Their Legacy of Landscaping: A Concise History of Central Park

Their Legacy of Landscaping: A Concise History of Central Park

An architectural and social engineering testament to the 19th-century's ingenuity and resolve, Central Park is a place replete with both a scintillating history and an indisputable charm.

It Was All About Vision

For New York City, the 19th century was a time of massive architectural and industrial growth; thanks to a prime location, New York City was the premier port on the Atlantic. That accessibility helped to ensure that the city had a ready supply of laborers due to the numerous families who emigrated from their native lands. There were no doubt numerous parts of New York City which were burdened with prevailing sentiments of economic and social despair but any moans of suffering would be stifled by political machines and visionaries. There was much work to be done.

Voices Unite

Robert Minturn was among the first to formally express his desire for a park that could proudly stand as a testament to New York City. He lobbied for a park to be created that would adorn New York like a crowning jewel in much the same way other major cities of the world had impressive architectural displays. Others followed suit because they shared his sentiment.

The New York wealthy said that a park would give them an opportunity for leisurely activities like carriage rides while providing a much less destructive alternative for working class entertainment than a saloon. Andrew Jackson Downing and William Cullen Bryant drove the “We want a park” message home by not only championing the cause of New York having a spectacular park but by persuading city officials to actually allocate land for the project. This was a massive step forward but there was still much to be done. The land used was by no means pristine. The swampy rocky terrain was actually considered to be unfit for any sort of commercial activity. Figuring out how to convert it into a beacon of beauty would be no small task.

The Pen & Physical Persuasion

By the Law of Eminent Domain, private lands can be seized if they are to be used as public lands. The implementation of this law for the building of Central Park tore over 1,500 people from their homes. Overall, it was an eerily smooth process, however, between 82nd and 89th streets, a hurdle arose. This particular patch of land had become home to Seneca Village and a unique multi-cultural community of roughly 300 people, many of whom did not want to leave; among other things, it included three churches. The letter of the law was clear but since that and the money offered to the homeowners to vacate wasn’t enough (from $700 - $2,335 dollars), the papers and the police stepped in. The media smeared the residents of Seneca Village by calling them “squatters” among other unpleasant terms and the police employed force to achieve their ends. To this day few records survive of what happened to displaced residents.

Quick Fact

Accounting for inflation, $2,335 in 1850 would be approximately $70,000 today.

A Vision is Born

In April of 1858, the question of who would design and build Central Park was answered. A design competition was conducted and among a slew of rules and requirements for the design of the park there were two features that were especially important: The cost should not exceed $1.5 million and there must be road ways through the park for carriage traffic. Of the 33 entries received, one in particular stood head and shoulders above the rest, both in cost (the creation of Central Park ended up costing about $11 million) and in genius. The contract along with $2,000 were given to Frederick Law Olmstead and Cavert Vaux for their “Greensward Plan”; their design was magnificent and would come to one day be internationally known as Central Park.

Subtle Elements of a Winning Design

The design of Central Park is a reflection of the dynamic yet beautiful nature of New York City. There are elements of formality and European styling as well as a more earthy, rustic, and mountainous feel. Both themes are woven seamlessly into every fiber of Central Park. “The Mere” is a tip of the hat to the Dutch since 17th-Century Harlem was a Dutch community. The name “Greensward Plan” came from the sense of infinite green space that they wanted you to feel, hence the park is long and narrow. The design element which stole the show however, was the roadway system. Olmstead and Vaux employed sunken roads to take traffic out of the park.

No Small Task

In order for Central Park to be more than just a brilliant design on a blueprint, it took the employment of over 30,000 laborers. Over the course of more than a decade, the Central Park project was a great use of one of New York's most rich resources: immigrants. They had a variety of tasks including using gunpowder to clear swathes of land before bringing in the soil in which the trees would be planted. In the early years, the park looked somewhat barren since the trees were still young. It was truly no small feat considering that approximately 6% of the entire land mass of the island of Manhattan is comprised of Central Park!

The Visible Hands of the Wealthy

From the desire to have a park, to the way in which it would be used, the wealthy of New York consistently played a key role in laying the groundwork for the building of Central Park. In the beginning, a large catalyst for the birth of their surging desire to create a magnificent park stemmed from the opinions of the wealthy communities of Europe. The Nuvo-Riche of the United States were seen as being materialistic to a fault. Internationally, high societies exchanged none too subtle comments about the lack of community responsibility and care wealthy Americans provided for the areas in which they lived. Such banter struck a resounding chord in the hearts (and the pride) of New York's elite and they demanded Central Park be proof of the inaccuracy of such impolite global sentiment. Yet, even after the construction of the United States' first landscaped urban park, those of high society continued to exert their egocentric wills upon the community not for the overall social benefit, but for their own. It was New York's elite who would determine how the park was allowed to be used.

Various rules and regulations were put into action which minimized the working class' ability to fully take advantage of Olmstead and Vaux's brain child. Public group picnics were not allowed on the expanses of lush green grass. Unsightly things such as a plethora of working class people enjoying leisure with their families seemed to be either an afterthought or an annoyance because even the weekly concerts held at Central Park seemed out of reach for the majority of New York's working class citizens. The concerts were purposely held on Saturday so that the upper class could attend at a time when most workers were busy. The working class widely had Sunday off. Also, kids needed permission to play ball at the park. So there was something of a disconnect between Central Park and the vast majority of New York's citizenry.

Expanding on Greatness

In 1934, Robert Moses, a famous architect, decided to further improve the great Central Park. He added baseball fields, an ice rink, and handball courts. All of these additions were things which would be at the full disposal of the community. Times and sentiment with regard to the working class had changed. These additions were comfortably made in part because of the 1863 park extension which went all the way to 110th street.

A Time of Hardship

Eventually, Central Park fell into ruin and disrepair. Numerous attempts to clean up the park saw only limited immediate successes and the vision of greatness that had created Central Park eroded and was replaced by graffiti and refuse. What could be done for a park in which the community took little pride?

A Vision of Salvation

The Central Park Conservancy

The Central Park Conservancy was formed in the 1970s. The private, not-for-profit agency really took off because it had a plan for continued maintenance, an element that previous Central Park clean up attempts had been lacking. To date, thanks to many generous supporters, the Central Park Conservancy has invested over $800 million into Central Park. The conservancy continues to watch over Central Park and maintain its immaculate landscape for the education and enjoyment of all people, both foreign and domestic. Such dedication to a national landmark is in large part why people come to visit Central Park in mass. Central Park is today the most frequently visited urban park in the United States. If not for the efforts of those who take pride in grooming and cleaning the park, Central Park would not be the beloved national landmark that it is today.

Central Park: Today's Vision

Central Park is a popular place these days. It is one of New York City's primary attractions and is also habitually an area for the community to enjoy both the outdoors and some exercise. As a landmark it has done far more than merely show to the world that the United States can be cultured and build a beautiful community park. Central Park has served to unite the people of a dynamic city so that they may all once again take pride in not only where they live but also in the beauty that nature has to offer. For some, Central Park is a place which provides a necessary escape from urbanization. For others, Central Park is where they exercise, take lunch, read, and play. In all cases, Central Park is a wonderful addition to New York. It is the crowning jewel of a dynamic city.

Some Impressive Central Park Features

Bethesda Fountain

Adorning Central Park since 1873, the Bethesda Fountain was erected in honor of the biblical healing power of water. There is also a terrace with the same name in Central Park that boasts the Minton Tile ceiling. This is the only place in the world where you can see an example of Victorian tiling on a ceiling.

Cleopatra's Needle

Fans of history will find this video interesting (and perhaps somewhat long). It explains the significance of obelisks and how Cleopatra's Needle came to reside in Central Park. Located on East 81st street near the Metropolitan Museum, Cleopatra's Needle Obelisk was a gift from Egypt in 1877. It was given to the United States for remaining neutral while England and France tried to gain greater control in Egypt.

Strawberry Field: A Memorial to John Lennon

In 1985, Yoko Ono wanted to give money so that John Lennon could have a memorial in the park which he loved so much. Even to this day, many people leave mementos in appreciation and love of John Lennon.

You Deserve To Visit

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