCZYNSKI: Well, there were--there was different types of sicknesses. Everybody was sick a lot in those days. First of all, if you could make it through childhood, it was already a big success. Medicine was so crude and people were g--in the war everybody was getting sick and--in--in a--in that sense, he was a very strong person. I mean, when he's on the Peninsula Campaign, everybody's catching cholera and typhoid fever and he's actually chugging along and keeping going throughout these months. But what he did seem to get were depressions. He would get hit by these awful depressions where he would essentially be almost flat on his back for weeks and weeks. And that is--is, I think, a more--a more revealing perhaps or a more important part of his sickness, which--because he would always bounce back from them, but they often came as a result of either working too hard or th--things going wrong. And there's these striking moments in his life where he's almost incapacitated at sur--certain times.
LAMB: You say that at one time he was diagnosed as having an enlarged heart.
RYBCZYNSKI: Well, they just didn't know. I mean, that was the problem. If you broke your leg, they could fix it. But essentially, these diseases were--any psychological disease, any nervous disorder was either put down to overwork or--and essentially, they would say take a trip and so he was--he was--he did a lot of traveling for--supposedly for his health. And the sea air was supposed to be good for you, the fresh air. There wasn't a lot that medicine could do for people and--I mean, a lot of--when I was writing about him, it's--you're constantly finding people dying. Brace died when he was relatively young. Olmsted, actually, outlived almost everybody, despite his periodic bouts of depression and sometimes accidents.
LAMB: 1822 to 1903, what would that have made him?
RYBCZYNSKI: Seventy--81.
LAMB: Eighty-one.
LAMB: And this photo you have here on the back--or not a photo, it's a--a piece of art, where did this come from?
RYBCZYNSKI: This is a painting by John Singer Sargent of Olmsted at Biltmore. Vanderbilt hired Sargent to make a painting both of Olmsted and Richard Morris Hunt, who was the architect of his house. And these two paintings hang in Biltmore today. And this was one of the last sort of images we have of Olmsted because shortly after that, his--he started having trouble with his memory. He decided he ought to step down from active practice and he really retires and then slips into obscurity.
LAMB: What would he have been like, in your opinion, to know?
RYBCZYNSKI: He seemed to be a very likeable person. People liked him. He had very devoted friends and employees. People liked working for him and with him. I think he would have--he was very energetic. He--after all, he was somebody who--who by horseback went from New Orleans to Washington, DC, when he was doing these reporting trips. So he was a very physical person. He was a--he was a sailor of small boats. He was an outdoorsman. At the same time, you get the s--sometimes the feeling of a rather shy person, not a person who particularly likes the limelight. Very canny. He's--he--he knew about manipulating the media. He knew about getting things done politically, but it was rather for some aim. I--he didn't push himself forward very much. He--it--he tended to--to sort of be a little bit modest about his accomplishments.
LAMB: Where is he buried?
RYBCZYNSKI: In Hartford. It's an odd--I've--I s--I didn't go to see his burying place when I was writing the book, but when I was on a book tour I went--I had an opportunity to be in Hartford and I went. And he's buried in a very--it's a burying ground. It's not one of these beautiful old Victorian cemeteries. And it's a family tomb and the biggest name is actually his father's name. And then below that are the children and Frederick--Frederick, his wife, his children, Frederick Jr., and at first I thought this is rather shocking. You don't even know that this was the greatest landscape architect that the--that we've ever had, that--there's nothing to identify Frederick. Just says Frederick Law Olmsted. And then I thought it's actually quite appropriate, because his father was so important in his life. And he was s--Olmsted was somebody who sought the shadows in some ways. He didn't push himself forward. So he probably would have liked that. He wouldn't have liked a big memorial.
LAMB: Any Olmsted survive?
RYBCZYNSKI: Oh, yes. There's an Olmsted family association. Frederick Jr. had a family and--and...
LAMB: Any of them still architects?
RYBCZYNSKI: Not that I know of. It's possible, but the--the Olmsted firm was active until 1950. So from 1850s till 1950, there was an Olmsted practicing park making.
LAMB: By the way, what are you teaching at the University of Pennsylvania?
RYBCZYNSKI: I teach urbanism. I teach urban design, not landscape architecture.
LAMB: Our guest has been Witold Rybczynski. He is the author of this book, "A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century."

Thank you very much.

RYBCZYNSKI: Thank you.

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