03-19-20 | Feature

Frederick Law Olmsted and the History of Central Park

by Mark Sosnowitz, MG, GCSAA

As a native New Yorker and landscape architect, Mark Sosnowitz, who is also an associate editor at LASN, enjoys a deep interest in Central Park and Frederick Law Olmstead, whom he credits along with Thomas Jefferson as the most influential people in the history of landscape architecture. Though there are voluminous writings of Olmstead and Central Park, this is solely a collection of Sosnowitz's personal observations and interesting historical items he found through his research. Photos: Adobe Stock (except where noted)
The initial construction required millions of cartloads of dirt and topsoil to be shifted to build the terrain. A water-supply system was installed, as were many bridges, arches, and roads. Over the years, about 5,000,000 trees and shrubs were planted.
The original site for Central Park was a rocky plot of more than 700 acres, which was later expanded to 840 acres, reportedly containing swamps, steep ravines, clay pits and several settlements. Photo: Library of Congress
Sinuous thoroughfares were one of Olmstead's principle design features for the park. Photo: Library of Congress
Another design principle was that the park should have variable topography that includes large open spaces like Sheep Meadow, which "invites, encourages & facilitates movement."
Olmstead and Vaux's plan held that trees should be grouped so that "their individual qualities would gradually merge harmoniously."
The Bethesda Terrace, which Olmstead and Vaux referred to as "the heart of the park" was one of the very first structures to have been built in Central Park. It was constructed of New Brunswick sandstone, Roman brick, and granite steps and landings. A centerpiece of the terrace is The Bethesda Fountain, which measures twenty-six feet in height by ninety-six feet in width. It is topped with an eight-foot bronze statue of an angel - the only sculpture in Central Park's original design - created by Emma Stebbins in 1868.
The designers believed that man-made structures took a back seat to nature in the park and deemed that when bridges or buildings were necessary, they should be built from local stone and heavily camouflaged with shrubbery and vines such as the Gapstow Bridge.
The Belvedere ("beautiful view" in Italian) Castle was designed as a miniature architectural hybrid of Gothic and Romanesque styles. Built from Manhattan schist and granite, the structure has a grand turret and two balconies. Originally intended just as a backdrop and a place for park-goers to witness panoramic views, it now serves as the Henry Luce Nature Observatory.

When you look at a map of Manhattan Island, you will see just how central Central Park is - placed and laid out in such a way that people use it from all four sides. And even though it was rated as one of the world's 10 most-visited tourist attractions in 2013, it is not just for tourists. It gets used every day by the common New Yorker and is a vital part of their day as an integral cut of the fabric of their lives. If you sit at one of the entrances to the park for an hour, you'll see a wide variety of routines walk in and out. The park is a gathering spot for many groups, for picnics, for walks and exercise, ball games, concerts and more. I've been in the park many times, for many different activities through the years, and after a while I started to think about its history, how it got to where it is and why, and its functionality.

The Genesis of Central Park
Andrew Jackson Downing, a landscape architect from Newburgh, New York, was one of the first in the field to propose a park the size of New York City's Central Park. He was also the publisher of The Horticulturist magazine. A friend and mentor to Olmsted, Downing brought him together with Calvert Vaux, who had moved here from England as Downing's architectural collaborator.

Downing died in July 1852. Olmsted and Vaux entered the Central Park design competition together. Vaux had invited the less experienced Olmsted to participate in the design competition with him, having been impressed with Olmsted's theories and political contacts. Prior to this, in contrast with the more experienced Vaux, Olmsted had never created or executed a landscape design.

But in 1858 their plan and package, the Greensward Plan, was chosen from 33 submitted in competition for a $2,000 prize, which even in those days was peanuts for the amount of time, effort and cost to complete their end of the project. The team began executing their plan almost immediately.

Central Park Design
When Olmsted and Vaux entered their proposal, the setting they were to work with was a desolate, rocky plot of more than 700 acres (later increased to 840 acres) contained swamps, steep ravines, clay pits, several settlements and graveyards, which were never exhumed.

Olmstead's first principle was that a park should complement the city to which it belongs. If a city is cramped, crowded, and rectilinear, its park should be composed of winding thoroughfares and a variable topography that includes large open spaces. The "comparative largeness" of Central Park was key, since a park should "be a ground which invites, encourages and facilitates movement."

A park should also be faithful to the character of its natural terrain. It was in "bad taste," for instance, to grow lawns in the arid western United States or palm trees in New England. Beauty was to be found not in decorative plants, like in a florist's display window, but in general effects. Trees should be grouped in such a way that "their individual qualities would gradually merge harmoniously."

As a boy, Olmsted's planted a seed from a honey locust tree and it grew to a very large size. Years later, he found that this tree had been removed. Upon reviewing this, Olmsted resolved that he was "glad the tree was gone, for its individual beauty was out of key with the surrounding[s]."

He felt man-made structures were also out of sorts in a park and when bridges or buildings were necessary, they should be built from local stone, heavily camouflaged with shrubbery and vines. One of his most remarkable technical achievements in Central Park was to make its four major crosstown bypasses disappear: He sunk them into the ground and hid them with foliage.

Much of the park's charm derives from the alternation of rolling expanses and hidden passages, such as those in the Ramble, which introduced privacy and mystery.

The irony of Olmsted's landscape theory was that it takes a lot of artifice to create convincing "natural" scenery. Everything in Central Park is man-made; the same is true of most of Olmsted's designs. They are not imitations of nature so much as idealizations, requiring enormous amounts of labor and expense.

In his notes on Central Park, Olmsted called for thinning forests, creating artificially winding and uneven paths, and clearing away "indifferent plants," ugly rocks, and inconvenient hillocks and depressions-all in order to "induce the formation ... of natural landscape scenery." He complained to his superintendents when his parks appeared "too gardenlike" and constantly demanded that they "be made more natural."

He recognized the contradiction and struggled with it. If natural beauty was the goal of landscape architecture, then wouldn't "the best result of all man's labor ... be but a poor counterfeit?" For that matter, why not simply leave nature as it was? Why interfere with organic processes, adding shrubs here, thinning trees there?

Influenced by Downing and his own observations regarding social class in England, China, and the American South, Olmsted believed that the common green space must always be equally accessible to all citizens and was to be defended against private encroachment. This principle is now fundamental to the idea of a "public park" but was not assumed as necessary then. Olmsted's tenure as Central Park commissioner was a long struggle to preserve that idea.

More Parks Followed
Olmstead and Vaux had a extraordinary interest in this particular park and adopted the city as their own. A park and project this size would and did immediately put them on the map, bringing in new work assignments and projects, assignments, fame and fortune. In 1863, Olmsted and Vaux adopted 'landscape architect' as a professional title and used it to describe their work for the planning of urban park systems.

In 1865, the two formed Olmsted, Vaux & Co. They designed Prospect Park in New York, suburban Chicago's Riverside parks, the park system for Buffalo, New York, Milwaukee, Wisconsin's grand necklace of parks, and the Niagara Reservation at Niagara Falls.

Olmsted not only created numerous city parks around the country, he also conceived of entire systems of parks and interconnecting parkways to connect certain cities to green spaces.

In 1883, Olmsted established what is considered to be the first full-time landscape architecture firm in Brookline, Massachusetts. He called the home and office compound Fairsted. It is now the restored Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. From there, Olmsted designed Boston's Emerald Necklace, the campuses of Wellesley College, Smith College, Stanford University and the University of Chicago, as well as the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, among many other projects.

A Legacy Assured
Besides his career as a landscape architect, Olmstead authored many significant writings including Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, A Journey Through Texas, A Journey in the Back Country in the Winter of 1853-4 and Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom.

In 1895, illness forced Olmsted to retire. He moved to Belmont, Massachusetts, as a patient at the McLean Hospital, for whose grounds he had submitted a design, which was never fulfilled. He remained there until his death in 1903. He was buried in the Old North Cemetery, in Hartford, Connecticut.

His sons John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., continued his legacy, doing business as the Olmsted Brothers. The firm lasted until 1980.

For each New Yorker, this park, and Olmstead's and Vaux's work, represents many and different things. It is our lawn and trees, front and backyard, a place to walk your dogs, spend time with your kids: from pushing them in a stroller, to throwing a ball during baseball or football season, to playing organized sports. And we go there to view, experience, feel, see, smell and hear winter, spring, summer and fall.

Last of all, it is a place to learn about, trees, grasses, plants, insects, birds: to share and enjoy the nature of life, with the added marvel of being in the middle of one of the world's largest cities.

"Bye Mom, going to the Park, be home before dinner."

As seen in LASN magazine, March 2020.


Sign up for
LAWeekly newsletter. Get exclusive content today.