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Adams, Ansel (20 February 1902–22 April 1984), photographer and environmentalist, was born in San Francisco, California, the son of Charles Hitchcock Adams, a businessman, and Olive Bray. The grandson of a wealthy timber baron, Adams grew up in a house set amid the sand dunes of the Golden Gate. When Adams was only four, an aftershock of the great earthquake and fire of 1906 threw him to the ground and badly broke his nose, distinctly marking him for life. A year later the family fortune collapsed in the financial panic of 1907, and Adams’s father spent the rest of his life doggedly but fruitlessly attempting to recoup....

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Altman, Benjamin (12 July 1840–07 October 1913), merchant and art collector, was born in New York, New York, the son of Philip Altman, a dry goods merchant, and Cecilia (maiden name unknown). His father, a Jewish immigrant from Bavaria who had come to the United States in 1835, operated a small dry goods store named Altman & Co. on Third Avenue near Tenth Street. Young Altman worked with his brother Morris in his father’s shop in the afternoons. He left school at the age of twelve to work there full time and later held a variety of sales jobs with other dry goods shops in New York City and in Newark, New Jersey. When his father died in 1854, Altman and his brother took over the store, changing its name to Altman Bros. The business prospered, and by 1865 they moved to Third Avenue and Tenth Street; they moved again to a larger building on Sixth Avenue between Eighteenth and Nineteenth Streets in 1870. Morris left the business but remained a partner, and when he died in 1876, Altman became sole owner, later changing the name of the firm to B. Altman & Co....

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Becker, Marion Rombauer (02 January 1903–28 December 1976), cookbook writer, arts administrator, and conservationist, was born Marion Julia Rombauer in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Edgar Roderick Rombauer, a lawyer, and Irma Louise von Starkloff, a cookbook writer. Her outlook and interests were strongly shaped by a freethinking, reform-minded family. She studied art history and French at Vassar College and spent her junior year at Washington University in St. Louis, receiving a B.A. from Vassar in 1925. Hoping to find a career in modern dance or art education, she began teaching in 1929 in the art department of John Burroughs School, an experimental school in Clayton, Missouri....

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Blass, Bill (22 June 1922–12 June 2002), fashion designer, branding innovator, and philanthropist, was born William Ralph Blass in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His father, Ralph Aldrich Blass, was a traveling hardware salesman, and his mother, Ethyl Keyser, was a dressmaker who worked from their home. Although his sister, Virginia (Gina), was just two years older than he, they were never close. When Blass was barely five years old, his father committed suicide at home, which Blass later assumed to be from manic-depression, although his mother never discussed the family trauma with her children. His mother did not remarry, and the family struggled during the Depression years on her income from a small annuity, rent from a lakeside cabin, and dressmaking....

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Cram, Ralph Adams (16 December 1863–22 September 1942), architect and cultural critic, was born in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, the son of William Augustine Cram, a Unitarian minister, and Sarah Elizabeth Blake. Cram’s early career was strongly affected by his father’s decision to abandon his profession and return to the family farm in New Hampshire to care for his elderly parents. As a result, the young Cram received no formal education after completing high school in 1880; instead, he was formed by a combination of apprenticeship in the office of the Boston, Massachusetts, architectural firm of Rotch and Tilden; extensive travel abroad, financed in part through prizes won in architectural competitions; and voluminous personal reading....

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Jay Norwood Darling. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-98678).

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Darling, Jay Norwood (21 October 1876–12 February 1962), political cartoonist and conservationist, known as “Ding,” was born in Norwood, Michigan, the son of the Reverend Marcellus Warner Darling, a public school administrator and Congregational minister, and Clara R. Woolson. Darling grew up from the age of ten in Sioux City, Iowa, a frontier community surrounded by prairie teeming with wildlife. He spent many days and nights hunting, fishing, camping, and horseback riding in the pristine natural bounty that provided what he described as the “pleasantest recollections” of his long and eventful life....

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Flagg, Ernest (06 February 1857–10 April 1947), architect and urban reformer, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Jared Bradley Flagg, a clergyman and artist, and Louisa Hart. After his mother’s death in 1872, Flagg abandoned his formal education and found employment in a series of marginal businesses in New York City. Later he worked as a developer in partnership with his father and brother, an experience that stimulated his interest in architecture and urban reform. Flagg’s cousin ...

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R. Buckminster Fuller. Oil on canvas, c. 1981, by Ruth Munson. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Fuller, R. Buckminster (12 July 1895–01 July 1983), inventor, designer, and environmentalist, often referred to as “Bucky,” was born Richard Buckminster Fuller, Jr., in Milton, Massachusetts, the son of Richard Buckminster Fuller, an importer of leather and tea, who died in 1910, and Caroline Wolcott Andrews. He was the grandnephew of author and literary critic ...

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Hine, Lewis Wickes (26 September 1874–04 November 1940), photographer, was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the son of Douglas Hine, the operator of a coffee shop, and Sarah Hayes. Hine left Oshkosh after graduating from high school and working at a variety of menial jobs. In 1900 he enrolled at the University of Chicago for one year. In 1901 he began teaching nature study in New York City at the Ethical Culture School, upon the invitation of recently appointed superintendent Frank A. Manny, formerly a professor at the Oshkosh State Normal School. Within three years Hine was in touch with key figures in New York’s reform community, including ...

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Karolik, Maxim (1893–20 December 1963), art collector and philanthropist, was born in Bessarabia, Russia (now Rumania), the son of Orthodox Jewish parents. He was trained as an operatic tenor at the Academy in St. Petersburg and performed with the Petrograd Grand Opera Company as well as in opera houses in England and Italy. Karolik came to the United States about 1922 and made his New York debut in 1924 in a recital at Aeolian Hall. He performed to moderate acclaim until the early 1930s, when unspecified health problems caused him to abandon his singing career....

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John Mercer Langston. Courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society.

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Langston, John Mercer (14 December 1829–15 November 1897), African-American political leader and intellectual, was born free in Louisa County, Virginia, the son of Ralph Quarles, a wealthy white slaveholding planter, and Lucy Jane Langston, a part–Native American, part-black slave emancipated by Quarles in 1806. After the deaths of both of their parents in 1834, Langston and his two brothers, well provided for by Quarles’s will but unprotected by Virginia law, moved to Ohio. There Langston lived on a farm near Chillicothe with a cultured white southern family who had been friends of his father and who treated him as a son. He was in effect orphaned again in 1839, however, when a court hearing, concluding that his guardian’s impending move to slave-state Missouri would imperil the boy’s freedom and inheritance, forced him to leave the family. Subsequently, he boarded in four different homes, white and black, in Chillicothe and Cincinnati, worked as a farmhand and bootblack, intermittently attended privately funded black schools since blacks were barred from public schools for whites, and in August 1841 was caught up in the violent white rioting against blacks and white abolitionists in Cincinnati....

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Paul Mellon Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Mellon, Paul (11 June 1907–01 February 1999), philanthropist, art collector, horse breeder, and conservationist, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of Andrew W. Mellon, a banker, secretary of the treasury (1921–1932), and ambassador to Britain (1932–1933), and Nora McMullen Mellon. His parents divorced when he was five and his sister Ailsa was eleven. Under the terms of the divorce settlement, the children were to spend eight months with their father and four months with their mother, who was living in England. (When they reached the age of fourteen, the children were to decide how long they wished to stay with either parent.) As a child, Paul was afraid of his father, whom he described in his autobiography, ...

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Mumford, Lewis (09 October 1895–26 January 1990), urban historian and cultural critic, was born in Flushing, New York, the illegitimate son of Lewis Charles Mack, a Jewish businessman from New Jersey, and Elvina Conradina Baron Mumford, a German Protestant. Mumford never knew his father, learning his identity only in 1942. He grew up in a lower middle-class environment in Manhattan and in 1912 graduated from Stuyvesant High School, where he was chiefly interested in science and technology. New York’s museums and libraries contributed much to his education. Beginning in 1912 Mumford studied at City College, Columbia University, New York University, and the New School for Social Research. He earned enough credits for a degree but never graduated. Between 1914 and 1918 Mumford suffered from what he then regarded as incipient tuberculosis but which he later believed to have been a thyroid problem. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1918 to 1919. Having begun his career as a freelance writer, Mumford joined the staff of ...

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Norton, Charles Eliot (16 November 1827–21 October 1908), scholar and critic, was born at “Shady Hill,” his family’s estate in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His parents were Andrews Norton, biblical scholar and man of letters, and Catharine Eliot, daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant. Charles grew up in an academic household frequented by ...

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Olmsted, Frederick Law, Jr. (24 July 1870–25 December 1957), landscape architect, planner, and public servant, was born on Staten Island, New York, the son of Frederick Law Olmsted, the progenitor of the profession of landscape architecture in the United States, and Mary Cleveland Perkins Olmsted, the widow of Olmsted’s brother. Called Henry Perkins at birth, he was renamed Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., at about age four by his father and thereafter informally known as “Rick.” Since his father worked from home, Olmsted was immersed in the family business from his earliest years. He traveled with his father to job sites and on European study trips and helped out in the office during school vacations. In 1881 the senior Olmsted moved the family to Brookline, Massachusetts, where the Olmsted firm continued in practice for nearly a century. Frederick Olmsted received his A.B. in 1894 from Harvard, having planned his course of study with the expectation of becoming a landscape architect....

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Owings, Nathaniel Alexander (05 February 1903–13 June 1984), architect, was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, the son of Nathaniel Owings, a fine-wood importer, and Cora Alexander. After his father’s death in 1914, his mother supported the family by working as an accountant. In 1920 Owings won a Rotary Club trip to Europe, where he saw the cathedrals of Notre Dame, Chartres, and Mont-Saint-Michel. The experience determined his course in life. In 1921 he began studies in architecture at the University of Illinois but left after a year on account of illness. He returned to school, attending Cornell University, where he graduated in 1927 with degrees in architecture and engineering. He began his career in the New York architecture firm of York and Sawyer. In 1931 he married Emily Hunting Otis; they had four children....