The Bowlder Brothers
In twenty-odd books about the American past, I have written of builders and buildings, of paintings and presidents, seeking narrative in places and people. My newest book explores the collaborations of two giants of the post-Civil War era, men whose work had unrivaled impact on the rapidly changing American landscape.
Olmsted is widely remembered as America’s first and finest landscape architect. Richardson was universally regarded in their era as the nation’s most original and influential architect. The two friends and frequent collaborators met their moment in the post-Civil War years, a time of extraordinary cultural, economic, and social change. They accomplished nothing less than the reimagining of the American landscape.
In the second half of the nineteenth-century, the natural cycle of the day gave way to the mechanical; farmers began setting their clocks by the coming and going of trains. Long distance travel came to be measured in hours, not days or weeks. With the advent of steam power, the global rate of economic growth, after centuries of averaging less one percent per year, had jumped to roughly four percent. A nation in transition needed visionaries to address new needs.
Richardson (1838-1886) and Olmsted (1822-1903) responded with New York’s Central Park, the Shingle Style, Boston’s Emerald Necklace and Trinity Church, architecture’s “open plan,” the establishment of the great national parks at Yosemite and Niagara Falls, and designs that set the scenic character of the best American suburbs, as well as many precedent-setting railroad stations, civic buildings, and public libraries. Absent Richardson and Olmsted, and none of these would have emerged as they did.
For much of the last six years, I have been researching their lives, careers, and their on-again, off-again collaborations; what emerged from my investigations is a story of two extraordinary imaginations. Richardson and Olmsted were never formal partners. They were as different as their destinies. One small and reserved, the other boisterous and passionate; one revered even today, the other remembered by few outside his profession. My new book tells their shared story and explores their creative connection, their differing fates, rare genius, and influence down to the present.
“I cannot express, or make those who did not know him even
dimly understand, how much Richardson was in one’s life, how
much help and comfort he gave one in its work. . . . He was the
greatest comfort and the most potent stimulus that has
ever come into my artistic life.” — Frederick Law Olmsted
In January 2022, Atlantic Monthly Press will publish Architects of an American Landscape: Henry Hobson Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, and the Reimagining of the Nation’s Public and Private Spaces.
In the meantime, if you are curious about my other writings, check this space in the coming days and weeks as we build out this new site. Or reach out directly: I am at email@example.com if you would like me to come and talk to your group or organization — as doors reopen in your town and mine.