A Park is Born

By Justin Martin

John Randel's survey bolt, still visible in Central Park

John Randel's survey bolt, still visible in Central Park

Once Frederick Law Olmsted and his mentor, the British-American architect and landscape designer Calvert Vaux received the nod to proceed with their design for Central Park, the commissioners pressed them to move quickly. By 1858, the issue of a large park in New York had dragged on for many years. Millions had been spent obtaining the land; thousands more had been spent clearing it. To justify all this expenditure, some progress needed to be shown.

This post is an excerpt from the author's recent book Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted,
reprinted courtesy of Merloyd Lawrence Books / Da Capo Press.

The plan was to open the park to the public in stages. The board asked Olmsted and Vaux to have certain sections ready by winter so the park could receive its very first visitors, ice skaters.

There was a vast amount to be done. Olmsted hired another 1,000 men, and Central Park, already the largest public works project in New York, instantly doubled in size. While designing the Greensward plan involved careful thought and drafting skills, bringing it to life would prove a rawer task, centering on things like detonation and drainage. Huge amounts of rock had to be blown to smithereens. This was Manhattan bedrock, the source of unshakable foundations for future Midtown skyscrapers. By a quirk of geology, the rock didn’t lie deep underground in the park, as in other parts of the city. A stratum ran just beneath the surface of the ground.

Roughly 250 tons of gunpowder were used in the making of Central Park, more than would be used at the battle of Gettysburg. This was dangerous work, earning blast foremen an extra 25 cents a day. A red flag
flying from a tower was the signal that a blast was imminent. Workers were given two full hours to clear the area. Even so, during the first year of construction, a blast caused the very first fatality. Four more men would die, from other types of accidents, during the construction of Central Park.

Massive rock outcroppings were reduced to rubble. Channels and tunnels were blasted to create the sunken transverse roads — and still the rock, so much rock, burst through the turf. Olmsted and Vaux chose to
keep some of the more striking rock formations, appropriating them into their design. Sometimes they even excavated farther, removing soil from the base of a formation to increase its size. Bold crags of stone became architectural touches, looming above gentle man-made glades.

Thousands of trees were planted. Tons of grass seed were scattered. To ensure proper drainage, a series of trenches were dug at forty-foot intervals throughout the park. The trenches were laid with clay pipes. Carts rattled to and fro, bearing loads of dirt and rock. Virtually none of this material was removed from the grounds. Instead, it was simply shifted from one place to another. Enough earth was moved, Olmsted later estimated, to fill 10 million “one-horse cart loads,” and if said carts were lined up, the procession would stretch for 30,000 miles. Marshes were filled in with soil in order to create meadows. Low-lying areas were bulked up into rolling hillocks. The natural look of Central Park was thus achieved in no small measure through artifice. The park was full of “undignified tricks of disguise,” as Olmsted called them, used in the service of “simplicity, tranquility, and unsophisticated naturalness.”

The Lake, the site of future ice skating, was in reality a low-lying piece of swampy ground. Before park construction began, it existed only on Olmsted and Vaux’s ten-foot blueprint, where the squiggly, naturalistic contours of its shoreline were rendered in india ink. To fill it, clay pipes carried rain runoff from the carriage paths and other spots in the park. To drain it, a series of sluices could be opened. Some of the sluices fed into natural springs running under the parkland, and certain springs, in turn, emptied into New York’s East River.

This ingenious system, created in collaboration with a talented drainage specialist hired by Olmsted, made it possible to raise and lower the water level in the Lake. Rustic Central Park was also a triumph of the latest technology. The plan was to keep the water seven feet deep during the summer for rowboats, but to lower it to four feet in winter for iceskating. Shallower water would pose less danger if someone fell through the ice.

The Lake’s design even included concrete steps built into the natural looking shoreline. During summer, the steps were covered in water. But in winter, the steps could be used to walk down to the frozen surface.

During these early months of park making, Olmsted and Vaux’s partnership was still very new. But they quickly fell into the roles that would define all their future collaborations. Vaux, being an architect, was responsible for designing structures such as bridges and archways. Olmsted took the lead on designing the landscape elements themselves, though often with considerable input from Vaux. In an extension of his earlier role as superintendent, he oversaw the construction, giving orders to crews of workmen. As their work progressed, Olmsted would become more involved in administration, developing rules for park use and figuring out policing strategies. As a pure artist, this held no interest for Vaux.

Vaux’s training ensured a certain polish for anything the pair undertook. Olmsted compensated for his lack of training with an agile mind and an intuitive sense of design, drawing on his varied life experiences. He brought a fine sense of narrative to these park creations and a flair for the dramatic.

Together, Olmsted and Vaux were the American pioneers of a profession, landscape architecture, that to this point had barely existed in the world in either name or deed. This was a quantum step up from humble landscape gardening, which centered on planting flowers and terracing lawns. And while it incorporated the practice of architecture, it was so much more. Landscape architecture was the sum of Olmsted’s and Vaux’s parts, quite literally. It might best be described as the art of applying rigorous design to large pieces of land. To this point in history, there had been a tiny number of practitioners, mostly in Europe but also in Asia, who might rightly be described as landscape architects, though fewer still used the designation. In the United States, it was a novel field.

Oh, and there’s one last useful way of breaking down the division of labor between Olmsted and Vaux. Vaux was supremely gifted; Olmsted quite simply was in another realm.

Olmsted’s extraordinary gifts were nowhere more evident than in Central Park’s meadows, as originally conceived. For these, Olmsted developed a signature hourglass shape, narrow in the middle and flaring out at each end. This shape was achieved by planting trees around the edge of the meadow. Someone standing in such a meadow, Olmsted surmised, would naturally be drawn toward the narrow middle. It presented an allure and a mystery. What was on the other side? After walking through the passage, there was a release, like walking through a tunnel into a stadium. Or like a city street that spills suddenly into an open field. “Passages of scenery” Olmsted called these set pieces of tree and turf.

Calvert Vaux

Calvert Vaux

John Singer Sargent, Frederick Law Olmsted, (1895)

John Singer Sargent, Frederick Law Olmsted, (1895)

At certain key spots, Olmsted planted so-called specimen trees. These might be solitary oaks or maples that would grow to awesome height, limbs stretching dramatically, exploding in color during autumn. Such a specimen was sure to grab the attention of someone who had just entered the open portion of a meadow. It was an ideal focal point for a vista.

Olmsted varied his plantings by color, planting trees with dark foliage such as evergreens in the foreground of a vista and lighter tones such as beeches more distantly. This trick of light and shadow made his meadows appear larger than they actually were. In cramped Central Park, creating a sense of boundless space was desirable, even if it was just an illusion. Of course, time was needed for the trees to grow and for Olmsted’s hourglass planting pattern to emerge. The Greensward plan had contained the argument that the passage of twenty years was required before Central Park’s design could be properly judged. And so it would be with the meadows. Year upon year, visitors to the park would delight as Olmsted’s grand tree plan unfurled. (Today, sadly, the park’s meadows no longer hold to this imaginative scheme.)

Other brilliant touches were more rapid to reveal themselves. The Lake, for example, opened right on schedule. On December 11, 1858, Central Park welcomed its first official visitors, the ice skaters. Roughly 300 people showed up on that first Sunday. A week later, 10,000 descended on the park. New York, suffering through the latest in a series of unseasonably cold winters, fell quickly into an ice-skating swoon.

Diocletian Lewis, one of America’s first physical fitness gurus, had created a recent stir, lecturing about the healthful benefits of outdoor activity. Here at last was an opportunity for cooped-up city dwellers to get outside during this harsh winter, visit the new park, breathe in the crisp air.

Soon all kinds of makeshift concessions sprang up to serve this iceskating craze. Skates could be rented for 10 cents an hour with a $1 deposit. Enterprising little boys wandered the ice, helping people affix skates to their boots for a 3 cent fee. This service was aimed especially at women, frequently decked out in so much finery that they had trouble bending over. For those too skittish to skate, armchairs for sliding over the ice could be rented for 15 cents an hour. The ideal configuration for this activity was an eligible gentleman pushing a seated young lovely over the ice. Yes, a yen for physical fitness may have been the original purpose for visiting the park, but something more basic turned this into a full-on frenzy.

In Victorian New York, ice skating was one of the few activities where unmarried men and women could mingle without chaperones. It was even possible for a woman to get ever so slightly coquettish, perhaps showing a hint of ankle as she glided past. “Many a young fellow has lost his heart, and skated himself into matrimony, on the Central Park pond,” a guidebook would note some years later. For the demure, or for those who wished to skate in peace without constant male attention, there was a separate ladies’ section of the Lake.

As the winter drew on, sometimes as many as 100,000 people a day visited the park. Skating proved so popular that the park was kept open well into the night. The Lake’s icy surface reflected the glow of newly installed calcium lamps. Vaux went skating. There is no record that Olmsted did.

Anytime the ice was thick enough for skating, a red ball was hoisted from the same tower used to signal that an explosion was imminent. The ball could be seen from quite a distance. This little touch was meant to save someone who had come all the way uptown the further trouble of trekking into the park if there was no skating to be done.

By the standards of nineteenth-century New York, skating was an unusually egalitarian activity, available to many, though by no means all, of the city’s residents. The frenzy was a huge sensation, covered by every paper, and writers couldn’t resist commenting on the atypical mix of people they saw on the ice. The New York Herald reported that the Lake contained “members of the homo genus of every age, and probably every country that constitutes our nationality.” The Times encountered skaters from “all ages, sexes and conditions in life, from the ragged urchin with one broken skate, to the millionaire.” And again from the Herald: “Masters Richard and William from Fifth Avenue, in their furs, and plain Dick and Bill from the avenues nearer the rivers, with bunting flying from joints and middle seams, were all mingled in joyful unity.” Breathless as they are, these newspaper accounts were a heartening sign about Central Park. As Olmsted stated proudly, the park was turning out to be “a democratic development of the highest significance.”

In the summer of 1859, a second feature in Central Park was opened to the public. This was the Ramble, a wild garden, densely planted and laced with intricate pathways that crossed and then recrossed, switched
and then switched back, until a person was hopelessly lost, and that was the fun of it.

The Ramble had been conceived as a way to disguise a bald hillside leading up to the embankment of the old Croton reservoir. Here — in stark contrast to his eons-to-unfold meadows — Olmsted planted fast-growing shrubs and flowers such as columbine, kalmia, and azalea. Vaux added a rustic arch, hidden away, spanning a path that had meandered deep into the Ramble. There was also a little stream that trickled down the hillside, spilled into a waterfall — and was totally engineered. It could be turned on and off with a spigot, and for its source it drew on the old reservoir, the one that had provided the city’s drinking water. A natural-looking “grotto” was built to hide the pipes.

Olmsted considered the Ramble his greatest work in the park. It was — and would remain — very much a work in progress. He worried ceaselessly over the plantings, constantly changing out one plant for another. With the Ramble, Olmsted was like a mad scientist, endlessly tinkering with the botanical formula, aiming for just the right mix of color and texture on that once-homely hillside.

New Yorkers by the thousands flocked to the Ramble, eager to enjoy a piece of countryside right in the city, just as Olmsted and Vaux had envisioned. In these times, the only hint of the rural for many city dwellers was a few stray flowers grown in window boxes. One of the great pleasures of the Ramble was vast beds of flowers, growing without limit. Visitors were particularly taken with the dandelions, not yet viewed as a nuisance plant. One account waxed rhapsodic about the “blessed dandelions, in such beautiful profusion as we have never seen elsewhere, making the lawns, in places, like green lakes reflecting a heaven sown with stars.”

But the most striking feature of the Ramble was a cave. It had been discovered, partially obscured by stone, when work on the hillside got under way. The stones were cleared, and the cave was wholly integrated into the park plan. The man-made Lake was extended so that it was possible to row a boat right into the entrance of the cave. The paths of the Ramble were construed so that just when visitors had tarried a bit overlong, they were suddenly confronted with this fearsome natural wonder.

The cave set people’s hearts palpitating. And if a man played it just right, a woman might faint into his arms. As ever with the adoption of new things — those first dime-store movie reels, VCRs, and the Internet come to mind —Central Park’s growing popularity was helped by having some racy content.

Around this time, Central Park began to receive its first reviews. The press treated the project like the debut of a symphony or the unveiling of a painting. This was a major artwork, and the reviews, as they began to roll in, tended to be unqualified raves. “Vast and beautiful... majestic,” said the New York Times. “A royal work... the beau-ideal of a people’s pleasure ground,” announced the Atlantic. But Olmsted and Vaux felt that the most satisfying assessment was contained in a comment by Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune. On first visiting Central Park, he took one look around and pronounced: “Well, they have let it alone a good deal more than I thought they would.”

Justin Martin is the author of Greenspan: The Man behind Money; Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon; and Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including Fortune, Newsweek, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in Forest Hills Gardens, NY.