Stack of books outdoors, on blurred background

For more than a century, authors have grappled with how to tell the story. Frederick Law Olmsted was, in turn, a “scientific” farmer, merchant seaman, surveyor, literary thinker, roving reporter, publisher, anti-slavery advocate, conservationist, superintendent with his own “navy,” and, most famously, shaper of America’s urban landscape.

We offer readers some top picks for reading pleasure, from a quick dip to a deep dive into the life, times, and writings of Olmsted.

Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape
By Charles Beveridge. Published by Rizzoli, New York, 2005. 288 pages

Author Charles Beveridge might be called “Mr. Olmsted,” as the noted scholar has edited multiple volumes of Olmsted papers. Beveridge’s coffee table book offers stunning photographs, historical maps, and park plans and delves into Olmsted’s personal and professional history. Beveridge received The Garden Club of America’s  2000 Historic Preservation Medal.

FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted
By Laura Wood Roper. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and New York, 1973. 555 pages

This sweeping work may be considered the definitive biography of Olmsted. It takes a scholarly but readable approach to his long, productive life. Minute but telling details, absent in other biographies listed, enrich the reader’s experience of the man and his times.

Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, Abolitionist, Conservationist, and Designer of Central Park
By Justin Martin. Published by Da Capo Press, Boston, 2011. 496 pages

Genius of Place is an easy read and a pleasant one. This book engagingly follows the chronology of Olmsted’s life with the intimacy of an on-site observer.

A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century
By Witold Rybczynski. Published by Scribner, New York, 1999. 480 pages

This book traces Olmsted’s life chronologically but in a more scholarly style than Genius of Place. It glows with an abundance of quotes from Olmsted’s letters and writings, enabling the reader to “hear” Olmsted’s voice and “feel” his genius.

The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller’s Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States, 1853–1861
By Frederick Law Olmsted, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Published by Hachette Books, New York, 1996. 716 pages

This work resulted when young Olmsted was engaged by a predecessor of the New York Times to visit the American South, meet the people, and write about agriculture, economics, and everyday life. The Cotton Kingdom presents a powerful portrait of the antebellum South and societal struggles leading up to the Civil War. 

The original piece appeared in The Garden Club of America’s Winter 2021 Bulletin.