The Early History Of New York City’s Central Park
Central Park on the Island of Manhattan in the county, city and state of New York, is probably the most recognizable public park in the world. It is featured in endless novels, movies and television shows. It is a true marvel to see in person. A forest, pastures and serinic lakes all found right in the middle of a seemingly endless concrete jungle. You can visit exotic animals on a lunch break or paddle a boat and take in the views of mother nature arrogantly making a stand in the most unnatural of settings.
Many of the parks millions of visitors take for granted having such an amazing escape from such an amazing city. After all to these individuals, the great park has always been there. They never knew it to be any other way. This need for an accessible escape was clearly needed as far back as 160 years ago. Though parts of the city at the time was still farmland, a plan for the future of this aggressively growing aggressive city was being made. in these plans was an answer for growing demand for public space.
Central Park History (part 1): The Planning Of Central Park
New York City’s population grew four times its size in the years between 1821 and 1855. With all these new people came the need for more space. The city’s population expanded northward and kept doing so constantly. The people were taking up all available space for living space. People would gather in what open spaces they could find. This usually meant large crowds gathering in places like cemeteries. People were doing all of this just to escape all the chaos of life in the large and growing city.
Central Park was actually not part of the city’s original plan of 1811 (The Commissioners Plan). During this time a man named John Randel, Jr., surveyed the grounds. A surveying bolt from his survey can still be seen today driven into a rock near the park’s Dairy. Any real planning would have to wait for the first American landscape artist, Andrew Jackson Downing. Who would openly publicized the city’s need for open public park space. Calling for places similar to Hyde Park in London or The Paris’ Bois de Boulogne in France.
The public outcry campaign was also carried by people like William Cullen Bryant A famous poet and editor of The Evening Post (better known these days as the New York Post). A park space was felt to be needed by many New Yorkers and was becoming a very popular idea among the more influential citizens of the city. This growing interest led to an attempt at building a park in 1850. After a year the plan was abandoned and the area became known as designate Jones’s Wood.
The efforts put in by many New Yorkers for an adequate public parks space, made the issue a big topic at the 1853 the New York legislature. The legal body settled upon a site for the park. The grand park would be built on a 778-acre lot. The area occupied a space from 59th to 106th Streets. The creation of the Park would not come cheap. The land alone came out to a cost of five million dollars, a very steep price tag for the time. This is actually the original real estate park mark up.
A Central Park Commission was organised by the New York State government. The commission was created to oversee the development and construction of the park. In 1857 a landscape design contest was held by this commission to pick the design plan for the park. The contest winners were Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted. These two will developed what would become known as the “Greensward Plan” the first actual design of Central Park.
The designers believed that the park (the first of its kind in the United States) was important to American democracy itself. Other than appearances, this park would not be like the royal parks and gardens of Europe where the affluent of society were prefered while lower classes were relegated to gather in other spaces. This park would be open to all who called the United States of America and New York City home. A defining monument to the idea of American democracy. A place where one may truly pursue life, liberty and happiness freely. A place where all men are equal, from the robber barons and the politicians all the way down to the dock workers and newsies. Everyone in this park would be equal.
Central Park History (part 2): Building The Park
The Greensward Plan was very ambitious. It included plans for 36 bridges designed by Vaux, Of which no two are alike. These bridges were elegantly yet artistically designed. Many materials would be used and range from natural choices like granite or local mica schist to more industrial choices such as cast iron. These Bridges are not only used to span over valleys and water within the park, they also span other walkways making it a central part of the parks overall architectural greatness. These bridges are still around today making the history of central park very rich.
The overall design of the park was magnificent, with large spaces and malls closed in with rows of matching trees and other plant life. Large terraces with beautiful fountains. Fields designated for sport, paths made for either drives or strolls. Most of the lakes match the original design with a few differences. One major difference called for a large rectangular reservoir in the center of the park called Croton Reservoir.
When plans were made for the site of the park the land was owned and occupied mainly by free black men and irish. Before the park could be constructed all of these people had to be removed from the land. Many had deep roots in this community and found the displacement a hard one to live with. Many saw the park as a way of removing the blightful poor from their land,( an accusation that came with nearly every urban development done in the future.) Making the neighborhoods that touched the park more affluent and agreeable to the parks main supporters. The ruling of eminent domain in 1857, 1600 people were moved from their homes and the communities were raised from the earth. The land for the first section of the park was now ready for construction.
Early on construction was faced with problems. There was a public outcry for the $5 million price tag of the land for the first section of the park. This steep price was actually over three times what the completed park was estimated to cost. In other words the park was at three times the budget before the land was even cleared to begin construction. This made the park project a popular grandstanding item for politicians at the state capital. The rest of the construction will be under tight public scrutiny and plagued by other individuals who wanted to milk the so called “Central Park cash cow.”
Construction project of this size and detail was a very unusual in america at this point in time. With only the National coming close to its scale, this would be no quick and easy task. Construction would take 16 years to complete 1857-1873. Most of the work was down by thousands irish and scottish emigrate laborers along with skilled workers from New York, New Jersey and across New England. They worked 10-12 hours for a $1.50 day’s pay.
Frederick Law Olmsted dealt with a constant onslaught from politically driven and crooked park commissioners. Fighting him every step of the way he was eventually replaced as Central Park superintendent in 1860. This would be the first of many times the park’s designer would be knocked from this particular post.
Andrew Haswell Green, a forme New York City Board of Education president. Took over as the commission’s chairman. He was of more book driven background and had very little practical experience related to construction. Despite his shortcomings he did speed up the construction of the park. He also purchased an additional 65 acres for the north side of the park at the north. This portion was between 106th and 110th Streets, This section of the park is known for its rugged exposed rock terrain.
A herd of sheep started grazing the park in the early 1860’s. They were primarily used to maintain the length of the parks lush grassy fields. But they were an early attraction for visitors to the park. Many would come to just see the sheep. Even today hectic city life makes seeing a sheep seem like an exotic vacation. That’s why animal sanctuaries are still part of the park today at places like the Central Park Zoo. The sheep herd will remained an attraction at the park til the 1930’s when they were moved to Prospect Park across the East river in Brooklyn.
The American Civil war broke out in the middle of the parks construction. It hindered the construction as less workers and money was available for the work that needed to be done. But just as the war hindered the park, the advances engineers made in the war actually helped shape the park. The use of explosives to clear rock and make many of the parks tunnels were some of the actual perks of the war for the park. Once the war ended more workers became available but stock market schemes in the late 60’s would hinder construction finance even more.
Despite all of the problems the park’s construction endured, much progress was continually made. In the years between 1860 and 1873, most of the construction of the park was completed. The major obstacles such as dredging swamps and clearing granite was knocked out. Over 18,500 cubic yards of soil had to be delivered in from out of the state to support the large and extensive list of trees and plants called for by the original Greensward Plan. Many photographs and detailed drawings exist documenting the construction process. Tools used for the parks construction included modern (for the time) custom-designed wheeled tree moving machines and steam powered digging equipment. But at the same time large groups of unskilled workers swung shovels and slammed sledge hammers. By the time the park was actually completed over 10 million cartloads of material had been moved out of the park, And more than 1,500 species of plant life had been placed into the park.
The park was completed in 1873. It is not only seen as a great American landmark but is also a great american triumph. the amount of blood sweat and tears to build the park and the surrounding modern city grid system shows the fortitude of the American spirit. This pride in american landscape building and earth changing advance ments are found in projects like the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate bridge to the Space program all the way to the geniuses of silicon valley. They are a triumphs built by true American grit and driven by whimsical American vision. All coming together to show the American dream in the form of countless man made landscapes across the country.
Central Park opened in stages over many years, during different ever changing economic climates, due to war and various market speculation schemes. It is because of this the actual architecture and overall landscape of the park reflects the original park for American Democracy dream of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted. Even more than they could’ve ever imagined. this park was forged along with the union itself. It has been said more gunpowder was used to make the park then used in the battle of Gettysburg. I find that fact to be very telling. It shows the lengths the American dream will go to defend and express that very dream. This is felt in places like Gettysburg National Park. It lives in Central Park.
All photos of Central Park History is credit to NYPL
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