Freitag, 3. Februar 2012

Central Park



In 1857, the City owned about 770 acres between Fifth and Eighth avenues, from 59th to 106th Street (within the next five years to be extended to 110th Street), sparsely settled by squatters, and supporting such unsavory enterprises as slaughterhouses and associated glue works. The City employed some 500 laborers under the direction of the Chief Engineer, Egbert L. Viele, and a rather nebulous plan was being followed in the attempt to convert a dismal and barren region with outcroppings of jagged rocks into a verdant retreat. This situation looked rather hopeless when Frederick Law Olmsted, who bad been a successful scientific farmer, a topographical engineer, and had an inherent interest in landscaping, applied for the position of Superintendent. After some vicissitudes he was given the assignment, mostly because the name of Washington Irving (an invited consultant to the Board of Commissioners of Central Park) appeared among his papers. Olmsted's duties were to act as executive officer for the Engineer with respect to the laborers, and to have charge of the police force in the park. Obviously his powers respecting the design were limited.

First study of design for the Central Park. Woodcut, after Olmsted and Vaux's Greensward plan, 1858. (Description of a Plan for the Improvement of the Central Park, New York, 1868)


Early in 1858 the Board of Commissioners launched a competition for an articulated plan for improving Central Park, offering premiums of $2,000, $1,000, $750 and $500 for the first four prizes. Calvert Vaux, a British architect, who had come to the United States in 1850 to work with Downing, proposed to Olmsted that they collaborate on a design. Olmsted at first refused on the basis that it would be showing insubordination to his superior, but when he learned that Viele did not care, he accepted. Their entry, entered anonymously under the name Greensward, was the last of 34 designs to reach the judges. It was awarded first place on 28 April 1858. During the following month Olmsted was given the title Architect-in-Chief of Central Park, and Vaux was appointed Consulting Architect.

Panorama of Central Park. Lithograph by John Bachmann, 1868. (Museum of the City of New York)

The precinct was rectangular, measuring 1/2 mile east to west and about 2 1/2 miles north to south. In the exact middle was a rectangular reservoir about a third of the width of the park and extending on a latitude with 79th to 86th Street. Directly above it was a much larger irregular new reservoir, that spanned four-fifths the breadth of the park, leaving only narrow passages to either side. Provision had to be made for commercial traffic crosswise through the tract, which problem was solved by the introduction of four transverse roads, that were sunken, and the drives above furnished with overpasses thickly planted to conceal the lower roadways. The northernmost transverse road skirted the upper tip of the new reservoir. The second ran between the new and old, and the third crossed immediately to the south. The largest uninterrupted section of the park interlay the third and fourth transverse roads, roughly between 65th and 79th streets. Just east of an imaginary center line here and running obliquely was a formal promenade called the Mall. Its northern extremity was the Plaza, where monumental stairs descended to the Terrace featuring the Bethesda Fountain. Central Lake and the hilly Ramble were beyond. The Mall was oriented toward Vista Rock, the focal point of the park and on which stood a wooden lookout, replaced in 1869 by the small stone Romanesque-manner castle called the Belvedere. The open field west of the Mall was originally called the Parade Ground, and by the late 1860's had become known as the Green. Containing about 15 acres, this was the largest meadow in Central Park until the old reservoir was emptied in 1929 and made into the Great Lawn in 1935. The Mineral Spring Pavilion, near Eighth Avenue and 70th Street, and the hexagonal Music Stand, on the Mall near the Plaza, had cusped arches supported on slender colonnettes, and flaring, complex roofs, reminiscent of Saracenic architecture. Below the fourth transverse road were the Play Ground to the west and the Pond in the southeast corner. Facing the Pond, and accessible to the south transverse road for supplies, stood the Dairy, a stone and wooden gothic chalet designed by Vaux. Its porch was hit by a truck and subsequently removed about 1950. A preexisting building, still intact, is the Arsenal, at Fifth Avenue and 64th Street, erected in 1847, converted into the Museum of Natural History about 1870, and remodeled for Department of Parks offices in 1923. The main entrance to Central Park is at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, originally planned with a small plaza. The other three corners were indented by circles in the 1860's. The various parts of the layout were woven together by freeflowing drives and bridle paths, meandering walks shaded by clumps of trees, providing scale in opposition to the open grasslands beyond, and leading to picturesque wooded promontories, such as the Ramble. The creation of a landscape garden in the middle of the nineteenth century is related to the taste for landscape paintings of the same period, exemplified in the work of the Hudson River School of artists, composed of such men as Thomas Doughty, Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, George Inness, Frederick E. Church, and the Hart brothers, James M. and William. Olmsted's park meadows are equivalents to canvases by Inness, and his rambles to those of Durand.

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