Stadtplan von New YorkBavarian State Library
Central Park is one of America’s first and most famous urban landscapes, influencing urban planners and landscape architects for centuries. Its unique vision, construction and role is still relevant today as it was when conceived in the mid-19th century.
'...the first real park made in this country – a democratic development of the highest significance and on the success of which, in my opinion, much of the progress of art and esthetic culture in this country is dependent’ Frederick Law Olmsted, 1858
Spanning 843 acres, the history of the park is rich in narrative from its inception and throughout its growth. It provides a green retreat from the dense metropolis of Manhattan: a tourist destination, a place for recreation and leisure – an enduring amenity “for the benefit of the people”.
Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island, New York (1886) by Architects: Frederic Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904), Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895)Royal Institute of British Architects
A destination for all
In the mid-1800s, New York was a thriving industrial city with a growing economy. This made it an attractive destination for immigrants worldwide and the population grew rapidly. As Manhattan expanded and developed, an ambition to preserve the land arose, ensuring there was space for people to escape the built and busy environment.
Central Park (Summer) (1865) by John Bachmann|Julius Bien|Edmund Foerster & Co.The Metropolitan Museum of Art
In 1857, English architect Calvert Vaux invited American farmer and journalist Frederic Law Olmsted to join him in the design competition for Central Park. Together they developed the Greensward Plan. Their complementary skillset and personalities fostered a highly successful collaboration, although the project itself was complex from initial plans to construction.
A rocky foundation
The land designated for the park was predominantly rocky, rural terrain. The geology of the ground can be seen in some places of the park where exposed rock is visible or natural stone structures shape the landscape. By its completion, a mixed landscape of pastoral, picturesque and formal elements are set within the boundaries of the park. This, however, was not straightforward due to some of the land already being occupied by minority settlements.
The hidden story of Seneca Village
Bois de Boulogne, Paris (1860) by Artist: C WeberRoyal Institute of British Architects
The plan and realisation of Central Park was notable for the way it combined formal and naturalistic settings influenced by international landscapes. Both Vaux and Olmstead were well travelled and familiar with urban European parks. This led to a continuing dialogue between Europe and America, exploring ideas on the subjects of agriculture, horticulture and the art of placemaking.
View from the Fort near Bristol (1805) by Architect: Humphry Repton (1752-1818)Royal Institute of British Architects
The art of changing the land, informed by earlier practitioners such as Lancelot (Capability) Brown and Humphry Repton in England, was observed and documented.
Parc Monceau, Paris (1860) by Artist: Auguste-Victor DeroyRoyal Institute of British Architects
These ideas concerned the democracy of parklands, access for all and the importance of building parks to function as a lung for dense overcrowded cities. Also awareness of the movement of people and other vehicles. Greensward ensured that traffic would not detract from the park experience.
Birkenhead Park, Merseyside (1887) by Architect: Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865)Royal Institute of British Architects
English parks in particular offered inspiration for Greensward. Vaux was naturally familiar with the public parks of England, highlighting the social benefits of parks in Liverpool, including Birkenhead. Olmsted liked to visit the parks of British towns and cities too. He cited Phoenix Park in Dublin – twice the size of Central Park – as “the best public park in the world”.
Terrace Bridge (1856) by Architect: Calvert Vaux (1824-1895)Royal Institute of British Architects
The Bridges of Central Park
Vaux and Olmsted integrated ornamental bridges and archways into the design of the park. 39 were built in total, 36 remain today. No two bridges are alike, designed to blend into the natural environment. Photographs of selected bridges were sent to the UK, as a gift to the RIBA. These rare images of the park in its early formation were an opportunity to share the exciting developments taking place across the Atlantic.
Vaux designed the majority of the bridges with the assistance of the young British architect Jacob Wrey Mould. Bethseda Terrace, a central meeting point and destination in Central Park, is known for the intricate carvings and patterned tiles which were designed by Mould.
Marble Arch (1858) by Architect: Calvert Vaux (1824-1895)Royal Institute of British Architects
This is one of the pleasantest and most elegantly built of all these cool places for rest and refreshment. A Description of the New York Central Park, published in 1869, Clarence Cook
The only archway built of marble in Central Park. Unique in providing shelter, it had two continuous benches and access to a drinking fountain. It was demolished in 1938, partly due to disrepair as well being obsolete when the park was adapted to accommodate faster cars.
Bow Bridge (1860) by Architect: Calvert Vaux (1824-1895)Royal Institute of British Architects
Crafted out of cast iron, Bow Bridge was designed with Classical Greek features. The bridge spans 60 feet (18 metres) with a walkway constructed of ipe, a durable South American hardwood that turns a rich, deep red when wet.
A key feature of Bow Bridge were these eight 3.5 feet (1 meter) tall planting urns, which went missing around 1930. In 2008, after almost 80 years of them being lost, they returned to the Bridge through historic reconstruction.
Oak Bridge was a pedestrian bridge made from wood and steel beams. This photograph shows the rocky and undulating terrain of the land where the park was built. The original bridge featured cast iron balustrades and yellow pine floorboards but were replaced in 1982 due to disrepair.
Located at 73rd Street, this 16-foot (4.8-metre) arch provides a pathway from Conservatory Water to the Lake. Trefoil Arch is one of the few arches made from brownstone rather than sandstone. The arch's east and west sides differ in design. The eastern side is gothic in style with a clover archway, its western side has a rounded arch.
Made of boulders that originated in Central Park, this pedestrian bridge is the narrowest of the arches found in the park. The opening measures only 5 feet (1.5 metres). It offers a path for pedestrians both over and underneath the arch amidst the wooded area of the Ramble.
Sherry-Netherland Hotel and Savoy Plaza Hotel, New York (1920) by Photographer: Chester Henry JonesRoyal Institute of British Architects
Green gentrification and speculation
Since the development of Central Park, New York City has continued to grow, both in size and value. Continuously crowned the wealthiest city in the world, the surrounding streets of Central Park have become highly attractive locations, thus increasing the property value to an extent where the intended democratic and inclusive ideals of the park is met by a perimeter of property speculation and extreme wealth.
Nevertheless, a range of architecturally significant buildings, from commercial to cultural properties, embellish the edge of the park. They each tell their own story, yet they interconnect with the development of the park itself.
Central Park and Upper West Side Manhattan (2009) by Photographer: Eric FirleyRoyal Institute of British Architects
Model of urban planning
Central Park has become an attraction in its own right; a park recognised internationally for its success in urban planning. Other cities have emulated the preservation of public land and used the plan and design of Central Park as a model, acknowledging the benefits of green spaces within cities.
New York continues to develop; its buildings constantly changing as the architecture adapts with the times. The one constant thing in Manhattan, however, is Central Park - a natural retreat and a antidote to the busy city. Synonymous with the city, the park's reputation has fluctuated over the years; however, its fundamental function to be a space for the people still stands true to the original vision of Vaux and Olmsted .
Find out more about the importance of urban parks within the narratives: Parks and People and Urban Parks: From Industrial Wasteland to Palaces and Pavilions.
Explore more from RIBA Collections here
All images are from the RIBA Collections unless listed.
Image: Opening image - New York skyline - view from the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. Rights: Tim Benton / RIBA Collections
Image: Aerial view of Central Park and Upper West side Manhattan. Rights: Eric Firley / RIBA Collections
This exhibit is a special collaboration between RIBA and RIBA USA.
Curation and Interpretation by RIBA Public Programmes
Exhibition concept and research: Catherine Clark, Catherine Davis - RIBA USA
With special thanks to Smarthistory for the film on Seneca Village