The Creation of Central Park, NY: Vaux & Olmsted’s Greensward Plan

In 1858, landscape architects Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted won a competition to turn a gloomy, 843-acre site into the paradise we now call Central Park.

May 1, 2022By Alexandra Kiely, BA Art History (with honors)
central park aerial view greensward plan

 

Filled with grass, trees, and walking paths, Central Park is an oasis of nature in the middle of New York City, but it was once a barren, swampy, uninspiring piece of land. It took many years, lots of intrigue, and the genius of two landscape architects to create the park that New Yorkers know and love today. Read on to learn more about the creation of Central Park.

 

The Creation of Central Park

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Aerial view of Central Park looking north, via Central Park Conservancy

 

The earliest idea of a public park in New York City dates to the early 19th century when officials began trying to regulate the city’s future growth. Their original plan, which created Manhattan’s well-known grid system of streets, included several small parks to provide fresh air to city dwellers. However, these early parks were either never realized or soon built over as the city expanded. Before long, the only nice parkland in Manhattan were on private sites like Gramercy Park, which were only accessible to the wealthy residents in the surrounding buildings.

 

As New York City started to fill up with more and more inhabitants of diverse backgrounds and social classes, the need for public green space became increasingly clear. This was particularly true as the Industrial Revolution made the city a harsher and dirtier place to live. It was already recognized that nature has positive effects on humans’ physical, mental, and moral health.

 

Literature of the time concerning public parks often referred to them as a city’s lungs or ventilators. The two biggest advocates were William Cullen Bryant and Andrew Jackson Downing. Bryant, an outspoken poet and newspaper editor, was part of America’s nature conservation movement that ultimately led to the National Park Service. Downing was the first American to design landscapes professionally. He once complained that New York’s parks were really more like squares or paddocks. Downing would almost certainly have been Central Park’s architect if not for his untimely death in 1852. New Yorkers began to realize that the growing city would soon gobble up all the available real estate. Land for a public park would have to be set aside now, or not at all.

 

The Competition

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The Mall, a tree-lined avenue in Central Park, New York, via Central Park Conservancy

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After initially considering a more attractive site near the East River, the city selected and bought the present site. (The park’s northernmost reaches would be added a short time later.) Although several times larger than the other proposed location, it was swampy, bald, and nothing like the vibrant landscape we know today. It had to be drained before any work could begin. The area was sparsely populated. Its 1,600 residents, including 225 African Americans living in the Seneca Village settlement, were displaced through eminent domain when the city purchased the land. The site was also home to the reservoir that provided fresh water to the city, as well as a newer reservoir currently under construction to replace it. All in all, this wasn’t an advantageous site on which to create a major urban park.

 

The Central Park Act of July 21, 1853, made the park project official. Five commissioners were appointed to the project, and Egbert Viele was chosen as chief engineer. Affiliated with the project only from 1856-8, he came up with the first proposed plan, which was underwhelming and soon rejected. In its place, the Commissioners of Central Park held a competition from 1857-8 to solicit other design proposals.

 

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Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, via Central Park Conservancy

 

Out of 33 entries, Calvert Vaux (1824-1895) and Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) submitted the winning design, called the Greensward Plan. Vaux was a British-born architect and landscape designer who had worked under Downing. Vaux had strong ideas about how Central Park should unfold; he had been instrumental in getting Viele’s proposal dismissed, as he felt it to be an affront to Downing’s memory.

 

Olmsted was a Connecticut-born farmer, journalist, and current Superintendent of Central Park. He would go on to become America’s most significant landscape designer, and this was his first foray into that line of work. Vaux asked Olmsted to collaborate on a plan because of his keen knowledge of the Central Park site. Olmsted’s position as Superintendent might seem like an unfair advantage, but many of the competition’s other entrants were also employed by the park effort in one way or another. Some even continued on to help realize Vaux and Olmsted’s design.

 

The Greensward Plan

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A version of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s plan for Central Park, included in the Thirteenth Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of Central Park in 1862, appearing here in an 1868 lithographic print by Napoleon Sarony, via Geographicus Rare Antique Maps.

 

The word “greensward” refers to an open green space, like a big lawn or meadow, and that’s exactly what Vaux and Olmsted’s Greensward Plan proposed. Achieving such an effect on the chosen site, however, was going to be quite the challenge. First of all, the presence of two reservoirs within the boundaries of the park was highly disruptive.  Everything to do with the reservoirs was out of the designers’ control; all they could do was work them into their plans as best as possible.

 

Vaux and Olmsted used plantings to hide the existing reservoir so that it would not distract from their vistas, and they put a walking path around the new reservoir. The older of the two reservoirs was decommissioned in 1890. In a move that Vaux and Olmsted certainly would have appreciated, it was filled and turned into the Great Lawn in the 1930s. The newer reservoir, now named after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, was decommissioned in 1993 but still exists.

 

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Central Park’s Great Lawn, via Central Park Conservancy

 

In addition, the commissioners required that the park have four roads running through it, to facilitate travel across the city. Naturally, this was an obstacle to beautiful and harmonious park design. Vaux and Olmsted’s treatment of these transverse roads helped win them the job. They proposed to sink the roads in trenches, removing them from sightlines and minimizing their intrusion into the tranquil park experience.

 

Bridges allowed park visitors to cross these roads on foot, while vehicles could continue to use the roads even after the park was closed for the night. Central Park also features numerous individual paths originally designated for walking, horses, and carriages. Thirty-four stone and cast-iron bridges controlled the flow of movement and prevented accidents by making sure that different types of traffic never met. The design competition also had several other requirements, including a parade ground, playgrounds, a concert hall, observatory, and ice skating pond. Only some of these things would come to fruition.

 

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Currier & Ives, Central Park in Winter, 1868-94, hand-colored lithograph, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Another strength of the Greensward Plan was its pastoral aesthetic. At this time, formal, symmetrical, highly-manicured landscape gardens were the height of European fashion, and many of the contest’s entrants felt that Central Park should follow that model. If one of their proposals had been selected, Central Park could have looked something like the grounds at Versailles. By contrast, the Greensward Plan was natural-looking, in an English Picturesque, rather than French style. Central Park’s Picturesque design involved irregular planning and varied scenery throughout, creating a rustic effect to contrast the surrounding city’s orderly grid system.

 

This study in natural-looking landscaping is completely man-made – carefully planned and constructed to seem like it has always been there. Tree planting and earth moving on a grand scale literally re-shaped the terrain. To create the broad, green area known as Sheep Meadow, dynamite was needed. Originally meant to be the parade ground called for in the design competition, but never actually used as such, Sheep Meadow was once home to actual flocks of sheep.

 

Central Park also has a completely artificial lake. It was one of the very first areas to be completed, in time for ice skating in the winter of 1858. Wollman Rink wasn’t built until later. Hidden pipes and mechanisms allow for control of the water level, while the iconic Bow Bridge crosses above it.  The Ramble, a wild, woodland area with wandering pathways and abundant flowers, was originally a bare hill. Olmsted and Vaux had skilled specialists, like head gardener Ignaz Pilat, to help them make these landscape transformations come to life.

 

The Built Environment

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The Terrace in Central Park, with the Bethesda Fountain and Angel of the Waters by Emma Stebbins, via Central Park Conservancy

 

Vaux and Olmsted placed primary importance on landscape scenery and its positive impact on people. They didn’t want anything to disrupt that, even initially protesting sports taking place on the fields. In Vaux’s words, “Nature first, second, and third – architecture after a while.” In particular, both designers resisted showpiece elements that would distract visitors from the overall landscape experience. Yet Central Park does not lack architecture. It is full of buildings and other hardscape elements, a surprising number of which date to the park’s earliest years. The Greensward Plan even included a few exceptions to the no-showpieces rule with The Mall, Bethesda Terrace, and the Belvedere.

 

The Mall, a quarter-mile-long, tree-lined promenade, is among the more formal elements within Central Park; Vaux and Olmsted considered it essential as a place for New Yorkers of all stations to meet and socialize. The Mall leads to Bethesda Terrace, a two-level, hardscape gathering place, which is carefully hidden from the rest of the park so it doesn’t disrupt the other vistas. In the middle of the Terrace is Bethesda Fountain, with its famous The Angel of the Waters statue by Emma Stebbins. The statue’s subject references the role of the nearby reservoir in bringing healthful clean water to the city. Bethesda Terrace was intended as a place to gather and look out over the park in broad views. So was the Belvedere, which is a Romanesque Revival folly, or functionless architectural feature common to English Picturesque landscapes.

 

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The Belvedere in Central Park, Photo by Alexi Ueltzen, via Flickr

 

The built environment was Calvert Vaux’s domain as an architect. In collaboration with fellow architect Jacob Wrey Mould, he designed everything from restroom pavilions and restaurant buildings to benches, lamps, drinking fountains, and bridges. Additionally, Vaux and Mould lent their skills to the two major museums adjacent to or inside Central Park – the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the park’s east side and the American Museum of Natural History on its west.

 

However, subsequent additions to both buildings have largely hidden Vaux and Mould’s designs. The pair also designed the original eighteen gates leading into the park. More have been added subsequently. In 1862, these gates were named for different groups of New Yorkers – children, farmers, merchants, immigrants, etc. – in the spirit of inclusion within the park. However, these names were not actually inscribed on the gates until the second half of the 20th century.

 

In keeping with Vaux and Olmsted’s landscape-over-architecture ideology, Central Park’s original built environment is eclectic but subtle. Vaux, in particular, had to fight fiercely to prevent popular Beaux-Arts architect Richard Morris Hunt from being hired to create four very elaborate gates that would have clashed with the aesthetic of the Greensward Plan.

 

Changes and Challenges in Central Park

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Bow Bridge, via Central Park Conservancy

 

Vaux and Olmsted knew from the beginning that the specifics of their design would change over the course of construction. They even planned for it. What they hadn’t expected was how difficult it would be to stay true to the spirit of their pastoral vision for Central Park. As a major public works project in New York City, the park had more than its share of controversies, compromises, and political maneuvering. Disagreements and politics, often along party lines, beset the project from start to finish. As with Hunt and the Beaux-Arts gates, Vaux and Olmsted did their best to stay loyal to their principles, but they were sometimes outvoted by those above them in the hierarchy.

 

Sometimes, the park actually benefited from the resultant compromises. For example, the divided path structure, a celebrated aspect of the park’s design, came about because Central Park board member August Belmont insisted on adding more riding trails. Other times, like when the Tammany Hall political machine took control of the park in the 1870s, Vaux and Olmsted had to fight hard to avoid disaster. The two designers had complicated official relationships with Central Park, as both were removed and reinstated multiple times. Mould even replaced them for a while. They also had difficult relationships with each other because Vaux resented Olmsted getting all the credit in the press. Olmsted’s reputation eclipsed Vaux’s almost immediately, and his name is clearly the better-known of the two today. Despite their struggles, both remained very attached to and protective of the park throughout their lives.

 

In the century-and-a-half since its conception, Central Park has undergone many more ups and downs. Following a period of decline in the second half of the 20th century, the Central Park Conservancy was established in 1980 to preserve the park – protecting Vaux and Olmsted’s vision of urban greenery for future generations.



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By Alexandra KielyBA Art History (with honors)Alexandra is an art historian and writer from New Jersey. She holds a B.A. in Art History from Drew University, where she received the Stanley Prescott Hooper Memorial Prize in Art History. She wrote her honors thesis on the life and work of early-20th century art theorist Roger Fry. Her primary interests are American art, particularly 19th-century painting, and medieval European art and architecture. She runs her own website, A Scholarly Skater, is a regular contributor to DailyArt Magazine, and has written two online courses. Alexandra enjoys reading, ballroom dancing, and figure skating.