When in 1857 Frederick Law Olmsted became superintendent of the area that would become Central Park, he described it as “a pestilential spot, where rank vegetation and miasmatic odors taint every breath of air.”
The land was a chaotic mix of swamp and brambles, squatters’ shacks and open sewers. Some 300 hovels dotted the unpromising landscape, along with hog farms, “swill-mills,” and bone-boiling works. Olmsted’s task was to clear the area. The intractable squatters forced him to call in the police that year, but thereafter his faithful team of 1,000 worked steadily, draining swamps, blasting rock, and carting away rubble in horse-drawn wagons.
The idea for a park had originated over a decade before. The poet William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post, was an early proponent, as was the prominent landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. “A large public park,” wrote Downing in his magazine, The Horticulturist, “would not only pay in money, but largely civilize and refine the national character, foster the love of rural beauty, and increase the knowledge of, and taste for, rare and beautiful trees and plants. The true policy of republics is to foster the taste for great public libraries, parks and gardens which all may enjoy.”
The alarming rate of urban growth also brought many to a new awareness of the beauty rather than mere utility of the natural world. Nature became a work of art, to be appreciated as such. Thus the seeds of the Romantic movement took hold, with Bryant advising us to listen to Nature, painters Thomas. Cole and Asher B. Durand and many others setting up their easels in the wilds of the Catskills and the Hudson Valley.
Americans were not, however, revolutionary in this. Preference for the natural as opposed to the classical, formal style of the gardens of Versailles, for example, had taken root a century before in Europe. Two branches of this revolution grew rapidly in England. One group believed that landscapes should be “improved”, that is, their beauties enhanced without destroying the curving lines and asymmetrical shapes that lent a natural aspect.
Lancelot “Capability” Brown, who frequently was heard to say, “My Lord, your property has great capability,” was the outstanding leader of this group, so popular that he turned down work in Ireland because he “had not yet finished England.” Brown was responsible for the grounds of Sir Winston Churchill’s family home. A more hysterical group were the founders of the picturesque, children of Jean Jacques Rousseau, admirers of the painters Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa. For them Brown’s placid ponds and wandering streams were too tame. Their souls yearned for craggy peaks and gushing rivers, tangled vines and virgin forests. Both movements found their way to America and into the masterful plan for Central Park.
After rejecting an initial proposal for a park along the East River, the state legislature authorized the city in 1853 to buy the area from 59th to 106th Street between 5th and 8th Avenue. This block of 624 acres was extended to 110th Street in 1859, making a total of 843 acres, purchased for $5 million. A Board of Commissioners was established in 1857, and they decided to hold a competition for the best plan for the new park. At this point Calvert Vaux, an English-born architect and former partner of the late Andrew Downing, approached Frederick Olmsted. Landscape architecture was the farthest thing from the superintendent’s mind.
His scattered background included farming on Staten Island, reporting on agriculture in England, and a financially disastrous venture in publishing. Vaux, however, believed in Olmsted’s artistic eye. Olmsted, perhaps less sure, was short of cash and lured by the prospect of the $2,000 prize. The two worked proigiously, examining every inch of the park, formulating a plan to highlight its natural features, outcroppings of rock; hillsides, and areas suitable for bodies of water. Their plan, titled Greensward (it may be seen today in the Arsenal in Central Park), was an easy victor over 32 other plans for fussy gardens and sentimentally patriotic motifs.
The Greensward Plan divided the area thematically at the 85th Street Transverse Road. The upper portion, with more interesting natural features, would be left rugged, wild, picturesque. Any visible interference, by roads, buildings, or formal planting, was to be avoided. The lower portion, which was more heterogeneous, would make use of the hillside facing what is now the old reservoir. They placed the Lake south of it, with a terrace for leisurely strolls facing the rising hillside. Here a more formal element was appropriate: the straight Mall offering an elegant promenade beneath elms that led to the classical Bethesda Fountain.
Farther south the land was extremely flat, and this became a meadow, dotted with grazing sheep. One of the most significant battles was with the Croton Aqueduct Board, which had plans for a new rectangular reservoir. Fortunately, the board yielded to Vaux and Olmsted’s preference for a natural shape, the one we see today. The two planners also had to battle for their most ingenious element: four sunken transverse roads, including the first traffic underpass in America. Their plan not only would minimize the visible intrusion of traffic, but also separate the park’s various activities. Pedestrians could amble over cast-iron bridges while stately carriages proceeded along the winding roads. “Winding” must be underscored, for Olmsted was determined to avoid a straightaway, which, he felt, would only invite “trotting matches.”
In addition to his job as superintendent, Olmsted became architect in chief in 1858, with Vaux as his assistant. Together they watched their plan become a reality. The lengthy task of clearing the park continued. Blasts were heard daily from the area’s swamps and crags as men dynamited the hard schist to excavate sunken roads and valleys for water. Henry Hope Reed reports in Central Park that over the next 15 years nearly 5 million cubic yards of stone and soil were removed, an amount requiring 10 million one-horse cartloads. And between 1858 and 1865, over 500,000 cubic yards of fertilizer were spread over the park, as were immense quantities of topsoil to enrich the area’s glacial out-wash, which was too poor in nutrients to support the vast array of intended vegetation.
An Austrian immigrant named Ignaz Anton Pilat, former gardener to Prince Metternich, deserves credit for the wonderful variety and naturalistic style of vegetation once seen in Central Park. In its early days one could see clear across the park, making it seem rather narrow, but flourishing trees soon dispelled this impression.
By 1873, 4 million to 5 million trees, vines, and shrubs had been planted, the number of tree species increasing from 42 to 632. Evergreens were plentiful to keep the park green throughout the winter, particularly along the West Drive from 77th to 100th Street; over 800 species of perennials and alpines were introduced as well. The oldest commercial nursery in America, the William Prince Nursery in Flushing, supplied Pilat with seedlings of native and imported European and Asian species. The Parsons Nursery in Flushing also contributed, and two large nurseries were developed within the park. In addition to maples, oaks, and willows, one found Osage orange trees, Chinese elms, ginkgos, bald cypress, and golden larch. Hydrants and 121/2 miles of earthen water pipes provided irrigation.
Despite this extensive work, the natural features of the land were preserved roughly in accordance with the Greensward concept. “The hips and elbows and other bones of Nature,” wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1862, “stick out here and there in the shape of rocks which give character to the scenery, and an unchangeable, unpurchasable look to a landscape that without them would have been in danger of being fattened by art and money out of all its native features. The roads were fine, the sheets of water beautiful, the bridges handsome, the swans elegant in their deportment, the grass green and as short as a fast horse’s winter coat.”
Olmsted and Vaux would shudder if they could see today’s explosion of recreational facilities in the park, playgrounds, tennis courts, the Children’s Zoo, which have disrupted their pastoral idyll. Their plan allowed only for quiet strolls and ice skating on the various ponds or lakes. The latter became extremely popular, with more people visiting the park in January than in July. The 20th century has brought, too, an unfortunate jumble of statues, most of questionable aesthetic value. The first was a lifeless bust of Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller in 1859, followed somewhat later by a group around the Mall area, including Samuel F. B. Morse, Sir Walter Scott, and William Shakespeare. A mania for statuary swept the country in the 19th century and well intentioned donors began cluttering the park, despite the restrictions of the park’s committee on statues.
Other encroachment has occurred over the years in the form of buildings. Originally there was only the Blockhouse (1814), the Arsenal (1848), which housed the Museum of Natural History from 1869 to 1877, and the two Gate Houses of the Reservoir (1863). Vaux designed the rugged Belvedere Castle, built in 1871, as well as the Ball Players’ House, the Dairy, the 22nd Precinct Station (then a stable), and the Workshops, all constructed around that time. But gradually the designers realized the danger of too much building, as the Metropolitan Museum and the zoo ate up precious ground.
Olmsted and Vaux faced obstacles on the political front with the ascendancy of William Marcy Tweed and the Tammany Hall politicians. Boss Tweed created a Department of Public Works in 1870 with himself as head, and one of his men became chief of the Department of Parks, which replaced the Central Park Board of Commissioners.
The park became an arena of contract letting, patronage, and graft, with the politicians’ eyes on favors and kickbacks rather than the best interests of the park and its original design. The result was a disruption of planting, thoughtless manicuring of wild areas, and myriad plans for useless buildings. Olmsted and Vaux were forced to resign that year but returned in 1871 when Tweed was ousted. They continued work despite heavy financial restraints and debts accumulated in their absence. The park commission remained fundamentally under the thumb of Tammany Hall, however, and Olmsted’s task of fulfilling his vision became virtually impossible.
In 1878 his job was abolished and he was relegated to the position of consulting architect, with little power. Disillusioned and disenchanted with the pervasive political corruption, he soon moved to Massachusetts. Vaux continued as landscape architect to the Department of Public Works intermittently until 1895.
His successor, Samuel B. Parsons, Jr., born to a love of trees as son of the nurseryman in Flushing, adhered to the ideals of the two master planners, bringing the park to a pinnacle of beauty in 1911. But his retirement in that year opened the way for further disruption of the picturesque, the disappearance of exotic trees, and inadequate maintenance, marking the end of the “Greensward Dynasty.”