Central Park and Prospect Park in New York, Stanford University, and the Capitol Grounds in Washington, D.C. are well known for their cultural significance and their beauty but few could identify their designer, Frederick Law Olmstead. In his new book Genius of Place, Justin Martin explores the life and exploits of the man who created these landscapes but did so much more than design some of our nation’s most iconic public places. As a journalist, Olmstead exposed the abolitionist cause to Northern and British audiences on the 1850s and 60s. He was an early environmentalist, helping to preserve Yosemite and Niagara Falls in the years before the establishment of the national park system. But Martin also delves into Olmstead’s personal life which was filled with turmoil and certainly not as serene as the landscapes he designed. Olmstead was one of the most influential people of the 19th century but he “spent his final days in an asylum, ironically one for which he had earlier designed the grounds.” How do we reconcile this great park maker, conservationist and abolitionist with the personal torment he experienced?
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