Posted by: ushistoryfiles | May 8, 2011

Book Review – Genius of Place

The good folks at DaCapo Press sent me an advance reading copy of Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted.  Now I know what many of you are thinking, “who??”.  The truth is that few Americans have heard of Olmsted and probably fewer know anything about him.

Olmsted was indeed a “jack of many trades”.  Best known as a landscape architect (before there really was such a thing), who had his hands in such notable projects as New York City’s Central Park and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, Olmsted was also a writer and preservationist.  During the sectional crisis he traveled through the southern states reporting back to the New York Daily Times his impressions of slavery and southern life in general.  During the US Civil War he was the head of the US Sanitary Commission, though he left that post in 1863.

Olmsted’s early life can best be characterized as chaotic.  His mother died when he was four and his youth saw him bounced around between various schools.  He held a variety of jobs which included spending a stint as a seaman on board the Ronaldson for a trip to China.  After that he gave farming a try.  Until he hit upon landscape architecture (a field that he pioneered) he bounced from profession to profession.

Genius of Place is an excellent book.  Author Justin Martin (who has two other biographies under his belt) tells Olmsted’s life story in such a way as to bring the reader into Olmsted’s life.  It is an enjoyable read that flows smoothly.  A biography is enjoyable both because the subject has led an interesting life AND because the author has presented that life in a readable way.  Genius of Place has just that combination.  I highly recommend it.


  1. I agree that few know the significance of Olmstead. I myself only came across him by accident as I was studying urban planning and development in 1890s San Francisco. Urban historians in particular should not and can not ignore his influence on American urbanization. I had already planed to check out biographies of Olmstead. In your estimation is this the best recent coverage? And does it cover Olmstead’s legacy on urbanization after his death? My blog ( will be tackling this topic soon. And of course, great blog!

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