- Historic Sites
The Central Park
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
Olmsted gained the first step toward his hero’s role in September, 1857, when the new board appointed him superintendent of the park’s work force, chiefly on the recommendation of the aged Washington Irving. He took the next step several weeks later when an English architect named Calvert Vaux, Downing’s former partner, persuaded him to enter the board’s public competition for the best park design—first prize, $2,000. For Olmsted the winter of 1857–58 was to epitomize the primary dilemma of the future Central Park. By day, as superintendent, he found himself struggling with New York practicality in one of its most characteristic forms. His workers owed their jobs to Tammany chieftains and, since they were expected to perform political chores for their patrons, they had not the slightest intention of wielding a shovel. “It was as if we were all engaged in playing a practical joke,” recalled Olmsted, who was now spending every spare moment with Vaux trying to sketch out a park that would prove the antithesis of New York practicality.
Such was Olmsted’s leading idea, his fundamental principle, the key to his design, and the source of twenty years of anguish and frustration. Over the years he was to state the principle again and again—to the Central Park board, to hostile politicians, to cynical editors, to innumerable projectors of schemes for improving his park with museums, cemeteries, and race tracks. The object of the park, Olmstead insisted, was to be all that the metropolis was not. It was to provide New Yorkers with “the most agreeable contrast to the confinement, bustle and monotonous street-division of the city.” It was to offer them relief “from the cramped, confused and controlling circumstances of the town.” It was to provide, for all who could not afford a country vacation, freedom from “the incessant emphasis of artificial objects.”
Such a park was to be no more practical than a poem or a painting. Its “main object and justification,” wrote Olmsted, “is simply to produce a certain influence on the minds of people...to be produced by means of scenes, through observation of which the mind may be more or less lifted out of moods and habits into which it is, under the ordinary conditions of life in the city, likely to fall.” How to produce that “certain influence” was something Olmsted understood with the clarity of genius.
New York was oppressively constricting. Olmsted’s park would feature “slightly undulating meadow,” pastoral stretches of greensward that would elate hemmed-in New Yorkers with “a sense of enlarged freedom.” New York’s grid made the city scene depressingly predictable. In Olmsted’s park nothing would be predictable. Everywhere the park would offer “uncertainty” and a “sense of mystery,” the constant suggestion of surprises to come—the tempting glimpse of soft lawn beyond a rugged rock outcrop, of dense woodland beyond a meadow’s vague border. It would have little glades that the visitor would come upon by accident and which he would be hard put to find again. The park’s artificial lake would have sharp bays and inlets to lend drama to its shore line and uncertainty as to its size.
Envisioning the endless rows of buildings that would one day surround Central Park, he wanted the city utterly blotted out of sight. Tall trees bordering the park would do this. He wanted the city blotted out of mind as well. Every building within the park would be made as small and as inconspicuous as possible. Olmsted wanted to banish even New York’s grid from the minds of New Yorkers. The one rectilinear element in the park design, a long promenade or mall, Olmsted and Vaux set down at an angle to the future grid, so that promenaders in a half-dozen steps would lose their city bearings altogether and with them, perhaps, their city selves.
The commissioners had stipulated that four commercial roads must traverse the park’s width. To nullify that menace, Olmsted and Vaux decided to sink them below the level of the footpaths and carriage drives, which would pass over the roads by bridges blending so gently with the park that visitors scarcely would notice the four commercial incisions. The two designers went further: they envisioned the footpaths crossing under the drives and the bridle path under the footpaths. By keeping every form of locomotion independent and self-contained, Olmsted hoped, he said, to relieve the park’s visitors of “anxiety.” Such relief was a matter of the utmost urgency to Olmsted. Irritation and fretfulness, the normal state of New Yorkers on the streets, were absolutely fatal to his fundamental principle: “to recreate the mind from urban oppression through the eye.”