by Deborah Harley
One of the statements I constantly hear in regard to New York City is “How in the world did New York build a park like Central Park in the middle of some of the most valuable real estate in the world?” That is an easily answered question once you know the history.
When the Dutch first came to the island called Manahatta in 1624, it was a lush, hilly environment with 55 different ecological systems. It had streams, salt marches, oak forests, red maple forests, sandy beaches, and abundant wildlife, including an oyster-filled estuary at its southern tip. However, all that began to change once the Dutch West India Company set up shop on the island.
By the mid-1800s, New York City was an overcrowded, cramped, and unsanitary place to live, and the population was growing quickly. At the turn of the 19th century, New York had 60,000 people. In 1840, it had 312,000, and by 1850 over 500,000. Most of the population lived below 14th Street, and they were very poor. Disease, malnutrition, and unsanitary conditions were widespread, and the water was contaminated.
In the early 1840s, despite all the desperate needs that the city was facing, prominent individuals began to call for the building of a large public park. This might seem an improbable idea, but there were several compelling reasons for building a park. One was to make New York into a world-class city, an overriding ambition during the 19th century. Another reason was to make the city livable. It was becoming increasingly apparent that without additional green space the city would soon become completely unlivable. Finally, a park would improve public health. Sanitary conditions were so bad in New York that people were dying by the thousands. A park would give urbanites a place to escape and to breathe fresh air.
In 1851, a formal proposal was made for a park.In 1853, after much debate, the state allocated funds to purchase the land between Fifth and Eighth Avenues and 59th and 106 Streets. Officials selected this area because they expected the city eventually to grow around it, thus making it “central” to the future city. In addition, most considered the land unsuitable for any other purpose, therefore making it cheap to purchase. The city also already owned a portion of the land as part of the Croton Reservoir System.
By 1857, New York had funding and land, but no design. That is when a young architect named Calvert Vaux suggested a design contest. After the state-appointed park commissioners approved the idea, Vaux asked Fredrick Law Olmsted to join him in submitting a design for the competition.
Calvert Vaux was an English architect who came to the U.S. in 1850 to join the landscape firm of Andrew Jackson Downing. Many historians consider Downing to be America’s first landscape architect. He was also the publisher of the influential The Horticulturist magazine. Vaux joined Downing in his Newburgh, NY business, along the beautiful Hudson River, 60 miles north of NYC. He became Downing’s protégé, his business partner, and a very close friend.
Unfortunately, the partnership came to a tragic end only two years later. Downing, still in his 30s, died in a steamboat accident on the Hudson. Vaux remained in Newburgh only a few more years before moving to NYC to further his career.
Olmsted and Vaux had met through Downing; Olmsted had written for Downing’s magazine. By 1857, Olmsted was superintendent of the future park and supervising its clearing. Olmsted had developed an intense interest in landscapes starting at a young age. In his late 20s, he had spent time touring the grand parks and estates of Europe and had marveled at the artistry in their design.
Olmsted and Vaux made good partners. They had complementary skills and, more importantly, they shared a similar vision for the park. That is, it would emphasize nature – but not just copy nature; it would idealize it. The park would be a work of art. They called their plan Greensward, which literally means a vast lawn dotted with shade trees, and they won the contest.
There was one other major influence for building the park. That was Romanticism, and Olmsted and Vaux were Romantics. Romanticism was an important philosophical and artistic movement that began in Europe during the 18th century and was most influential in America until the end of the Civil War. Romanticism was a reaction against the rationalism of the 18th century and the social upheavals caused by the Industrial Revolution. It spurred a longing for a simpler time when people -- the Romantics felt -- were closer to God, nature, and each other. A time we call the Middle Ages.
Romantics were emotional, spiritual, and idealistic, and they had a special connection with nature. They believed that nature would bestow benefits to people if they spent time in it. They believed it was therapeutic and that it had the ability to improve humanity. In short, Olmsted and Vaux believed that people would become better simply by spending time in their park.
This might sound terribly idealistic to you, but if you have any doubts, just google it. You will find a ton of studies confirming that spending time in nature will not only make you healthier, but also nicer. However, if you don’t believe science, believe your eyes. Just look around as you walk through Central Park. People are smiling; they are relaxed. The blood pressure is down; the spirits are up. People are happy. And that is not by accident. That is by design.