Central Park was the first artificially landscaped public park in the United States. Its success helped establish landscape architecture as a legitimate vocation and cemented the career of its designers, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) and Calvert Vaux (1824-1895). First opened in 1858, the park has provided an outdoor refuge, recreational facilities, and cultural events for New York City’s residents ever since.
Central Park Conservancy
The Arsenal, Central Park
New York, NY 10021
ph.: (212) 315-0385
Web site: www.centralparknyc.org
With over eight hundred acres of lush green lawns, sparkling ponds, and shaded walkways, Central Park has provided New York City dwellers with playing fields, bridle paths, bicycling and jogging trails, and winter skating and sledding since just before the American Civil War. Viewed by some as a pastoral retreat and by others as a haven for crime, the park has often been the center of controversy. Nevertheless, it remains one of New York City’s major attractions, visited by over twenty million people annually.
Early nineteenth century New York City was a maze of streets and alleys and a jumble of commercial and residential buildings that many considered an unattractive place to visit or live. In the 1840’s, to help counter that reputation, city residents began to debate the merits of constructing a large public park. In 1811, the city had designated 450 acres for park squares, but by 1838, that acreage had been reduced to 120. Many of New York’s wealthy families traveled extensively in Europe, where cities like London and Paris boasted beautifully landscaped parks. These New Yorkers, eager to overcome America’s reputation for boorishness and rough living, adopted many European customs. In the hope of establishing their city as an international cultural center, many of them also began to advocate the development of a park like those they enjoyed in their travels.
In an 1844 editorial in the New York Evening Post, William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) suggested such a park. Mayor Ambrose Kingsland formally proposed the idea in 1851, when he asked the city council to appropriate public funds to purchase Jones Woods, 150 undeveloped acres bordering the East River between 68th and 77th Streets. Andrew Jackson Downing, a prominent landscape architect and the editor of the respected gardening journal, Horticulturalist, protested that this site was too small and suggested instead a park of at least 500 acres. In 1853, after months of debate, the state legislature authorized the city of New York to acquire more than 700 acres in the center of Manhattan, to be paid for with a combination of general taxes and an assessment on nearby property owners.
The land chosen for the new park lay between Fifth and Eighth Avenues and stretched from 59th to 106th Street. In 1859 this original site was enlarged to include the land between 106th and 110th Streets, bringing the park’s total acreage to the present 843. The site was predominantly uneven, rocky, and swampy. Except for Seneca Village, a mostly African American settlement on the west side of the proposed park, it was primarily home to the city’s castoffs–squatters and immigrants who farmed, raised pigs, and boiled bones. In 1855, the city began the task of evicting and compensating these people in preparation for work on the site. In 1857, the state legislature appointed the first Central Park Commission and charged it with the development of the park. Shortly thereafter, commission members hired Frederick Law Olmsted, a journalist, as the park’s first superintendent. His primary duty was to oversee the clearing of the future park’s grounds, which began on August 12, 1857.
In October, 1857, the newly created commission offered a two-thousand-dollar prize in a competition for the park’s design. Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, an English-born architect, decided to collaborate on an entry they called the Greensward Plan.Their plan called primarily for a pastoral landscape in the English romantic tradition, that embraced nature’s wilderness–albeit often artificially constructed out of the park’s rocky, swampy land. It also included, however, several more formal gardens such as the Mall and Bethesda Terrace. Designed to be a place where city dwellers could forget their urban surroundings, the plan included borders of trees to hide the city from view. Four sunken transverse roads that allowed cross-town traffic to travel through the park undetected further excluded urban intrusions. Pedestrian, vehicular, and equestrian traffic streams within the park were innovatively separated by a clever series of bridges and tunnels that allowed park goers to move without interruption throughout the grounds. In April, 1858, the commission chose Olmsted and Vaux’s Greensward Plan from thirty-three entries as the official design. With few exceptions, it has served as the blueprint for the development of Central Park ever since.
With a design in place, work on the park began in earnest. The commission named Olmsted as chief architect and appointed Vaux as his assistant. Following on the heels of the nationwide financial Panic of 1857, construction proved a boon to the local economy by providing jobs to nearly twenty thousand workers. The site underwent a massive transformation. Workers blasted and removed rocks, drained swamps, and spread tons of fertilized topsoil. By 1873, when the park was finished, nearly five million cubic yards of organic material had been moved into or out of the park. Planting also took place on a monumental scale, with workers setting in place countless hardy perennials and between four and five million trees and shrubs, representing over six hundred varieties.
The park opened in phases; the first users were ice skaters on the partially filled Central Park Lake in December, 1858. Walking paths on the Ramble, a beautifully and intricately landscaped hillside just north of the lake, opened in June, 1859, and the first of several sections of park roads opened in November of that year. During construction, and for the first several years of operation, users could only enter the park during official hours through one of eighteen gates, each guarded by a gatekeeper. Olmsted, who had strong views about how the park should be used, compiled several rules and regulations that were posted prominently throughout the park. They included restrictions against walking on any grassy area not labeled as a commons and allowing dogs to run loose. In order to enforce these regulations, he organized and trained a special force of park guards. These heavy restrictions, while widely enforced in the park’s early years, were slowly removed or revised in the last third of the century. When the park first opened, for example, boat rentals, music, and beer sales were all banned on Sundays. By 1877, however, the last of these Sabbath restrictions was lifted when concerts were at last permitted on Sunday, the only free day for many of the city’s working-class citizens. By the end of the century, Olmsted’s special park guard had merged with the metropolitan police force, turning the park into just one more city jurisdiction.
Many of these changes were the work of the Tammany machine that controlled New York City politics in the 1870’s. The Tweed Charter, passed in 1870, transferred the supervision of the park from the Board of Commissioners to a new board under the authority of the city’s Department of Public Parks. While the new system’s more flexible attitudes encouraged more people than ever to use the park, they also neglected much needed park maintenance. Olmsted, forced out of his position in 1878 after several disagreements with the new commission, expressed his disgust over park deterioration and the politicization of its control in an 1882 pamphlet entitled The Spoils of the Park. Vaux’s resignation from park management in the next year signalled the end of an era for Central Park.
From the first days of construction, debate over what kind and how many buildings to allow in the park has been frequent and heated. Olmsted and Vaux, who believed that the park should contain few buildings, included only a few structures, all designed by Vaux: the Ball Players’ House (1869), the Dairy (1870), the Workshops (1871), a stable (1871), and Belvedere Castle (1871). With the exception of Belvedere Castle, which was built to grace the more formal grounds of the Mall, each of these buildings provided a specific service to park goers or workers. In subsequent years various other buildings have been proposed and their merits debated. Significant additions to the park include the zoo, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Tavern on the Green. Playgrounds, tennis courts, ice skating rinks, and the Delacorte Theater have also been completed. The only building left standing today that predates the park is the 1848 Arsenal at 64th Street and Fifth Avenue, saved by the Greensward Plan for museum space.
Since the end of the Olmsted/Vaux era, the park has endured a series of declines and renewals. Vaux’s one-time partner and successor, Samuel B. Parsons, Jr., shared much of the designers’ vision. After his 1911 departure, the park began a serious decline. Park grounds suffered as maintenance became careless; several varieties of trees and shrubs disappeared throughout the next several decades. During the Great Depression, the city allowed the unemployed to build squatter colonies within park boundaries. When Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947) became mayor in 1934, he appointed Robert Moses (1889-1981) as park commissioner, a post he held until 1960. Moses provided much needed stability and continuity to park management, and during his tenure, the park was largely restored. During the second half of the twentieth century, despite a brief period of decline in the 1970’s, a well-maintained, beautifully restored Central Park, provided a natural refuge to an ever more crowded Manhattan.
Despite the political infighting, the disputes about correct park usage, and the roller coaster of decline and renewal, the public has always enjoyed Central Park. Some of the most visited sites include the Sheep Meadow, a vast green lawn popular for picnics and sunbathing that derives its name from the sheep that grazed there until 1934. The nearby Sheepfold, a building designed by Jacob Wrey Mould and built in 1870, housed the sheep at night. After their departure, the building was remodeled and became the famous Tavern on the Green. Strawberry Fields, a tribute to John Lennon, who lived in the renowned Dakota apartment building across from the park’s west side, also draws large crowds. The Carousel, a popular attraction since 1870, still rings with the shouts of happy children. The formal gardens, including the Mall and the neighboring Bethesda Terrace, remain favorites with the park’s many visitors. Free stage productions and concerts are offered frequently in the summer at the Delacorte Theater and the Great Lawn.
While it is best to avoid the park at night, except for planned events, the gates are no longer in place and the park is open at all times. Good maps and guidebooks are widely available and should be consulted by first-time visitors.
Beveridge, Charles E., and David Schuyler, eds. “Creating Central Park, 1857-1861.” In The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Vol. 3. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. A well edited compilation of Olmsted’s voluminous reports and correspondence. Includes an informative introduction and biographical directory of key participants, as well as much of the Greensward Plan, the original design for the park. Kinkead, Eugene. Central Park, 1857-1995: The Birth, Decline, and Renewal of a National Treasure. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. Kinkead, a writer and editor at The New Yorker for nearly 60 years, provides an insightful overview of the evolution of the park. Putnam, Karen, and Marianne Cramer. New York’s Fifty Best: Places to Discover and Enjoy in Central Park. New York: City & Co., 1999. Putnam, president of the Central Park Conservancy, and Cramer, a former Central Park planner and landscape architect, provide a guide to both popular and lesser-known sites in the park. Reed, Henry Hope, and Sophia Duckworth. Central Park: A History and A Guide. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1967. Reed, a former curator of the park, offers an occasionally biased insider’s overview of the park’s history from its conception through the mid-1960’s. Rosenzweig, Roy, and Elizabeth Blackmar. The Park and the People: A History of Central Park. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. An award-winning, comprehensive social history of the park and its development. Considered by many scholars to be the seminal work on the park’s history. “Welcome to Central Park.” www.centralpark nyc.org. A wealth of information including a history, photos, schedule of events, and contact information.