Happy Anniversary, Central Park!

Posted 8/4/2011

Imagine New York City’s Central Park carved into an eclectic mix of ponds and glades or consumed by a labyrinth of French topiary, and you will see the Park as several landscape designers envisioned it in 1857. The Central Park design competition was the suggestion of English designer, Calvert Vaux, who disliked the original, un-artistic plan by engineer, Egbert Ludovicus Viele. The competition was also an ingenious way of ensuring that the 843-acre chunk of Manhatttan real estate—nearly twice the size of the Principality of Monaco—would meet as many New Yorkers’ expectations as possible. The Central Park Commission received 33 design submissions, ranging in quality from stolidly practical to fantastical. The 11-man, state-appointed commission selected park superintendant, Frederick Law Olmsted’s, and English designer, Calvert Vaux’s, “Greensward” plan on April 28, 1858.

This coming Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the Greensward plan’s adoption, which the Central Park Conservancy in New York City will commemorate with a series of public events, including the re-christening of the 72nd Street Cross Drive as “Olmsted & Vaux Way.” The tribute is well-deserved. “Olmsted and Vaux’s design,” says park historian Sara Cedar Miller, “was the most important work of American art in the 19th century.” Its success inspired municipalities across America, such as Boston and Chicago, to create their own pastoral retreats from the claustrophobic city.

Central Park’s open and peaceful expanses, wooded walks, and elegant bridges belie the contentious and costly 14-year construction process. Objections to the Greensward Plan arose immediately. Commissioners Robert Dillion and August Belmont published seventeen amendments in the New York newspapers, hoping to garner popular support. Olmsted, a sometime writer for the New York Daily Times, had his own press contacts and fought back in kind. Eventually, however, Olmsted and Vaux bowed to pressure and made changes to their first design. Some amendments improved the original design: Olmsted and Vaux extended the meandering carriage and bridle paths around the park and increased their number. To prevent traffic build-ups, Olmsted and Vaux sank intersecting paths to below ground level, an idea that became the model for the modern highway system. Other proposals, ultimately rejected, would have destroyed the park’s bucolic composition: Dillon and Belmont’s idea for a suspension bridge running from the pond at the south of the park to the Bethesda Terrace at the north.

Olmsted and Vaux fought constantly with the commission to maintain the integrity of their original design. Commissioner Andrew Haswell Green proved a strong ally, but even his appreciation for the Greensward plan was constrained by budgetary concerns. Following a clash with Green in 1859 over artistic license, Olmsted suffered a nervous breakdown and left the city to recover. Another dispute over the construction of a formal gate at one of the park’s entrances prompted Vaux to quit the project in 1863 both on his own and Olmsted’s behalf. They returned in 1865 only after obtaining a guarantee that they would have free reign over the project.

The corrupt local government was another obstacle. Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall gang seized control of the Central Park Commission in 1870, and reorganized it to exclude both designers. Olmsted and Vaux eventually found their way back to the project, but not before Tammany Hall had ripped out many of the trees on the park’s outer borders and installed the carousel. (The trees were replaced; the carousel remains, although the original was lost in a fire.)

One event that did not affect the park was the Civil War. Construction ceased for only one day after the firing on Fort Sumter. Not only did Central Park’s construction provide over 3,500 jobs to immigrants, but it was a source of city pride that New York could afford to continue building during the war. “New Yorkers knew it was an important project. It represented what a free society with free laborers could do,” says Miller.

Central Park was finally completed in 1873. Within five years, the sensitive Olmsted found himself permanently dismissed. Vaux remained in New York until his death in 1894. Since then, Central Park has undergone several periods of neglect and renewal, but Miller is quick to praise its current proprietors, who are painstaking in their maintenance of this great American tradition. “Because of the Central Park Conservancy,” says Miller, “Central Park has never been better managed or more beautiful than it is today.” The Conservancy’s commemorative events include a panel discussion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, an exhibition in the Arsenal, and free walking tours.

For more information, visit the official website of Central Park at www.centralparknyc.org.

—Jennifer J. Rodibaugh is the Assistant Editor of American Heritage magazine.