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 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 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
The first major public example of landscape architecture, Manhattan's Central Park remains the greatest illustration of the American park, a tradition that would become part of nearly every community following the 1860s. This grand park offers a facility for recreation and peaceful contemplation, a solution to the enduring American search for a "happy medium" between the natural environment and human civilization.
Initially, the construction of parks responded to utilitarian impulses: feelings began to develop in the early 1800s that some urban areas were becoming difficult places in which to reside. Disease and grime were common attributes attached to large towns and cities. Of particular concern, many population centers possessed insufficient interment facilities within churchyards. The first drive for parks began with this need for new cemeteries. The "rural cemetery" movement began in 1831 with the construction of Mount Auburn outside of Boston. Soon, many communities possessed their own sprawling, green burial areas on the outskirts of town.
From this point, a new breed of American landscape architect beat the path toward Central Park. Andrew Jackson Downing designed many rural cemeteries, but more importantly, he popularized and disseminated a new American "taste" that placed manicured landscapes around the finest homes. Based out of the Hudson River region and operating among its affluent landowners, Downing designed landscapes that brought the aesthetic of the rural cemetery to the wealthy home. His designs inspired the suburban revolution in American living. Downing became a public figure prior to his untimely death in 1852 through the publication of Horticulturalist magazine as well as various books, the initial designs for the Mall in Washington, D.C., and, finally, his call for a central area of repose in the growing city on Manhattan Island.
Wealthy New Yorkers soon seized Downing's call for a "central park." This landscaped, public park would offer their own families an attractive setting for carriage rides and provide working-class New Yorkers with a healthy alternative to the saloon. After three years of debate over the park site and cost, the state legislature authorized the city to acquire land for a park in 1853. Swamps and bluffs punctuated by rocky outcroppings made the land between 5th and 8th avenues and 59th and 106th streets undesirable for private development. The extension of the boundaries to 110th Street in 1863 brought the park to its current 843 acres. However, the selected area was not empty: 1,600 poor residents, including Irish pig farmers and German gardeners, lived in shanties on the site; Seneca Village, at 8th Avenue and 82nd Street, was one of the city's most stable African-American settlements, with three churches and a school.
In 1857, the Central Park Commission held the country's first landscape design contest and selected the "Greensward Plan," submitted by Frederick Law Olmsted, the park's superintendent at the time, and Calvert Vaux, an English-born architect and former partner of Downing. The designers sought to create a pastoral landscape in the English romantic style. In order to maintain a feeling of uninterrupted expanse, Olmsted and Vaux sank four transverse roads eight feet below the park's surface to carry cross-town traffic. From its inception, the site was intended as a middle ground that would allow the city's life to continue uninterrupted without infringing on the experience of park goers.
The park quickly became a national phenomenon. First opened for public use in the winter of 1859 when thousands of New Yorkers skated on lakes constructed on the site of former swamps, Central Park opened officially in 1863. By 1865, the park received more than seven million visitors a year. The city's wealthiest citizens turned out daily for elaborate late-afternoon carriage parades. Indeed, in the park's first decade more than half of its visitors arrived in carriages, costly vehicles that fewer than five percent of the city's residents could afford. Olmsted had stated his intention as "democratic recreation," a park accessible to everyone. There would be no gates or physical barriers; however, there would be other methods of enforcing class selectivity. Stringent rules governed early use of the "democratic" park, including a ban on group picnics—which discouraged many German and Irish New Yorkers; a ban on small tradesmen using their commercial wagons for family drives in the park; and restricting ball playing in the meadows to school boys with a note from their principal. New Yorkers repeatedly contested these rules, however, and in the last third of the nineteenth century the park opened up to more democratic use.
Central Park's success fueled other communities to action. Olmsted became the park movement's leader as he tied such facilities to Americans' "psychological and physical health." Through Olmsted's influence and published writing, parks such as Central Park were seen to possess more than aesthetic value. The idea of determining the "health" of the community through its physical design was an early example of modernist impulses. However, the park movement's attachment to traditions such as romanticism gave parks a classical ornamentation. Olmsted's park planning would lead to the "City Beautiful" movement in the early 1900s and to the establishment of the National Park system.
As the uses of Central Park have varied, its popularity has only increased. In the 1960s, Mayor John Lindsay's commissioners welcomed "happenings," rock concerts, and be-ins to the park, making it a symbol of both urban revival and the counterculture. A decline in the park's upkeep during the 1970s stimulated the establishment of the Central Park Conservancy in 1980. This private fund-raising body took charge of restoring features of the Greensward Plan. By 1990, the Central Park Conservancy had contributed more than half the public park's budget and exercised substantial influence on decisions about its future. Central Park, however, continues to be shaped by the public that uses it: joggers, disco roller skaters, softball leagues, bird watchers, nature lovers, middle-class professionals pushing a baby's stroller, impoverished individuals searching for an open place to sleep.
Schuyler, David. Apostle of Taste. Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
CENTRAL PARK. The first landscaped public park in the United States, built primarily between the 1850s and 1870s, encompassing 843 acres in New York City between Fifth Avenue and Eighth Avenue and running from 59th Street to 110th Street.
New York bought the land for Central Park—and removed about 1,600 immigrants and African Americans who lived there—at the behest of the city's elite, who were embarrassed by European claims that America lacked refinement and believed a park would serve as a great cultural showpiece. The original plans of architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux sought to re-create the country in the city, but over the years, the story of
Central Park has been the story of how a diverse population changed it to meet various needs.
At first, Central Park catered almost exclusively to the rich, who used its drives for daily carriage parades. Though some working-class New Yorkers visited the park on Sunday, most lacked leisure time and streetcar fare, and they resented the park's strict rules, including the infamous prohibition against sitting on the grass. By the 1880s, however, shorter workdays and higher wages made park attendance more convenient for the poor and recent immigrants. With additions such as boat and goat rides, the zoo, Sunday concerts, and restaurants, Central Park's focus gradually shifted from nature to amusement. During the Great Depression, the powerful parks commissioner Robert Moses continued this trend, financing massive improvements, including more than twenty new playgrounds, with New Deal money.
In many ways, the 1970s marked Central Park's low point. Though never as dangerous as reported, the park experienced a dramatic increase in crime, and it came to represent New York's urban decay. Moreover, New York's fiscal crisis decimated the park budget, and in the 1980s, the city gave up full public control by forming a partner-ship with the private Central Park Conservancy. Today, Central Park symbolizes New York's grandeur, as its aristocratic founders expected. They never dreamed it would also serve the recreational needs of a city of 8 million people.
Olmsted, Frederick Law. Creating Central Park, 1857–1861. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.
Rosenzweig, Roy, and Elizabeth Blackmar. The Parkand the People: A History of Central Park. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992.