the design of central park, a masterpiece of landscape architecture


in the 1850s, a competition was launched for the design of a large new park in manhattan. the project sought to address the recreational needs of the rapidly growing city by offering new yorkers an experience of the countryside where they could escape from the stresses of urban life. between late february and march 31, 1858, a total of 35 plans for the design were submitted and on april 28, 1858, the commissioners awarded first prize to ‘plan number 33’ — a design by landscape architects frederick law olmsted and calvert vaux. in the same year, the park’s first areas opened to the public, and central park was born.

 

more than 160 years later, central park still provides city dwellers with a sense of the countryside. below, we take a look back through the archives to discover the design of the park in more detail, and some of the elements that can still be found today.

into the archives: the design of central park, a masterpiece of landscape architecture
central park promenade looking south, june 1858 | image in the public domain, from the new york public library
(main image: map of central park, 1873 | image in the public domain, from the new york public library)

 

 

although it is now located in the center of manhattan, the site was initially far from the built-up areas of the city when planning first began in the 1850s. as noted by the central park conservancy — the private, non-profit organization that manages central park today — the sparsely populated site was home to small farms, industrial uses, and dwellings scattered between areas of marshland and rocky hills. the most densely-populated section of the site was a settlement known as seneca village, a predominantly african-american community, many of whom were property owners. the community’s existing structures were seized through eminent domain and razed. decades later, in 2001, a historical plaque was unveiled to commemorate the site where seneca village once stood. read more about the important history of seneca village here, and central park conservancy’s 2019 temporary outdoor exhibit, which shared decades of research about the village, and allowed visitors to learn more about its community members.

into the archives: the design of central park, a masterpiece of landscape architecture
martel’s new york central park, 1864
image in the public domain, from the new york public library

 

 

olmsted and vaux designed central park to incorporate a variety of landscapes and experiences. the plan eschewed symmetry, instead opting for a more picturesque design comprising sweeping lawns, woodlands, meandering streams, and broad lakes — all connected by a series of winding paths, a carriage drive, and a bridle path. however, constructing the park wasn’t an easy task. it’s estimated that more gunpowder was used to clear the area than was used at the battle of gettysburg during the american civil war, with around five million cubic feet (140,000 cubic meters) of soil and rocks transported out of the park.

into the archives: the design of central park, a masterpiece of landscape architecture
terminus of the main drive in central park at 110th street, 1866
image in the public domain, from the new york public library

 

 

in december 1858, the lake in the park’s southwestern section was the first feature to open to the public, followed by the ramble — a lush geographic feature — six months later. the section south of 79th street was mostly completed by 1860, just a year before the american civil war began. the commissioners decided to continue work on the park, and soon completed the bethesda terrace — a location that remains one of the park’s most iconic and well-known features. located in the heart of the park, the terrace is found at the north end of the long, tree-lined promenade known as the mall and overlooks both ‘the ramble’ and the lake.

into the archives: the design of central park, a masterpiece of landscape architecture
workers preparing for laying road, 1871
image in the public domain, from the new york public library

 

 

between 1859 and 1866, a total of 27 arches and bridges were built in central park. all were designed by calvert vaux — in some cases with the assistance of fellow architect jacob wrey mould. each one is unique, designed with various materials and decorative motifs, and with careful consideration of its placement in the landscape. known today as ‘gothic bridge’, bridge no. 28 is the most well-known of three ornate cast-iron bridges that carry pedestrians over the bridle path to the reservoir running track. the bridges ensure that conflicting forms of traffic are kept separate, allowing visitors to experience the park’s landscapes in a variety of ways.



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