Updated: Oct 16, 2021
Though it appears to be natural, the park was built according to a great plan.
By: Bart Boehlert
All photos courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy unless noted.
Nearly 40 million visitors enjoy Central Park each year, marveling at the natural beauty and peaceful respite found in the middle of Manhattan. Particularly during the pandemic, New Yorkers have sought out Central Park to find comfort in nature and physically distance outdoors.
Most visitors assume that the park's lawns and trees and lakes are part of the original landscape of the area, but in fact Central Park was entirely conceived and built in the mid-1850s through the vision of two great designers and the physical labor of tens of thousands of workers. Today, Central Park is considered by some--including Sara Cedar Miller, author of Central Park, an American Masterpiece---to be the most important American work of art of the 19th century.
New York City quadrupled in size in the early 1800s. Soon, civic leaders called for a great public park where New Yorkers could escape the crowded city and enjoy the outdoors in a free and healthy, natural environment. In 1853, the state legislature decreed that 780 acres of rocky, swampy land in the middle of the city--which would later grow to 843 acres--be transformed into the country’s first landscaped park. Small villages on the land where Irish immigrants and Black Americans lived, including Seneca Village, were seized and razed through eminent domain. A competition was then announced to find the best design for what would become Central Park.
Frederick Law Olmsted - Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library
Out of the 33 plans submitted, the winning design was created by Frederick Law Olmsted, who would go on to be the United States' greatest landscape architect, and his partner, architect Calvert Vaux. While visiting British public parks, Olmsted saw how important they were to the physical health and emotional well-being of residents. He favored the natural, flowing style of English gardens over the formal, geometric plans of French estates that were obviously planted by the hand of man, such as those at Versailles. Olmsted also appreciated that British public parks were shared equally by all citizens. In New York City, only certain residents had access to locked enclaves like Gramercy Park. The designers wanted to create a place where people of all classes and conditions could come together for rest and relaxation.
Olmsted and Vaux considered themselves artists and equated their work with the tradition of 19th century American landscape painting. American artists at the time were defining an identity through art that was simpler, more natural, as well as more democratic and free than European art. The Hudson River School, which celebrated the natural beauty of upstate New York, particularly inspired Olmsted and Vaux. They worked to create similar “pictures” in Central Park so that visitors would travel through “passages of scenery” made up of artfully composed spaces and vistas.
Construction of the park started in 1857 and lasted 20 years. It was particularly difficult to build because of the rocky, swampy landscape. Trees would not grow in its soil, so 18,500 cubic yards of topsoil were brought in from Long Island and New Jersey for 5,000,000 trees and shrubs to be planted. Gunpowder blasted away rocky outcrops, swamps were drained, lakes were dug out, and sweeping hills were built up. Vaux designed 39 bridges and arches--no two alike--out of rustic wood, cast iron, local rocks, limestone, and brick. The most brilliant aspect of their design was sinking the four transverse roads through the park onto a lower level and hiding them with foliage, keeping visitors unaware of crosstown traffic. Throughout the construction, the designers demanded that everything “be made more natural.” Towards its completion, Olmsted declared, “the park throughout is a single work of art.”
Central Park officially opened in 1876 and is still one of the greatest achievements of artificial landscaping. Its grand views, arching trees, graceful paths, rocky ravines, and New York City tap water-fed streams and lakes continue to delight thousands of visitors daily. Birds love Central Park as well, and the sounds of birdsong can be enjoyed during any visit. Since it’s located on the Atlantic Flyway bird migrating route, Central Park hosts more than 200 species of birds each year and is a world-famous bird watching location.
The Lake - Photo Courtesy of Bart Boehlert
To maintain, renovate, and restore the park, the non-profit Central Park Conservancy was formed in 1980. The organization is officially the “keeper of the park” and is responsible for its ongoing care and improvement, which is an expensive operation. The Conservancy relies on public support and donations can be made here.
More than 150 years later, Olmsted and Vaux's masterwork continues to delight and rejuvenate visitors throughout the year. At the edges of the quiet park, Manhattan towers rise around it, combining nature and architecture in a single composition. To stroll under the tall trees of the park and catch a glimpse of one of the city’s great buildings looming overhead is to behold the lasting genius of New York.