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  • Detail - 1858

    April 28, 1858 - Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, landscape architects, win the competition and adoption of their plan for Central Park in New York City.

    New York Central Park


    Today, its resplendent acres grace the towering buildings of Manhattan like a green oasis to the urbanity of the rest of New York City. Eight hundred and forty-three acres today, seven hundred and seventy-eight acres at its inception in 1857, it provides the respite to the hustle and bustle of the city, and has been doing that task in the design by history recalled Frederick Law Olsted, and sometimes forgotten, Calvert Vaux, since 1858.

    The expansion of the city in the first half of the 19th century precipitated the call for public parks. New York City became four times its 1821 size by 1855. City leaders such as William Cullen Bryant, the Evening Post editor, had been suggesting the need for a park such as London's Hyde since 1844. By 1853, the New York legislature agreed, purchasing the tract for five million dollars. There would be a landscape design contest, which Olmsted and Vaux won under the name Greensward. The plan would have thirty-six bridges designed by Vaux with all unique, and terraces, such as Bethesda. Commercial traffic would be conducted in sunken roadways; other traffic such as pedestrian, horse, and pleasure traffic would have their own separate circulations.

    Construction could not begin until the current residents of the area were evicted. Yes, eminent domain. Many were poor, free blacks and Irish, some one thousand six hundred strong. Central Park would take until 1873 to be substantially completed. At the peak of its construction, three thousand six hundred workers took part. Topsoil came from New Jersey. Yes, New Jersey. Four million trees were planted. Even during its construction years, the park was a tremendous success. By 1860, two and one half million visitors came; today that amount exceeds thirty-five million visitors per year.

    Design Competition

    The design competition began on October 13, 1857, with the Board of Commission of Central Park offering four hundred to two thousand dollars for the four best designs. Thirty-three were submitted in the first substantial landscape design contest in history, including one for a pyramid. The design had a construction cost limit of $1.5 million (that was exceeded during actual construction to over $10 million), at least four cross streets in the design, a parade ground, three playgrouds, winter skating rink, exhibition hall, lookout tower, flower garden, and fountain.

    All but two of the proposals came from Americans, half from New York City, with plan 33, the Greensward Plan by Olmsted and Vaux winning first prize six months after the competition began. The commission chose a plan in English nature design tradition from designers they knew. Olmsted handled the majority of landscape design features with Vaux focusing on the structures, leading to the impression, even in 1858 and despite Vaux being the senior partner, that Olmsted was the dominant man in the arrangement, which still exists today. Historians note that had there not been Vaux in the partnership, some of the most interesting and enduring features of the park would not exist.


    Frederick Law Olmsted


    Considered the father of American landscape architecture, Olmsted was born in Hartford, Connecticutt and worked his young life in a variety of pursuits; seaman, merchant, and journalist. Perhaps his most significant field in those years was jounalism, which allowed him to travel and discover some of the great natural places and garden parks. Joseph Paxton, designer of London's Crystal Palace, site of the first World's Fair in London's Hyde Park 1851, had been the landscape architect of Birkenhead Park, Merseyside, England, built in 1847 as the first publicly funded city park in the world, which Olmsted appreciated.

    Andrew Jackson Downing, a mentor of Olmsted and a foremost landscape architect of the day, was a partner of Calvert Vaux, as well as an early advocate of the Central Park idea. After Downing's passing, Olmsted and Vaux developed a partnership and entered the competition to design Central Park. Olmsted would become the park's first superintendant, and go forward to design some of the most spectacular parks in the world, including ...

    New York's Prospect Park, Brooklyn 1866 (with Vaux).
    Chicago's Riverside Parks, 1869 (with Vaux).
    Buffalo Park System, 1868 (with Vaux).
    Niagara Reservation, 1887 (with Vaux).
    Milwaukee Necklace of Parks, Various.
    Cherokee Park, Louisville, 1891
    Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, 1893.

    Calvert Vaux


    Born in London, Carlvert Vaux was actually the senior partner in the Olsted Vaux partnership. Andrew Jackson Downing appreciated Vaux and his work in London and made him an offer to come to the United States and partner with him. This lasted for two years, including designs for work at the White House and Smithsonian, until Downing's demise in 1852.

    In actuality, it was Vaux who recruited Olmsted to submit the Central Park competition design. By 1865, their relationship became real partners with Olmsted, Vaux, and Company going on to design Prospect Park and Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, Manhattan Park, and the Buffalo Park System. The partnership was dissolved in 1872.

    Vaux also designed many famous buildings in New York City (Jefferson Market Courthouse, Samuel J. Tilden House, American Museum of Natural History, Metropolitan Museum of Art) and more Natural Landmark buildings in other cities.

    Photo above: Birds-eye view lithograph of New York's Central Park by George Schiegel, 1873, published by George Degen. Courtesy Library of Congress. Photo below: Lithograph of New York's Central Park Drive by Currier and Ives, 1869, courtesy Library of Congress. Info source: Centralparkhistory.com; History of Century Park, NY.com; Wikipedia Commons.

    New York Central Park



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