CENTRAL PARK: Olmsted & Vaux’s First Park
A Photo Essay by Joseph Flack Weiler
I have been asked by several Bostonians why they should be interested in New York City’s Central Park. The short answer is that Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park! Looking at how Olmsted solved problems in that park’s design provides us with a better understanding of Olmsted’s design for Boston’s Emerald Necklace.
Starting in 1858, Frederick Law Olmsted & Calvert Vaux created the 843-acre Central Park, with the help of 3,800 laborers, gardeners, engineers and architects.
Olmsted’s driving philosophy was based on his moral conviction that workers needed and deserved a contemplative space to escape city noise, a space in which they could experience the sublime beauty of nature.
Olmsted & Vaux’s Greensward Plan contained many ingenious design elements. Trees formed an outer barrier to block the city’s future sights and sounds. Transverse roads, sunken below the ground surface, allowed cross-town traffic without disrupting the oasis. A circulation system separated pedestrian and carriage traffic. Thorough drainage of the soil was provided by a system of underground clay pipes.
They blasted granite, graded and drained land that, in Olmsted’s words were, “grounds steeped in overflow and mush of pig sties, slaughter houses and boiling works….” In time, a man-made landscape emerged that through a mix of pastoral, picturesque and formal landscape design became Central Park.
Today, under the careful eye of the Central Park Conservancy, Olmsted & Vaux’s Greensward has been more than maintained; it has evolved and flourished into a living National Historic Site.
The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir
“It is of great importance as the first real park made in this country -
a democratic development of the highest significance
& on the success of which, in my opinion, much of the progress
of art & esthetic culture in this country is dependent.”
Frederick Law Olmsted, 1858
This photograph shows the wild and picturesque landscape surrounding Central Park’s Reservoir. The Reservoir’s edge provides a 1.6 mile running track and the verdant ring of mature trees provides oxygen for the runners!
As a democratic, living work of art, Central Park has evolved with the times, yet still retains Olmsted & Vaux’s basic design principals. The Park accommodates New Yorkers’ desire for active sports, yet also provides an opportunity to experience nature’s sublime beauty.
In 1980 the Central Park Conservancy, a partnership of New York City’s government and private park lovers, was formed. The Conservancy now manages and maintains Central Park with great care and efficiency. (In the 1960s, when I lived in New York City, the Park had devolved into a city-park-slum.)
Bridge No. 28 designed by Calvert Vaux
“…all parts of the lower Park may be traversed on foot
without encountering a single carriage or horseman.”
Frederick Law Olmsted, 1859
Olmsted & Vaux designed a circulation system of separate pathways for pedestrians, equestrian riders and carriages. Perfectly uninterrupted traffic flow was provided by a series of bridges. This photograph shows a footpath crossing over Bridge No. 28 with a riding path underneath. Walkers did not have to dodge galloping horses or fast moving carriages!
Calvert Vaux, Olmsted’s partner, designed this ornate Gothic Revival style, cast-iron bridge. The talented Vaux designed over twenty-four ornamental bridges, Bethesda Terrace, the Casino and many rustic-style structures for Central Park.
Vaux and Olmsted presented a unique plan of transverse roads in their 1858 Greensward Plan. The transverse roads, built below the park surface, connected the East and West sides of New York without disturbing the peace and calm of park visitors.
The four transverse roads were open to, “…coal carts and butcher’s carts, dust carts and dung carts….” Today the transverse roads allow taxis to rush back and forth across Manhattan without bothering the joggers and nature lovers.
“Nature first and 2nd and 3rd—Architecture after a while.
When the centre is reached, architecture is not inappropriate…”
Calvert Vaux, 1865
The Mall, 35 feet wide and one-quarter mile long, leads to Central Park’s architectural center, Bethesda Terrace. Vaux felt that if there was not a central focal point for the Park, “people would go in and out the other side….” without finding a resting place.
The Mall, referred to as the Promenade in Olmsted & Vaux’s Greensward Plan, is set at an angle, providing a more interesting asymmetrical feature to this classic boulevard. The axis runs from the Shakespeare statue at the beginning of the Mall, through the Terrace to Vista Rock. Arching American elms create a full canopy of shade over the Mall.
The 1877 Complete Guide to Central Park describes children’s Goat Carriage rides up and down the Mall that cost ten cents. Today, park maintenance personnel ride electric carts up and down the Mall!
The Bethesda Arcade
“Of all I have ever done it is perhaps the only thing
that gives me much encouragement
that I have in me the germ of an architect…”
Calvert Vaux, 1865
The photograph shows a visitor standing in awe of Calvert Vaux’s architecture! Vaux viewed the park design as a work of art. His Bethesda Terrace creates a formal architectural focal point and central meeting place at the end of the Mall’s allée of American elms. It provides a fine prospect of the fountain, lake and Ramble. Wide, sweeping staircases lead down to the fountain. The Arcade, under the Terrace, creates a formal visual frame that intensifies the view of the wild, naturalistic Ramble woods.
Calvert Vaux showed his skill in recognizing talented artists first by inviting Olmsted to work with him in the 1858 Central Park design competition. Secondly, he encouraged the talented Jacob Wry Mould in designing the Terrace ornamentation. Mould created a unique arabesque design of encaustic Minton tiles for the Arcade ceiling. It is awesome! Today’s street musicians love the Arcade’s ambience and acoustics.
Jacob Wry Mould’s Terrace ornamentation
“On no public building in America has there been
placed any sculpture so rich in design as this,
or so exquisitely delicate in execution.”
Clarence C. Cook, 1869
Jacob Wry Mould also designed the exterior ornamentation for Bethesda Terrace. His swallows swoop amongst arabesque tangles of ivy and blossoms carved into the gray sandstone stairway sides.
The sculptors, following Mould’s drawings, created relief carvings resulting in a superb dimensionality. Mould’s ornamental designs show his years of study of the Alhambra and are a tribute to his teacher Owen Jones. Jones advised his students to “return to Nature for fresh inspiration.”
Mould’s nature designs prepare the park stroller for the incredible range of resident wildlife. Birders have identified over 280 species in the park that is crossed by major flyways of migrating birds. I was delighted to watch a mother raccoon followed by three baby kits emerge from a tree hole in the Ramble!
Bethesda Terrace’s elaborate nineteenth-century architecture contrasts with and intensifies a viewer’s experience of the flora and fauna in the wild.
View of Bethesda Terrace from the Ramble
“What artist so noble as he who, with far reaching conception
of beauty and designing power, sketches the outlines, arranges
the colors, and directs the shadows of a picture upon which
nature shall be employed for generations
before the work he has prepared for her hand
shall realize his intentions.”
Frederick Law Olmsted, 1858
Many people have contributed to the creation of Central Park, starting in 1844 with editorials by William Cullen Bryant, and followed by Andrew Jackson Downing’s writings. In 1849 New York City Mayor C. S. Woodhall said public parks are “essential aids to the public health… the great breathing places of the toiling masses.” Today, smoking is banned in Central Park, making the park truly the city’s lungs.
Olmsted fervently believed in the power of public parks to improve the lives of the working class. This belief drove him in his work. The two highly creative and talented men went on to create one of America’s most important and magnificent urban public parks.
Both artists brought a unique skill set to their work. Olmsted was able to pre-visualize what tree species to plant and where to achieve the “unconscious influence” which could restore the viewers’ peace of mind. Vaux brought the very useful skills of a trained architect who could also paint watercolors of their future park.
Together and separately they went on to create public parks around America, leaving their ideas for future generations of trees and people.