- Historic Sites
The Central Park
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
That last phrase provides the final clue to Olmsted’s grand design. To him Central Park was to be, above all else, a noble landscape composition, a work of art to be relished “through the eye.” That and that alone, not boating, or skating or riding or ball playing, was what “makes the Park the Park.” In a city of business and bustle, of frantic activity and impatient haste, Olmsted offered the alien joys of quiet contemplation. The precarious nature of his conception is readily apparent. His park was to be a gauntlet laid down to the city, a tacit rebuke to its ugliness and misgovernment, a challenge to its habits and to its unquiet spirit. Inevitably the city would turn around and challenge the park. That, however, still lay in the future. In the meantime, the park’s history offered up its last major miracle. In April, 1858, the “Greensward” plan, as Olmsted and Vaux called their design, was awarded first prize over thirty-two other competitors. Superintendent Olmsted was named the park’s architect-in-chief; Vaux was made his principal assistant. They were now to “proceed forthwith” to execute their plan on the wasteland.
Like sculptors working on a vast block of marble, Olmsted and Vaux set about transforming virtually every inch of the site. To turn murky streams into four ornamental lakes, they designed an intricate system of underground pipes to collect the streams’ water—some sixty-two miles of conduits in all. To turn jagged ground into “undulating meadow” they blasted away at Manhattan bedrock; some 20,800 barrels of dynamite would be consumed in the task. To make the soil fit for green life they brought in half a million cubic yards of topsoil. To make the future park verdant they planted, by the end of 1862, some 166,000 trees and shrubs. The once recalcitrant work force labored with surprising zeal; progress was swift.
On June 11, 1859, that faithful diarist of New York life, George Templeton Strong, noted that the new park, though promising, was still “in most ragged condition: long lines of incomplete macadamization, ‘lakes’ without water, mounds of compost, piles of blasted stone...groves of slender young transplanted maples and locusts, undecided between life and death.” Paying a second visit on September 2, Strong was delighted with the summer’s progress. “The ragged desert of out-blasted rock, cat briars, and stone heaps begins to blossom like the rose. Many beautiful oases of path and garden culture have sprung up, with neat paths, fine greensward, and hopeful young trees.” By the following spring Olmsted’s design was beginning to take shape. “The Park below the reservoir begins to look intelligible,” Strong noted in his diary on May 28,1860. “Many points are already beautiful....” It even made him sad to think that the hopeful new park would not achieve its full beauty until “the trees are grown and I’m dead and forgotten.”
Eager to gain popular approval, the park board opened up to the public every part of the park as soon as it was completed. In June, 1859, the Ramble, a wonderful man-made woodland, received the first strollers on its intricate paths. In November of that year the first three and one-half miles of gravel drives welcomed the carriages of New York’s “upper tendom.” In the spring of 1861 the great promenade or Mall was completed. In April boat service on the lake was installed.
Despite the board’s politesse, the park’s enemies continued to snarl and plot mischief. The city leaders, recalled Olmsted, used “every device of what in city politics passes for statesmanship” to persuade the voters that the board was up to some “knavish scheme” of graft and corruption. Hostile newspapers reported as fact the accusations of disgruntled ex-employees and disappointed placemen. The “practical hounds,” as Olmsted called them, bayed at the board for appointing two “ignorant, incompetent pretenders.” It took a state senate investigation to clear the park’s directors and designers of all the false charges laid against them. Critics of a more artistic sort dogged Olmsted as well. Missing the whole point of Olmsted’s conception, they indignantly complained that Vaux’s little bridges lacked dignity and grandeur. Olmsted was hard put to explain that one day when the shrubbery grew thick he hoped they would be nearly invisible. Even during the park’s happy first years, the high-strung Olmsted felt frustrated most of the time.
They were halcyon days nonetheless. In a city so starved of outdoor amenities, the park offered heady nourishment even in its raw and unfinished state. In 1862 the gatekeepers clocked in some 2,000,000 visitors entering on foot and more than 700,000 entering by carriage. The broad, tree-lined pedestrian Mall was an instant success. Free of traffic and noise, it soon was regarded as one of the few public places in New York where unmarried couples could stroll unchaperoned, a sort of semiofficial lovers’ lane. With the lake as its terminus and free concerts on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the Mall quickly became the center of the park’s busy life. It even brought Herman Melville out of seclusion; he was often seen walking there with his little granddaughter.