Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Lost in History vol. 61: Happy 150th Birthday Central Park!

Two weekends back, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Central Park Conservancy held a celebratory series of events dedicated to reminding New Yorkers just how near and dear Central Park is, and just how impossible its 20-year prehistory of invention and construction was. It’s a welcome reminder, as today, April 28th, is the 150th anniversary of the selection of Olmstead and Vaux’s Greensward Plan by the Commissioners of Central Park, a body of elder statesmen who had the final say in the 600 acres (eventually enlarged to 843) at the center of Manhattan.

Fifty-one blocks long and three avenues wide, or two and a half miles long and a mile wide, or slightly larger than the country of Monaco, Central Park almost wasn’t so central. As the city’s elders were determining what kind of general green space to build for the city, the prospect of building such an enormous area of un-rentable real estate practically shot the idea dead in the water. It was the aristocracy of Gilded Age NYC who demanded a park to match the ones in Paris and London. So in 1853, the state legislature authorized the city to use eminent domain to take the land between 59th and 106th Sts, evicting the 1,600 Irish, German and African-American residents, including all the inhabitants of Seneca Village, a substantially developed colony of Free Blacks with three churches and a schoolhouse. With them out of the way, the space could be landscaped so as to feature terrain other than the rocky outcroppings of schist, swamp and scrubland that preceded the park as we know it today. Problem was: who to design Central Park?

The easy choice was Andrew Jackson Downing, a preeminent landscape and editor of the The Horticulturalist. A celebrity in his time, Downing was one of Frederick Law Olmstead’s role models as a landscape designer, and Calvert Vaux — eventually Central Park’s other prominent architect — emigrated to the U.S. and opened his own architecture and landscape design due in part to Downing’s direct encouragement . Downing was one of the major supporters of Central Park well before the land was purchased; there’s no doubt his design skills would’ve been put to work landscaping the park, had Downing not drowned while trying to save his mother-in-law during a freak steamboat explosion on the Hudson River in 1852.

Next up in the line to design this “New York Park” was Egbert Viele, the Chief Engineer for the park as of 1857, and most noted for his bad-ass map, initially known as the “Sanitary and Topographical Atlas of the City and Island of New York," but more commonly known as the Viele Map, made in 1865. When the park commissioners released their plans in that year, it was Viele’s layout that made the cut — a collection of green spaces without a larger unified motive. If it hadn’t been for Vaux — by then an established green-chitect working in Newburgh, New York, who successfully lobbied the park Commissioners to open up a contest for park designs — our park today would look a lot different. Vaux, who had been in conversation with Olmstead, worked on the Greensward Plan; theirs was the last entry submitted, on March 31st, 1858. The original ten-foot long map is on view at the Central Park Armory. Voila! One hundred fifty years ago today, the Greensward Plan was selected as the park for New York City! Now all they had to was build the thing. But that’s another Lost in History altogether.

(originally published on 4/28/08 in www.thelmagazine.com)

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