Friday, July 13, 2012

The Boundaries of Central Park

Begun in 1858, the construction of New York City's Central Park was largely completed by 1864, in the midst of the Civil War. The park below 102nd street was fully open by the end of 1863, the same year when the park's four northernmost blocks, from 106th to 110th streets, were finally acquired after a four-year delay.

The 65-acre parcel brought the park's final area to 843 acres. In the annexed northeast corner, work gangs transformed 12 acres of low-lying swampland into the Harlem Meer (above, dominated by the contemporary boathouse, officially named the Charles Dana Discovery Center). The rest of the area was landscaped with a wilder, craggier, more rugged æsthetic (below) than the pastoral landscape of the bulk of the park to the south: a design decision which—in the puritanical eyes of the fanatically penurious comptroller, Andrew Green—had the overriding merit of being delightfully inexpensive to build. 

The park's designers and the remaining seven commissioners not involved in the war effort then turned their attention to properly defining the park's boundary with the city. The park borders and its main gates were seen as the crowning element to their triumphant construction campaign, but the question of their materials and form became mired—yet again, as had many prior such questions—in an economic, æsthetic, political and class battle.  

Enter Richard Morris Hunt (above), the first American architect to study at the École des Beaux-arts and who, beside his talent, had the brilliant foresight to launch his career by having himself born to the wealthy and influential Hunt family of Vermont. His grandfather had been lieutenant governer of Vermont, his father Jonathan was a representative in the New York State legislature and partner in a prominent Manhattan law firm and his brother-in-law, Charles H. Russell, just happened to be a park commissioner. 

Then in his late thirties, Hunt stood at the outset of an illustrious career which would be crowned by commissions for the main facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, and he was already a prominent society architect, designing Loire Valley châteaux on Fifth Avenue and in Newport for Marquands, Vanderbilts, Belmonts and Astors. (Below: 660 Fiifth Avenue, the residence of William K. Vanderbilt.)

With the park's chief landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, in self-imposed exile in California and his partner Calvert Vaux reduced to a unsalaried consultant's role after both resigned in May of 1863 in the face of Green's maneuvers to displace them by radically expanding his powers as comptroller, commissioner Russell was able to induce the rump board to approve his brother-in-law's designs for four elaborate, beaux-arts entrance plazas for the southern border of the park in April 1864. (Below, Hunt's design for Fifth Avenue at 59th Street, with the site of the Plaza Hotel occupied by a transplanted Tuileries Palace.)

Hunt, quite naturally, saw his designs as "elegant and appropriate" mediators between the city's built fabric and the park, and an ally promoted them in the New York Post (with no mean rhetorical flourish, even for a florid age) as a means to transform the park into "one great open air gallery of Art, instead of being, as some dreamers fancy it, a silent sketch of a rural landscape caught up and enclosed within the raging tumult of a vast metropolis."  

Comptroller Andrew Green, though a peculiarly nineteenth-century Puritan version of a megalomaniac, was nonetheless a profound admirer of the talents he had displaced and considered Olmsted and Vaux's Greensward plan as something of a holy vision—to the point where he stated in his memoirs, dictated to a spinster neice (one must chuckle at the clichéd Victorian perfection of that situation)—that he himself had largely been responsible for it. Thus Green was not particularly enamored of Hunt's bombastic (and expensive) plazas and, since he was now running the show and (grudgingly) paying the bills, he delayed their execution in favor of completing construction of the Harlem annex.

Green's delay allowed Calvert Vaux (above)—himself no slouch when it came to cultivating influential New Yorkers and the press—to mount a counter campaign to induce the commissioners to renounce Hunt's project. Playing the egalitarian card, Vaux characterized the design as anti-democratic and "continental" and conceived for the "panjandrum," not the common man.

To deadly effect, he likened Hunt's plazas to the antechambers of Versailles: "the imperial style presumes that people wait, wait and hang around, and provision is made for clients, courtiers, subordinates and laqueyes" (sic) to cool their heels in suitable splendor. He went on to say that the average New Yorker did not need such airs, and exclaimed, "How fine it would be to have no gates" in the park at all, and "to keep open House and trust all always."

Hunt's plazas, doomed as much for their massive cost as for their obvious æsthetic clash with the park's pastoral simplicity, were eventually shuffled aside, though Hunt exhibited his drawings at the Academy of Design in 1865 to force the issue, to no avail. The question of the form of the park's actual enclosure then came to the fore. Several commissioners admired the spiked iron fences enclosing Parisian parks but Olmsted, quoting Ruskin, noted that "An iron railing always means thieves outside or Bedlam inside."

After "six months of serious trial" and despite the large economies an iron fence offered, Vaux finally dissuaded the commissioners from adopting an "iron cage" in favor of a low stone wall that would allow the pedestrian's eye "to roam at will" over the landscape inside. Today, these rusticated brownstone boundary walls, cast green with moss (above), are as comfortingly familiar to New Yorkers as chrome-yellow taxis.

In 1866 the board issued a proclamation, stating: "The construction of the Park has been easily achieved because the industrious population of New York has been wise enough to require it, and rich enough to pay for it."

"To extend to each citizen a rightful welcome," the board named the park's four principal entrances along Central Park South to honor the people themselves: the city's "Artisans," "Artists," "Merchants" and "Scholars." 133 years later, in 1999, the Central Park Conservancy finally saw to it that simply inscribed stone markers (above) were inset into the boundary wall to identify each entrance.


  1. Your photos are terrific.

    I was interested in what you said about the park's designers concentrating on properly defining the park's boundary with the city. Even though the park borders and its main gates were well received, you note the question of their materials and form was inevitably part of an economic, æsthetic, political and class battle.

    I suppose it was inevitable but I wonder if the team could have handled the public debates better. Or was their timing, in the middle of a hideous civil war, doomed to conflict.

  2. Hello Hels and thank you dropping by and commenting!

    Actually the main problem--beyond the young RM Hunt trying to use his family connections to get a plum commission to make a name for himself in disregard for the actual designers of Central Park, who were doing a staggering job of it without his interference--was neither the war nor the actors' skill in shaping public opinion (they were all quite formidible politicians and proponents when need be) but the breakdown of the original park administration.

    I really only alluded to this in the post, but Olmsted and Vaux quit their posts in 1863 as chief designers in protest to the usurpations of Green, the mad Puritan Scrooge, who made their lives--and everyone else's who was involved in the project--a living hell. Green then essentially took over their design and site supervisory roles, as well as remaining paymaster and overseeing budget and hiring (tho he liked much better to fire people and drop their wages).

    So Green decapitated the successful design team late in the game, thinking he could carry on alone, but that left a power vaccuum (Olmsted and Vaux had by that time both become highly respected in NYC and were quite promient and politically well-connected in their own rights) which Hunt then tried to exploit.

    It shows the true extent their influence--and the folly of Green's believing he could "do it all himself"--by their ability to ultimately triumph in all these matters even though they'd been ousted and Olmsted himself not even being in NYC after 1863.

    The effect of the war was actually peripheral--though there was a nasty draft riot (against elites buying deferrals)--which ignited among one of the park's work gangs and spread into a generalized riot. Mostly it was beneficial as it reduced the board, making them easier to sway one way or the other--and allowed Green much savings due to the inflation and his insistant cutting of wages and contract fees.