History

 

 

In 1857, the Central Park Commission held the country's first landscape design contest and selected the "Greensward Plan," submitted by Frederick Law Olmsted, the park's superintendent at the time, and Calvert Vaux, an English-born architect and former partner of the popular landscape gardener, Andrew Jackson Downing. The designers sought to create a pastoral landscape in the English romantic tradition. Open rolling meadows contrasted with the picturesque effects of the Ramble and the more formal dress grounds of the Mall (Promenade) and Bethesda Terrace. In order to maintain a feeling of uninterrupted expanse, Olmsted and Vaux sank four Transverse Roads eight feet below the park's surface to carry cross-town traffic. Responding to pressure from local critics, the designers also revised their plan's circulation system to separate carriage drives, pedestrian walks, and equestrian paths. Vaux, assisted by Jacob Wrey Mould, designed more than forty bridges to eliminate grade crossings between the different routes.

The building of Central Park was one of nineteenth-century New York's most massive public works projects. Some 20,000 workers--Yankee engineers, Irish laborers, German gardeners, and native-born stonecutters--reshaped the site's topography to create the pastoral landscape. After blasting out rocky ridges with more gunpowder than was later fired at the Battle of Gettysburg, workers moved nearly 3 million cubic yards of soil and planted more than 270,000 trees and shrubs. The city also built the curvilinear reservoir immediately north of an existing rectangular receiving reservoir. The park first opened for public use in the winter of 1859 when thousands of New Yorkers skated on lakes constructed on the site of former swamps. By 1865, the park received more than seven million visitors a year. The city's wealthiest citizens turned out daily for elaborate late-afternoon carriage parades. Indeed, in the park's first decade more than half of its visitors arrived in carriages, costly vehicles that fewer than five percent of the city's residents could afford to own. Middle-class New Yorkers also flocked to the park for winter skating and summer concerts on Saturday afternoons. Stringent rules governing park use--for example, a ban on group picnics--discouraged many German and Irish New Yorkers from visiting the park in its first decade. Small tradesmen were not allowed to use their commercial wagons for family drives in the park, and only school boys with a note from their principal could play ball on the meadows. New Yorkers repeatedly contested these rules, however, and in the last third of the century the park opened up to more democratic use. In the 1880s, working-class New Yorkers successfully campaigned for concerts on Sunday, their only day of rest. Park commissioners gradually permitted other attractions, from the Carousel and goat rides to tennis on the lawns and bicycling on the drives. The Zoo, first given permanent quarters in 1871, quickly became the park's most popular feature.

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