Central Park Turns 150

One hundred and fifty years ago, in July 1853, the New York State legislature debated a bill authorizing the financing and construction of a large park for the city of New York. Actually there were two competing bills: one proposed a 150-acre site on the East River known as Jones Wood, the other championed a larger “central” location, extending from 59th to 106th Street between Fifth and Eighth Avenues. It took a court case to resolve the dispute.

The history of Central Park is fraught with such cliff-hangers, none more dramatic than the international competition that produced the design. In the charged atmosphere of political conflict between Democrats and Republicans, and the frictions between Tammany Hall and state legislators, it is a miracle that a competition was held at all. Of the 33 entries—supposedly anonymous but probably known to the judging panel, who were all political appointees—the winner against all expectations was actually the best design. Finally, and most surprisingly, this outstanding plan was the work of two neophytes.

Central Park is so familiar today that it’s easy to undervalue Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s design achievement. To begin with, the site they were given was far from ideal. Central Park is large—almost 800 acres—and extends nearly two and a half miles, but it is only half a mile wide: a veritable bowling alley. The essence of a park, according to Olmsted and Vaux, was to be a place of retreat, but here one was never more than a thousand feet or so from one of the two noisy avenues.

The park’s odd shape was only the first of several constraints. One of the compelling arguments for the central site had been that it would make a convenient location for a planned municipal reservoir. There was a city reservoir on the site already, a massive stone structure that also had to be integrated into the park design (it was only replaced—by the Great Lawn—in the 1930s). As if these intrusions were not enough, the park commission required that four city streets traverse the park, and that these streets be kept open at night when the park would be closed.

Olmsted and Vaux famously dealt with the cross-streets by sinking them below grade and building bridges for the park walks and drives. It is unclear where this idea came from—the pair always maintained that it was their joint invention. There was not much that they could do about the projected Croton Reservoir, which sat plumb center. So they divided the park in two, reserving the southern portion, closest to the built-up city, for the recreational activities and leaving the northern portion wilder and more natural.

The genius of the design is the way Olmsted and Vaux dealt with the park’s narrowness. They angled the axis of the mall and located various natural features to draw one’s eye, now this way, now that. Topography and planting were likewise arranged to divert attention from the two avenues. People complain that it’s easy to get lost in the park, but that was precisely its designers’ intention.

The site had a further complication: the terrain was a combination of swampy lowland and rocky outcroppings. Indeed one of the reasons the land was acquired by the city was that it was unsuited to farming or building, hence relatively inexpensive. The swamps could be drained into man-made lakes, but the rock formations presented a different challenge. Olmsted and Vaux’s ideal was the picturesque British park, a combination of rolling meadows, clumps of trees, and sheets of water—a pastoral landscape. They might simply have blasted all of the craggy ledges and boulders or covered them over. Instead they incorporated many of them into their design.

The result is a park whose inspiration is unquestionably British with a distinctly American character—not only Kentish meadows but also Adirondack forests. The wildness of Central Park is particularly striking at its edges, which Olmsted and Vaux made no attempt to soften or camouflage from the passerby on the street. Unlike a London park, which is really an urban garden, Central Park recalls a primeval forest—dark, brooding, untamed. This aspect of the park had no historic precedent, and is one of Olmsted and Vaux’s original contributions to the field of landscape architecture.

Today’s Central Park is hardly the same place it was in the 1850s. For one thing—though the city has grown around it, as Olmsted envisaged—it has also grown vertically. A wall of tall buildings defines its edge like an architectural frame, so that wherever you are in the park, you’re aware of the surrounding city. Although this changes Olmsted and Vaux’s intention, oddly enough it actually intensifies the experience of retreat. On the other hand, the weekday traffic racing through what had originally been drives for leisurely carriage rides severely compromises the park. Noisy, threatening automobiles have no place in the Olmstedian vision of a public park—except, of course, in the sunken traversing roads, which continue to function as intended.

We still boat on the lakes, and skate on their frozen surfaces in the winter. Jogging and in-line skating might astonish Olmsted, but they would not—I think—disturb him. After all, he introduced public concerts to the park against the commissioners’ objections. Nor would Olmsted be taken aback by the crowds. “It is the one great purpose of the Park,” he once wrote, “to supply to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God’s handiwork that shall be to them, inexpensively, what a month or two in the White Mountains…is, at great cost, to those in easier circumstances.”

Olmsted and Vaux’s vision continues to amaze us. And Central Park continues to perform the functions that were imagined almost 150 years ago. Of course, New York in 1850 was a different place: younger, largely unformed—a teenager of a city with the naive and boundless enthusiasm of adolescence. When Olmsted and Vaux entered the competition, they had the advantage of being not only neophytes but also pioneers; there was nothing in America remotely like the park they were about to design. They plunged in and in less than eight months produced a plan whose overall organization remains in place to this day.

The achievement of Central Park has always been impressive, but never more than in this post-9/11 period, as we struggle to articulate our own visions for Lower Manhattan. The rebuilders of the World Trade Center site have a more daunting task, for they are not pioneers. They stand in the shadow of such great urban complexes as Rockefeller Center, such moving memorials to the dead as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and such soaring skyscrapers as the Empire State Building. And they are expected to surpass, or at least equal, these achievements.

Central Park was effectively built outside the city—it took several decades for New York to reach that far north. This isolation greatly simplified the project; and as the streets filled up around the park, buildings accommodated themselves to its green vastness. The World Trade Center site, on the other hand, is surrounded by existing urban fabric. Making this fabric whole is at least as important as erecting a memorial.

There are no simple lessons to be drawn from Central Park. It wasn’t built in a day: it was four years after the state legislature passed the bill before the competition was held and another six years before the park was more or less complete. Nor was it a smooth process; politics played as big a role in New York in the nineteenth century as they do today. There were setbacks and delays. Several times, well-intentioned meddlers suggested “improvements” that almost scuttled the project. Thankfully there were also exceptional individuals to drive the work, public officials as well as the designers. Most of them, like Olmsted, emerged from relative obscurity—reminding us of an important lesson: we do not need stars to achieve great things. We do need resolve, patience, perseverance—and luck. Then, perhaps, 150 years from now, New Yorkers will look back and marvel at what we have done.

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