Situated in the heart of New York City, Central Park was the first landscaped public park in the United States. Conceived as a democratic park, which all people could enjoy regardless of class or station in life, it occupies an 843-acre rectangle of land approximately two and a half miles long and a half-mile wide. Central Park creates the impression of a natural oasis preserved against an encroaching city. It is, however, almost entirely constructed—the result of a carefully designed and engineered plan of landscape architecture.
Origins of the Park: The Greensward Plan
As New York City became increasingly urbanized in the 1840s, prominent citizens, merchants, and landowners were prompted to advocate for a public park. While it is uncertain who originated the idea for Central Park, historical records show that several noteworthy citizens championed the initiative. In 1844, William Cullen Bryant, poet and editor of the New York Evening Post, published an editorial proposing a city park. Later, in 1849 and 1850, Andrew Jackson Downing, the nation's foremost landscape gardener, also urged that a park be built. Upon returning from a tour of Europe in 1849, an affluent couple, Robert Minturn and Anna Mary Wendell, publicized that, in comparison to the grand parks abroad, their city sorely lacked a large public park. As interest in a park grew, a circle of elite New Yorkers was gathered with the objective of identifying and purchasing land for the creation of a park in the center of the city.
In 1856, following three years of dispute over the site and cost of the park, the state legislature appropriated roughly $5 million to buy nearly all the land upon which the park stands in the early twenty-first century. Controversially, the purchase of the land evicted approximately 1,600 poor inhabitants from their homes, including the residents of Seneca Village, a long-standing African American settlement, as well as Irish and German residents, who were primarily gardeners and keepers of goats and hogs.
On 13 October 1857, the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park announced a competition for the design of the park. Of the thirty-three entries, the first place prize of $2,000 was awarded to Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903), who had been the superintendent of the park since September of 1857, and Calvert Vaux (1824–1895), an English architect who had emigrated to the United States in 1850. Their proposal, called the Greensward Plan, was guided by an aesthetic impulse to create a unified and democratic work of landscape art that would insulate New Yorkers from the surrounding city and offer them the respite of a pastoral landscape. Olmsted was designated architect in chief, responsible for the overall aesthetic design and management of the park, and Vaux was responsible for overseeing the design and construction of the park structures including pavilions, bridges, and boathouses.
Constructing the Park
The Greensward Plan drew its inspiration from the naturally rugged topography of the existing land. A particularly swampy area became a lake. An area of rocky
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outcroppings was retained so those who would never visit the Catskills or the Adirondacks could experience a mountainous environment. While the natural features inspired the overall plan, dramatic changes to the land were made to construct the park. Dynamiting, excavating, leveling, grading, and hauling of soil occurred to the extent that, altogether, the entire surface of the park was changed by four feet.
Amid the atmosphere of an informal park, there was one formal area, the Mall, which was reminiscent of the public promenades and gathering places of European cities. One hundred and fifty American elms were planted to border the Mall. These majestic trees, along with two and a half miles of elms that line Fifth Avenue, remain as the two largest stands in North America to survive the infestation of Dutch elm disease in the 1930s.
Another unique feature of the park, and a precursor of modern highway systems, was the construction of four transverse roads (stipulated in the competition rules), which ran the width of the park, from east to west, to accommodate cross-town traffic. Of all the contestants, Olmsted and Vaux were the only ones to submerge the Page 153 | Top of Article roads so visitors could pass through countryside, uninterrupted by traffic, for the entire length of the park. The Greensward Plan also called for multiple gates to allow the visitor to enter the park from many directions and immediately become enveloped in nature, insulated from the surrounding city. The visitor could then travel the many footpaths and drives to ramble among the park's lawns, lakes, hills, glens, woods, rocky ravines, and scenic vistas.
Most of the park was built during the first five years of construction, from 1858 to 1863. Olmsted served as foreman to thousands of German, Irish, and New England laborers who exerted tremendous human effort to transform the land into a park. By 1866, 20,000 men had toiled to build the park, and $5 million had been spent on labor and materials. Central Park officially opened in 1876, a masterpiece of landscape architecture.
A Park for All People
Olmsted and Vaux envisioned Central Park as a public pastoral setting open to all urban dwellers, rich and poor alike. For the first decade, however, largely only the elite used the park. Gatekeepers' accounts recorded that most people arrived by horse or carriage, which only the wealthy could afford. Guidebooks allotted more space to directions by horseback than by public transportation. Most working people lived south of the park—too far to walk—and train fare was more than most laborers could afford, even with a six-day workweek
Gradually, the park evolved to serve the larger needs of a growing population. Ball clubs were allowed to play games in the park, "Keep Off the Grass" signs were removed, and events such as band concerts were held on Sunday, the only day of rest for the working class. With the installation of the first playground in 1920, increasing numbers of middle- and working-class families began to use the park regularly. The playground was such a success that, by the 1940s, more than twenty playgrounds had been built.
Contemporary Role of the Park
By the late 1970s, the park fell to overuse, disrepair, and vandalism. The grounds became a site of frequent muggings and more violent crimes. To rebuild the park and regain its safety, civic leaders came together in 1980 to found the Central Park Conservancy, a private nonprofit organization designed to manage, restore, and preserve the park—a project that culminated in the 150th anniversary of the park in 2003.
It is estimated that, in the early 2000s, 25 million people visit Central Park each year. Much loved by New Yorkers, the park means many things to many people and serves a wide range of recreational and cultural needs. While most people come to the park to stroll, others jog, rollerblade, ice skate, cross-country ski, rock climb, or bicycle for exercise. Nature lovers bird watch and identify plants, flowers, and trees. Visitors picnic, sunbathe, canoe, or meditate to relax and rejuvenate themselves. Many cultural activities such as concerts and plays are held in the park, and two museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are within the park boundaries. Central Park has served as the backdrop for dozens of movies, and many historical and cultural figures are remembered with statues, monuments, and memorials. The vision of Olmsted and Vaux to create a public pastoral landscape to enhance the recreation, health, and pleasure of all people has surely been realized in the contemporary use of Central Park.
Cedar Miller, Sara. Central Park, An American Masterpiece. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.
Central Park. Home page at http://www.centralparknyc.org .
Gittelman, Philip. Olmsted and Central Park (videorecording). New York: ABC Video Enterprises, 1983.
Olmsted, Frederick Law, and Calvert Vaux. "A Review of Recent Changes, Letter II. 'Examination of the Design of the Park and of Recent Changes Therein.'" Forty Years (February 1872): 268.
Reed, Henry H., and Sophia Duckworth. Central Park: A History and a Guide. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1972.
Rosenzweig, Roy, and Elizabeth Blackmar. The Park and the People: A History of Central Park. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992.
Linda A. Heyne
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3434800054