The Great Competition to Design Central Park and How It Was Won
A request came into Ask NYPL, the Virtual Reference Service of The New York Public Library from The Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site of The National Park Service (that is celebrating its 100th Anniversary this year) for information on the competition for the design of Central Park in New York City: the most famous creation of Olmsted and his later partner Calvert Vaux.
The Central Park Commission of New York had acquired most of the property in central and northern Manhattan that would become Central Park but had not yet chosen a design for the Park. A competition was announced in the fall of 1857 with the first prize to be awarded in the spring of 1858 for the best plan. The holdings of The New York Public Library enable one to see both publicly (and behind the scenes) how this competition was conducted and the reasons why Olmsted and Vaux’s design for Central Park was the winning one.
The initial public proposal for “Plans for the Central Park” is reflected in a small classified advertisement in The New York Times of October 30, 1857 stating: “The Board of Commissioners of Central Park offer the following premiums for laying out the Park … For the first … $2000.” Topographical sketches and certain “particulars” could be obtained at the Board and “must be presented by the First Day of March, 1858.” The public was not apprised of the “particulars” specified for the plans. However, the General Research Division of the NYPL does hold the original: Documents of the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park for the year ending April 30, 1858 that includes: "Document No. 8. Friday, September 11, 1857” requiring that the total cost of the Plans not exceed the amount allocated by The New York State Legislature: "about $1,500,000" (like most public works in New York City, this was akin to the opening bid in a game of chance) and eight initial specifications that all plans submitted to the Board must conform to as well as the Minutes of the Board of Commissioners for 1858. However, further proceedings of the Board appeared in The New York Times of February 3, 1858 that added significant additional environmental and engineering specifications for the Central Park plans and as a consequence the Board extended the deadline for an additional 30 days: until April 1, 1858, as it was expected “many would be unable to complete them.” Olmsted and Vaux would deliver their plans to the Arsenal in Central Park so late on the night of March 31 that they had to leave them with the janitor.
Between late February and March 31, 1858, 35 plans (33 competing and two non-competing) for the design of Central Park were submitted. In fact, although certain authors on Central Park do not believe a record of the competing plans exists: the Microfilms Division of the NYPL does hold the full text of all these plans submitted as: Descriptions of plans for improvement of the Central Park and to fully comprehend why Olmsted’s plan was selected it is necessary to compare it to these others that were passed over. The Commissioners awarded First Prize to “Plan Number 33”: that of Olmsted and Vaux as announced on April 28, 1858 and officially recorded in The Second Annual Report of the Commissioners (1858). Plan Number 33 was sub-titled and would later be famously known as: “Greensward.”
Olmsted had started employment at Central Park in August, 1857 (barely a month before the Competition was announced) and commented: “It would have been difficult to find another body of land . . . upon the Island [with] . . . less of the desirable characteristics of a Park.” He worked under Egbert Viele, the Chief Engineer of the Park. Olmsted at first declined to enter the competition as he feared he would offend his superior whose design of 1856 had been accepted by a previous Park Board and who also planned to enter the 1857 competition. But when Viele contemptuously announced his indifference, Olmsted and Vaux entered the competition. Although party politics certainly played a role in the selection of Greensward (Olmsted’s plan received the votes of six Republicans but also one Democratic vote to win) it almost certainly also reflected recognition of the Commissioners of the merit of the Greensward plan.
Greensward demonstrated a remarkable degree of scope, research, foresight and detail that is simply unmatched in the other plans (the original Greensward plan is 35 pages and its “Particulars of Construction …” is 31 pages). Greensward noted that in every decennial United States Census from 1800 to 1850: “the city’s rate of increase has been found to be overrunning the rate previously established” and that the area of the City around the Park would soon be densely settled and land too costly if not impossible to obtain. This foresight would have consequences for Greensward. Central Park should have a green barrier of trees and shrubs on its perimeter to “plant out” the City in order to create a visual and auditory asylum for the citizens to enjoy. More significantly, the specifications required four transverse roads through the park to carry cross town traffic. However, Greensward (alone among the proposed plans) designed the transverse crossings in cuts below the surface of the ground in order that the Park’s more than 750 acres and 2.5 miles of space not be “broken up” into a series of compartmentalized parks and that the transverses not become: “crowded thoroughfares with nothing in common with the park.”
The specifications also included features that Olmsted and Vaux complied with although they ultimately foresaw a very different use. A “Parade Ground” was required but Olmsted (correctly) hoped it would ultimately become: “a great open common, a place where children may run about and play until they are tired, in nobody’s way and without danger of being run over or injured.” The specifications also required the emplacement of various “buildings and structures” but Greensward stated all buildings should be of “modest dimensions” and: “entirely subordinate to the main idea” of creating scenery. The border plantings, sunken transverses and dress grounds would then enable Olmsted and Vaux to concentrate on the landscape of the park with its carefully structured “circulation system” for pedestrians, riders and carriages that would enable those using one mode of movement to enjoy the scenery of the park (without interfering with the views of others).
Finally, Greensward reflects certain distinct tenets of Olmsted’s personal philosophy and these are reflected in The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted that are held by the Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy of the NYPL. Olmsted viewed the development of Central Park as a: “democratic development of the highest consequence” by which he meant that it would disprove the claims of some that it was useless to create parks open to all the citizens of New York City. Central Park, he hoped, would go far to disproving this: “fallacy of cowardly conservatism.” Later Olmsted and Vaux would successfully oppose the construction of imposing gates that they felt might deter common citizens from entering the Park. Olmsted even instructed the force of “Park Keepers” to treat all citizens (even those who committed crimes) with “gentlemanly respect.” In addition, Olmsted designed all the various sections and even the smallest nooks and crannies of the Park in accordance with his deeply held belief in the profound and “unconscious” interplay of sometimes “picturesque” but at other times “pastoral” scenery that he viewed as having a salubrious effect on the urban resident’s psyche. In fact, Greensward sought to facilitate the visitor’s immersion in what Olmsted would term: “unconscious—or indirect—recreation.”
After Greensward’s adoption and later additions, Olmsted and Vaux would have to constantly defend these and other defining features of the Park from attempted revisions by political appointees and cost cutters appointed to the Parks Commission. However, in the 18 months between May of 1858 and October of 1859 that Olmsted served as “Architect in Chief and Superintendent” (with Vaux as “Consulting Architect") he was able to bring the construction of the lower Park to virtual completion and laid the basis for the form of the upper Park by often working 18 hours a day to direct 3,800 men to drain, dig, blast, lay massive amounts of stone and earth and landscape the park. Olmsted requested some of this stone from ongoing City construction projects and also obtained “the liberty to take [vast amounts] of street manure” to fertilize the freshly planted trees and shrubs. Olmsted and then Vaux continued to work (but under ever greater political and financial constraints) until 1863. Olmsted would consult on the Park under various City administrations until the 1870s.
Olmsted later wrote of his role in Central Park: “It is impossible … to estimate the strength of my devotedness to the matter. There was no hope on earth that I would not have sacrificed to my desire to hold that position … A great deal of disappointed love … and downtrodden pride fastened itself to that passion.”