Friday, August 14, 2009

Designer of the Month: Frederick Law Olmsted

Week 2: Central Park and Prospect Park

As I was saying last week, Frederick Law Olmsted created landscapes that were meant to last, and to evolve, as time passed. Central Park in Manhattan is a great place to start a discussion about Olmsted's work because it began his partnership with British architect Calvert Vaux, whom Olmsted also designed Prospect Park with, and was Olmsted's first real commission as a landscape architect. Let's take a look, shall we?

Central Park. Courtesy of New York Architecture Images.

Ah Central Park. The Reservoir, the Great Lawn, the Mall, Sheep Meadow, Belvedere Castle, and the list goes on and on. One of the best things about the park is that, while it's right in the middle of the city, you'd hardly know it once you're inside. Considering that the Park is only a half-mile wide, this is a pretty amazing feat, accomplished through some key features that Olmsted built into the design of the park. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. First, a little background on the need for this Park and how Olmsted ended up winning this commission.

Originally named Greensward, Central Park was the design of Frederick Law Olmsted, who at the time had the job of superintendent of the Park work crews, and Calvert Vaux, who helped convince the Park's board of commissioners to hold a design competition in the first place.[1] The need for a green space in Manhattan was an idea that was embraced by both of the political parties of the time as well as the key figures of Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant and noted landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing.[2] New York City in 1844 was growing at a tremendous pace, and the fear that the city would lose its chance to set aside a large area for a city park was a very real one. So between 1853 and 1856, the Park's commissioners paid more than $5 million for land from 59th Street to 106th Street, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues (the park was extended up to 110th street, which is the currently boundary, in 1863), holding a public contest to choose the Park's design. [3]

It may seem a bit unfair that Olmsted and Vaux's design would be chosen, as they were already both a part of the Park's commission in some way, but many of the entrants to the competition were Park workers, and even Olmsted's boss at the time, Colonel Egbert Ludovicus Viele (that he insisted on his military title should give you an idea of the type of guy he was), along with 11 other Park's employees, submitted a design.[4] Out of the 33 competing entries, other than the few that were a bit over the top, such as one that wanted to treat the park as an allegorical map of the continents, most were designed either in the "picturesque English" or "formal European" style.[5] Olmsted and Veux's design, however, took a more naturalistic view, and they won the competition by unanimous vote.

The Mall. Courtesy of

So what won the committee over? Well, the focus on creating a naturalistic setting was definitely part of it. The other part was the combination of quiet, secluded walks along with a "broad alley," first called the Promenade and latter became the Mall, which was a nod to the European tradition of formal landscape gardening, where large numbers of people could socialize.[6] As I was saying before, even though the Park is right in the middle of the city, you'd hardly know it from inside, and this is not only because of all the trees that act as noise dampeners, but because of the way the requirement that four or more public streets must traverse the park was dealt with; the street were placed in large excavated trenches 8 feet below ground.[7] This allowed for the visual continuity of the landscape to remain undisturbed and for the park to be closed at night without interrupting traffic.[8]

Such a massive undertaking was bound to face some challenges, but it was especially difficult to turn the rocky, swampy, and muddy location into the lush park that Olmsted and Vaux designed. According to the Central Park Conservancy's website history of the park:
The soil was inadequate to sustain the trees and shrubs Olmsted and Vaux planned, so 500,000 cubic feet of topsoil was carted in from New Jersey. Lacking modern machinery, workers manually dug up earth, and blasted out huge boulders with gunpowder. More than 10 million cartloads of materials and debris were carted in and out on horse-drawn carts. Thirty-six bridges and arches were built and six man-made water bodies, fed from the City's water supply, were created. Andrew Haswell Green served as comptroller and treasurer of the board of commissioners from 1857 to 1871, when the Park was under construction. Green recognized the brilliance of Olmsted and Vaux ’s plan when other commissioners were ready to dismiss it. It is because of Green’s support and protection of the Greensward plan that so much of Central Park is true to its original design.[9]
It wasn't until 20 years after the design competition that most of the landscapes in the park were fully built, with construction hampered by political battles, causing both Olmsted and Vaux to resign many times throughout the process for either aesthetic or political reasons (Olmsted left for good in 1877 while Vaux stayed on and off until his death in 1895).[10] Despite the challenges of building Central Park, it was hugely popular and was considered an immediate success, helping to launch the urban parks movement of the 19th century and making both Olmsted and Vaux hugely in demand.[11]

Now hang in there everyone! I know that this is already a super long post with lots of information, but we've still got Prospect Park to discuss. I won't go in to as much detail as I did for Central Park, but there are some cool old photographs that accompany the information, so that's a fun added bonus. Onward!

Grand Army Plaza c. 1908. From the Bob Levine Collection, courtesy of the Prospect Park Alliance.

You see, cool old photographs. Prospect Park was created for similar reasons as Central Park; Brooklyn was growing rapidly, but other than Greenwood Cemetery, there wasn't really any large park space for people to visit. Like Central Park, a Park's commission was formed to choose a design for the park, a competition was held, and once again, Olmsted and Vaux, now as Olmsted, Vaux & Company, Landscape Architects, were the winners.[12] As the Prospect Park Alliance explains in their timeline of the park:

To Olmsted, a great park should be a tranquil, rural landscape where people could recuperate from the incessant pace of city life. Olmsted believed these pleasures belonged to people of every social class, not just the wealthy who could afford to travel outside the city. Prospect Park would be for everyone, but especially Brooklyn’s poor, who could find a bit of the country right in their own backyards. Olmsted and Vaux designed an elaborate infrastructure for Prospect Park, and construction began on July 1, 1866 under their supervision.[13]

Courtesy of Time Out New York.

For Olmsted, this was meant to be his perfect park. The site had none of the complications of Central Park. It was a generously proportioned diamond shape, unencumbered by unsightly water reserves and with no traverse roads required.[14] By this time, 8 years after the success of Central Park, Olmsted, Vaux & Co. had enjoyed great commercial success. Olmsted was known as the visionary of the two: he combined functional organization, site planning, urban design, landscaping, gardening, and art to create picturesque landscapes, while Vaux was the draftsman and designer, making the plans a reality. [15] The problem was that, while Olmsted's designs were constantly being built and winning praise, he was often frustrated by the ways that they would get changed in the building process, with buildings added to mar the perfectly proportioned landscape or with plans changed to include mature trees rather than allowing foliage to grow over time as Olmsted preferred. Olmsted had a vision, and if his vision wasn't followed exactly, he'd become frustrated. As you can imagine, he was often frustrated.

So Prospect Park sounded like a dream. There was already the presence of a large number of mature trees, three rolling pastures, and a sizable lake, all of which were incorporated into the final design.[16] In addition to this, Olmsted enjoyed managerial freedom with Prospect Park; the management of the workforce was left up to Olmsted while the Park was being built, allowing him to pursue his vision rather than working as a municipal employee, as he was with Central Park.[17] This greater freedom allowed Olmsted to realize his vision for Prospect Park, and while subsequent years saw a reenvisioning of the Park as more of a civic space, with the addition of a boathouse, bandshell, playgrounds, and other structures, Olmsted's vision remains largely intact to this day.[18]

Long Meadow, where herds of sheep were used to keep the grass trim. Courtesy of the Prospect Park Alliance.

So there you have it. Quite a lot of information, I know, but trust me when I say that this was the condensed version. I'll see you here next week, when I discuss the 1893 Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World's Fair.

[1] The Central Park Conservancy website, “Central Park History,” (accessed August 11, 2009).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Witold Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Scribner, 1999), 166.

[4] Ibid., 158.

[5] Ibid., 164.

[6] Ibid., 165.

[7] Ibid., 167.

[8] Ibid., 167.

[9] The Central Park Conservancy website, “Central Park History,” (accessed August 11, 2009).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Witold Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Scribner, 1999), 169.

[12] Ibid., 269.

[13] The Prospect Park Alliance website, "Timeline," (accessed August 12, 2009).

[14] Witold Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Scribner, 1999), 269.

[15] Ibid., 262-3.

[16] Ibid., 271.

[17] Ibid., 360.

[18] The Prospect Park Alliance website, "Timeline," (accessed August 12, 2009).

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