In honor of Olmsted’s birthday today, we dive into the history of how he became chief architect of one of the most iconic parks in America.
A Man in Search of a Job
In the summer of 1857, 35-year-old Frederick Law Olmsted desperately needed money (the economy was in bad shape, he had been part of a failed publishing venture and he was in debt to family and friends). One day in August, while taking tea at an inn in Morris Cove, Connecticut, he happened to learn that the Central Park board, which was overseeing plans to build a park in the middle of New York City, was looking for a superintendent at a salary of $3,000/year. Olmsted quickly decided to apply for the position.
Olmsted’s past experience — he’d been a farmer, yet had more recently worked in journalism and publishing — didn’t make him a shoo-in as superintendent, but his application had other strengths. Powerful men in New York, including James Alexander Hamilton (son of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton) and writer Washington Irving, offered their support. And because Olmsted was a Republican who lacked strong political ties, he was acceptable to both Republicans and Democrats.
Olmsted was named as superintendent in September 1857 — but at a salary that was half what he’d initially expected. However, the pay cut didn’t keep him from accepting the position. In a letter, he admitted to his brother, “On the whole, as the times are, I shall think myself fortunate if I can earn $1500.”
Beginning of a Beautiful Partnership
As superintendent, Olmsted oversaw the draining and clearing necessary to transform a swampy and rocky 770-acre site into more manageable land. He did his job well, but it had nothing to do with park design. In fact, Olmsted only began to consider designing Central Park thanks to architect Calvert Vaux.
Vaux convinced the park board to hold a design competition, then asked Olmsted to collaborate with him on a submission. This invitation wasn’t because Vaux had somehow discerned what would turn out to be Olmsted’s prodigious talent for landscape design — instead, Vaux knew that as superintendent, Olmsted would have a wealth of topographical information to offer (the topographical map that design contestants were supposed to work with was reportedly inaccurate).
Olmsted’s supervisor, Egbert Viele, had submitted a design, so Olmsted was hesitant about entering the competition. But when he broached the subject with his supervisor, Viele made it clear that he wasn’t worried about Olmsted; Olmsted therefore agreed to partner with Vaux.
The Best Design
Because they both had day jobs — Olmsted as park superintendent, Vaux at his architectural firm — the pair had to collaborate at night and on weekends. The competition’s closing date was April 1, 1858, and they worked up until the very last minute; in fact, their submission, which was called Greensward, was handed in after the deadline (but fortunately still accepted).
Greensward offered winding paths and groves of trees intended to make the rectangular Central Park site more enticing. It also contained an ingenious solution for traffic that needed to cross the park: sunken roadways that would leave parkgoers undisturbed. The 33 designs in the competition were of varying interest and quality — one plan wanted meadows shaped in the form of the world’s continents, while another submission was nothing more than a drawing of a pyramid — but Greensward was in a class by itself. It won first prize.
Vaux and Olmsted had fully partnered on the design. However, it was Olmsted who was named architect-in-chief of Central Park in May 1858 — though it was Vaux, not Olmsted, who was the actual architect. Olmsted got the promotion as he was already in place as superintendent, and would be the one to supervise most of the work in the park. Vaux was given the title of Olmsted’s assistant.
Fighting the Demands of the 1%
The design win and the position of architect-in-chief didn’t mean that Olmsted and Greensward had a smooth path ahead. Soon two wealthy and powerful commissioners on the Central Park board — Robert Dillon and August Belmont — came up with a few design “improvements.” One called for the creation of a straight promenade, Cathedral Avenue, that would run almost the entire length of the park.
Cathedral Avenue upended Olmsted and Vaux’s design, as the long tree-lined street would destroy their vision of a separate green oasis in the city (which was a desperate need — at the time, poorer citizens had to visit cemeteries when they wanted recreational space). But Dillon and Belmont were accustomed to getting what they wanted. They took out advertisements in favor of their changes, which began to receive positive attention.
Fortunately, Olmsted still had connections to New York City’s newsmen, and showed some of them how the proposed alterations would destroy his design. The writers and editors who were convinced voiced their support in print; one wrote about Greensward, “It is not only so beautiful in its grand outlines and its details, but so complete, symmetrical, and consistent with itself, that it can hardly be changed in any essential point.” Though there would be smaller alterations, the tide of public attention turned, and overall the Olmsted/Vaux plan was safe.
A Park for All the People
From the moment Central Park first opened for ice skating on December 11, 1858, it was a hit with the public. And while Olmsted was glad that people liked the park, he also wanted park visitors to follow some guidelines. He’d once noted, “A large part of the people of New York are ignorant of a park…. They will need to be trained in the proper use of it and be restrained in the abuse of it.”
To accomplish this, Olmsted posted hundreds of signs for visitors (forbidding actions such as throwing stones, annoying birds and picking flowers or leaves). He also assembled a force of park keepers. These keepers were taught to interact respectfully with the public, while still enforcing park rules; to make it expressly clear that they were not part of the regular city police force, they sported gray uniforms instead of blue.
Under Olmsted’s guiding hand, Central Park succeeded in becoming a locale where all members of society were welcome. As he’d wanted, it offered “healthful recreation for the poor and the rich, the young and the old, the vicious and the virtuous.” And if he were to see his park today, Olmsted would find that it’s still a beloved spot where New Yorkers and visitors alike can enjoy themselves.