The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1973, Volume 19, Number 3
James E. Moss, Editor

Book Review

Frederick Law Olmsted and the American Environmental Tradition. By Albert Fein. New York: George Braziller, 1972. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Notes. 180 pages. Softbound $3.95.

Reviewed by Robert Redding, Chairman of the American Studies Program at California State University, San Diego. Dr. Redding’s study of Robert Benchley’s comedy short subjects will be published in the fall by the University of New Mexico Press.

After decades of passing references and footnotes in history books, the reputation of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) has expanded of late through the efforts of scholars like Albert Fein, and in part as a reflection of contemporary concern with ecology and urban crises—even Life magazine discovered Olmsted in time to feature him in its antepenultimate issue. With local developers intent not merely upon defoliating every hillside, but on decapitating the hill itself, Southern Californians may draw inspirations from Olmsted’s commitment to the wise and respectful use of the land, and especially to the integrating of the city plan with the natural environment. His was an early and effective voice in the campaigns to preserve the Niagara Falls area and the Yosemite Valley, and he was chiefly responsible for beautifying the Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C., and for planning New York’s Central Park, the townsite of Riverside, Illinois, the Stanford University campus, the grounds of George C. Vanderbilt’s massive estate in North Carolina, and the site for the epoch-making 1893 Chicago Fair, along with countless parks, malls, playgrounds, cemeteries and hospital grounds in all corners of the country. As Professor Fein makes clear, Olmsted’s concern with green spaces was a concern for people: his pioneer work as landscape architect and urban designer derived from the same philosophical impulses—rational, Jeffersonian, humanistic—as his youthful experiments in scientific farming, his monumental studies of antebellum Southern society, and his war-time directorship of the U.S. Sanitary Commission (precursor of the American Red Cross).

Devoting himself chiefly to Olmsted’s post-war career, Fein has produced a succinct, informative monograph: his seventy-page text manages to survey and characterize Olmsted’s major achievements, to define the sources and components of his ideology, and to show how the idealistic planner shrewdly generated the necessary public support to bring his dreams to reality; a postscript enumerates eight basic “principles” underlying Olmsted’s work, all of them still pertinent and useful in our time. The scheme of the book is not chronological but thematic, and in this brief essay Fein often must limit himself to summarizing and listing rather than attempting a detailed narrative. Much of the story is told by the accompanying eighty pages of maps and illustrations of Olmsted’s projects, and the bibliographies are also especially valuable. If modern Americans are ever to reverse the prevailing rapacious direction of our growth and realize a sane balance between man’s needs and the integrity of the land, they will have to begin with something like Olmsted’s vision and energy, and students of his career will do well to begin with Fein’s illuminating account.