IWalked New York City’s Central Park (History)
Central Park was the first public landscaped park in all of the United States. It spans eight-hundred forty-three acres and covers one-hundred twenty-three city blocks. The park is bordered by 59th Street to the South (more commonly known as Central Park South), 110th Street to the North (aka Central Park North), 8th Avenue on the West (Central Park West) and 5th Avenue on the East. The park is, no pun intended, a central fixture in New Yorkers life style for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city’s fast pace. Walking within its interior you will find everything from those seeking an exercise fix by enjoying one of the park’s numerous running/walking paths to those who are just content to rest atop one of the parks 9,000 plus wooden benches.
The earliest concepts for a “Central Park” within New York City date back to 1844. It was during this time that then Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant began to champion the idea of added green space for the entire city to enjoy. A site bordered by 5th and 8th Avenues and 59th and 106th Streets was selected as the preferred site, but the locale presented multiple challenges. In addition to the area having a difficult terrain for development (primarily swamps and bluffs at the time), approximately 1,600 residents would have to be displaced from their homes. The city would have to utilize its right of eminent domain across the area’s seven hundred seventy acres to seize and begin planning for the park. Over a three-year period dating from 1853 to 1856 the city paid over $5 million to acquire the property. Each of the former residents, who primarily consisted of Irish pig farmers and German gardeners, received an average sum of seven hundred dollars per lot.
With a majority of the former owners having been paid off by October 13, 1857, the Board of Commissioners for Central announced the country’s first landscape design contest. Prizes were announced ranging from four hundred to two-thousand dollars. In all thirty-three submissions would be received including one design that called for nothing more than erection of a central pyramid. The winner, however, was plan number 33 by an odd team of one man who had no landscaping design experience and another who had worked under the famed landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. The team was Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and their design was known as the “Greensward plan.”
The individual whom had no prior landscape design experience was ironically a man who would be later become recognized as one of the fathers of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted had a quite prolific career as his firm would carry out some five hundred fifty projects between the years of 1872 and 1895. Outside of Central Park, some of Olmsted’s more notable works include landscaping the grounds around the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., the Emerald Necklace in Boston, and a series of parks within Chicago including Jackson and Washington Parks and the Midway Plaisance which was designed specifically for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
Olmsted’s partner, Calvert Vaux on the other hand, was a formally trained architect who both tutored under and worked with famed designer Andrew Jackson Downing. Vaux was born and raised in London where he would meet Downing in 1851. Downing, impressed with Vaux’s abilities, convinced him to move to New York where the two became business partners. During their short period of working together their firm would become known for well-recognized commissions such as the grounds of both the Smithsonian Castle and the White House. Unfortunately the partnership would be dissolved upon Downing’s death in a steamboat accident in 1852. Ironically, Vaux himself would meet a similar demise in 1895 when he died in a drowning accident. During his career though Vaux would showcase an impressive resume that included the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1874) and the original portion of the American Museum of Natural History (1877).
The partnership of Olmsted and Vaux was a curious one. Although it was obviously a very successful venture for both, it operated under the stress of a mixture of jealousy and admiration. Olmsted held his partner in the highest regards and even commented that without him, “I should not have been a landscape architect. I should have been a farmer.” Vaux, in the meantime, was often bitter over Olmsted’s grander reputation despite his less formal background. The men found a way however to work jointly for seven years before dissolving their partnership in 1872. They would work again together on occasion, but never to the grandiose scale as they did on Central Park. Even on this front though, the partnership would find themselves resigning on multiple occasions during the park’s creation due to creative differences with park officials.
To implement their infamous Greensward Plan (Greensward being an old English term for the laying of fresh green turf or grass.), the terrain would require a massive overhaul. Much of the rocky terrain had to be flattened and/or coerced into more friendly patterns for ease of navigation. This required one hundred sixty-six tons of gunpowder, more than that used in all of the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. Approximately 20,000 workers would carry ten million carts of dirt and stone from these changes both into and out of the park. 500,000 cubic feet of the additional top soil also had to be transported in from New Jersey for more fertile plantings (a fact that many New Yorkers likely choose to ignore). Planted within this soil were some 500,000 trees and shrubs.
Perhaps Olmsted and Vaux’s greatest achievement within the park though was their ability to create a series of paths and roads that lent itself naturally to many varying uses. In their plan the duo had to figure out how to ensure that pedestrian paths never needlessly crossed with carriage roads. Their innovative solution was to sink four traverse roads that would never intersect and allow traffic to flow seamlessly. In addition, this “buffer” amongst the paths provided a natural noise reduction that allowed the park to maintain its tranquil ambience.
Central Park would officially open in 1859. In 1863 the park would be expanded an additional seventy-three acres to encompass 843 acres in total (to which it remains this day). Today, in addition to being an escape for many city residents, Central Park also maintains a population of eighteen full-time residents as per the 2000 U.S. Census. Per census statistics, the median age of these individuals is 38.5 years old and equates to twelve males and six females.
While wandering throughout the park many sites may appear recognizable via films and/or television as Central Park is considered the most filmed locale in the world. Central Park has appeared in over three hundred films that have included Enchanted, Hannah and Her Sisters, Home Alone 2, Kramer vs. Kramer, Love Story, Marathon Man, Serendipity, and When Harry Met Sally.
Address: Bordered by Central Park South (West 59th Street), Central Park West (8th Ave), 5th Avenue (East side) and West 110thStreet (North side), New York City
IWalked Audio Tours To See This Site: New York City’s Central Park (coming 2013). (Purchase the other NYC MP3 tours here. iPhone application tours are available here. Please note, all NYC tours are now available as in-app purchases upon download of our FREE NYC Lite application, which includes a free 1.5 hour tour of a portion of the Upper West Side.)