Architects of an American Landscape

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.

Frederick Law Olmsted, in Manhattan, ca. 1860

On January 25, 2022, Atlantic Monthly Press will publish Architects of an American Landscape. The first notices have been enthusiastic. “An absorbing and informative history from a significant historian/biographer,” said Kirkus. “As he did in Architecture’s Odd Couple: Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson, the author brings the architectural world to life on the page.”

The planner of New York’s Central Park, Olmsted is widely remembered as America’s first and finest landscape architect. Henry Hobson 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.

Other early readers of this dual biography have been intrigued, among them former National Gallery curator and Princeton professor emeritus John Wilmerding, who offered, “Howard’s narrative is as substantial and well-ordered as any Richardson edifice; his prose is as lively and engaging as an Olmsted park landscape. Like a perfectly laced boot, his chapters alternate between these two giants of American architecture, until they come together in personal friendship and professional collaboration, to produce some of the greatest buildings and natural spaces in our history.”

Henry Hobson Richardson, in Paris, ca. 1861

The book puts Richardson and Olmsted in context. 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, jumped to roughly four percent. A nation in transition needed visionaries to address new needs.

Richardson (1838-1886) and Olmsted (1822-1903) responded with 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.

Edward Achorn, himself the author of Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, expressed his admiration for Architects of An American Landscape and the six years of research that went into it. “In this beautifully written book, Hugh Howard reveals how two brilliant American artists melded their creativity to reinvent America’s architecture and landscaping. The parks of Frederick Law Olmsted are rightly treasured, but it is wonderful to see the Falstaffian Henry Hobson Richardson again getting his due as one of the towering giants of American architecture. Richly detailed and filled with deft character sketches of nineteenth century celebrities, Architects of an American Landscape is a delight.”

If you are curious about Hugh Howard’s other writings, explore this site. Or reach out directly if you would like him to come and talk to your group or organization; he can contacted at hhoward@fairpoint.net.

“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