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Category: Central Park

Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Calvert Vaux

Secret Places of Central Park Tour

The Creation of Central Park

In 1844, lamenting the lack of public areas in New York City for “health and recreation,” William Cullen Bryant, the romantic poet, journalist, and editor of the New-York Evening Post, advocated for “an extensive pleasure ground.”[1]  A few years later, the most prominent landscape gardener in the United States, Andrew Jackson Downing, wrote a public letter commenting that “What are called parks in New-York, are not even apologies for the thing.”[2]  Downing believed that a great park would boost New York’s standing with European cities and elevate the working man to a gentleman.[3]  Initially, the city looked to purchase a privately-owned 153-acre tract of land along the East River called Jones’ Wood, but in 1853, the city used eminent domain to acquire a less expensive, more centrally located 778-acre plot—expanded to 843 acres ten years later.[4]  The park would also protect wealthy, uptown landowners from further incursion by immigrants and African Americans and remove the approximately sixteen hundred “poor and wretched people” already settled there.[5]  An October 1857 advertisement in the New York Herald announced a design competition for the park.[6]  The winners were the team of journalist Frederick Law Olmsted, recently appointed Superintendent of the parkland, and the British-born architect Calvert Vaux, protégé of the recently deceased Downing.  Their plan was named “Greensward.”  Vaux wrote that their mission was to “translate Democratic ideas into Trees and Dirt” in creating a public park to serve the diverse, divided, and growing metropolis.[7]  In 1857, Olmsted was appointed Park Superintendent and Architect-in-Chief.  Construction began the following year during the Panic of 1857, providing work for thousands of unemployed laborers—20,000 by 1866.[8]  Together, Olmstead and Vaux managed the ambitious transformation of hundreds of acres of hilly, rocky, and swampy land into a fully-designed naturalistic landscape and the first large-scale urban public park in the United States.  Olmsted was confident that his artistic creation would alleviate many of the ills of urban life and calm the “rough element of the city.”[9]

In the 1973 FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, Laura Wood Roper, with cooperation from Olmsted’s son, set out to revive the co-designer’s status after it had “fallen upon neglect.”[10]  She describes his “almost religious belief in democracy” and his desire for “communicativeness,” which “distinguished the civilized man from the barbarian.”[11]  According to Roper, communicativeness involved creating community “regardless of regional, class, economic, color, religious, or whatever differences.”[12]  For Olmsted, this union of diverse people was “the essence of democracy,” a justification for the park’s creation, “and the last, best hope of earth.”[13]  By Roper’s account, Olmstead believed that government should play a role in encouraging “taste and refinement,” and public parks and gardens could serve that purpose.[14]  Besides being a pleasure ground for the wealthy, the park would be a means of cultivating genteel standards of good taste and behavior in the working class.[15]  According to Roper, under Olmsted’s guidance, landscape design went from “decorative to social aims,” and his work in civilizing urban life for the benefit of all people “constituted a heroic undertaking.”[16]  The biography set a standard for other works in the 1970s in telling the story of the park from Olmsted’s perspective.

Elizabeth Barlow’s Frederick Law Olmsted’s New York, published in 1972, and the companion to a retrospective celebrating Olmsted’s work, also adheres to the narrative of the designer’s reformer and democratic ambitions.  In Jeffersonian terms, Olmsted wrote that the government’s primary responsibility was to protect citizens in their “pursuit of happiness” against impediments “otherwise insurmountable.”[17]  Barlow states that he believed that public parks could serve that purpose and “humanize the city.”[18]  Both Roper and Barlow take a “great man” approach to Central Park’s history.  In the following decade, historians responded to the 1970s biographies, separating the park from Olmsted’s stated democratic ambitions and exploring it through social history.

Explore this history and more on the Secret Places of Central Park walking tour!

[1] William Cullen Bryant, “A New Public Park,” Bryant Library, last modified October 24, 2020,

[2] Morrison H. Heckscher, Creating Central Park, (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 2011), 12.

[3] Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 790-791.

[4] Heckscher, Creating Central Park, 15.

[5] Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, 791-792; Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (New York: Cornell University Press, 1998), 67.

[6] Heckscher, Creating Central Park, 21.

[7] David M. Scobey, Empire City: The Making and Meaning of the New York City Landscape, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), 9.

[8] Rosenzweig, Blackmar, Park and the People, 150.

[9] Geoffrey Blodgett, “Frederick Law Olmsted: Landscape Architecture as Conservative Reform,” Journal of American History 62, no. 4 (March 1976): 878; Catherine McNeur, Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 176.

[10] Laura Wood Roper, FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983 Reprint), xiii.

[11] Roper, FLO, 157, xiv.

[12] Ibid., xiv.

[13] Ibid. 

[14] Ibid., 344.

[15] Ibid., 93.

[16] Ibid., xiii-xiv.

[17] Elizabeth Barlow, Frederick Law Olmsted’s New York (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972), 30.

[18] Ibid., 8, 20.

Olmsted: Service & Art

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Frederick Law Olmsted, the co-designer of Central Park believed that every element added to the landscape design must satisfy human needs and not be created strictly for decoration. ” On the Central Park tour, we see the most beautiful bridges and arches that serve and protect the guests of the park. Here’s what Olmsted wrote:

“Service must precede art, since all turf, trees, flowers, fences, walks, water, paint, plaster, posts, and pillars in or under which there is not a purpose of direct utility or service are inartistic if not barbarous. … So long as considerations of utility are neglected or overridden by considerations of ornament, there will be not true art.”

Central Park’s Lake

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The Central Park Lake is a 20-acre man-made lake incorporating an existing water body but enlarged for Olmsted and Vaux’s design. In the winter of 1858, after only six months of work on Central Park, the Lake had its first season of ice-skating. The still photo above is from a 1900 movie. While skating is now prohibited on the Lake, there are two formal skating rinks in the Park. Rowboats can also be rented at the boathouse.

Central Park’s Secret – A Loaded Revolutionary War Cannon

Secrets of Central Park Tour

Secrets of Central Park TourWhile exploring the Revolutionary War/War of 1812 forts on the Secret Places of Central Park tour you’ll come upon a fortification which includes a genuine British cannon from the Revolutionary War.  Salvaged from the H.M.S. Hussar after shipwrecking off the East River in 1780, it was eventually donated to Central Park.  After being put into storage for a number of years, the Central Park Conservancy, in their plans to restore the Revolutionary War/War of 1812 fortifications, planned to put the artillery piece back on display.  While restoring it in 2013, they found a cannonball, wadding, and frighteningly enough, over a pound of gunpowder, making this, in theory, a still-loaded cannon since 1780.  The Bomb Squad were called to remove the explosive material, and eventually, it was put back on display for you to see!

Central Park’s Vanderbilt Gate

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Best Central Park Walking Tours - Secrets Central ParkAt the Fifth Avenue entrance to Central Park’s Conservatory Gardens near the top of Central Park, is a magnificent gate.  The wrought iron gate was not built for the gardens but was a gift of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney to New York City and originally stood in front of Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s mansion at Fifth Avenue and 58th Street–where Bergdorf-Goodman is today.  Designed by the great architect George B. Post, of New York Stock Exchange fame, along with Richard Morris Hunt, the house first opened in 1883.  The gate, designed by Post and produced in Paris in 1894, is a spectacular way to enter the center Italian Garden of the Conservatory Gardens.  See the gate on the Secret Places of Central Park walking tour.

Fort Fish in Central Park

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Central Park Tour

Fort Fish, in what is now Central Park was named after Nicholas Fish who, during the War of 1812, was on the City Committee of Defense to protect New York from British invasion.

Nicholas was also a good friend of Alexander Hamilton.  They were both in the Hearts of Oak militia in New York  (1st Battalion/5th Field Artillery Regiment) before and early in the Revolutionary War.  Both were at Yorktown and both were members of the New York Society of the Cincinnati (for which Fish was also president).  Fish named his son, Hamilton Fish, after Alexander Hamilton.  Hamilton Fish would go on to serve as New York governor and United States senator from New York.

In John Trumbull’s painting above called, The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis both Colonel Nicholas Fish and Colonel Alexander Hamilton can be seen on the bottom right. Fish is at the very far right and Hamilton is four men in.


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