In 2003, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Central Park Act, which designated the land we now call Central Park a public place. It was a hidden jewel of a show, tucked away in a corner of the American Wing’s mezzanine, where a viewer could often find herself alone with Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s thrilling drawings for the “Greensward” plan, as well as lesser-known entries in the 1857 competition for the park’s design. (My favorite: John Rink’s sublimely kooky “Competition Entry No. 4,” which appears less like landscape design than like something an outsider artist might have concocted from millefiori.)
Now, to celebrate the competition’s sesquicentennial last year, Morrison H. Heckscher, the chairman of the American Wing, has written Creating Central Park, a concise and well-illustrated history of the park. He begins by critiquing the 1811 plan that laid out Manhattan on “a simple grid plan, with absolutely no regard for the underlying natural terrain.” He cites horticulturalist Andrew Jackson Downing, who lamented in the 1840s that “what are called parks in New-York, are not even apologies for the thing; they are only squares, or paddocks.” Heckscher details an attempt in the 1850s to acquire Jones’s Wood (described by diarist George Templeton Strong as “very beautiful, and strangely intact for the latitude of Sixty-first Street”) for a public recreation ground, but the wood was eventually passed over in favor of the current park’s site, which had numerous advantages, from larger size to lower cost per acre to the possibility of integrating the city’s reservoirs within it.
Most of Creating Central Park concerns the 1857 competition (many of whose extant entries are here reproduced), the details of Olmsted and Vaux’s plan, and the process of building the park, including its decorative and architectural features. Because Central Park was a monumental public work, the tale of its construction is peppered with setbacks, chicanery, overruns, charges of corruption, and personal animosities, all of which were no doubt wearisome but now make for a good story.
Creating Central Park is a model of compaction—less a book than a long essay, lavishly illustrated with maps, drawings, and photographs—yet for all his brevity, Heckscher offers sufficient detail. Occasionally, however, he breezes past a topic that merits explication. For example, he writes that Richard Morris Hunt (who later designed the Metropolitan’s grand entrance wing) “was first consulted about the [design of the park’s 59th Street] gates in 1861 through the good offices of his brother-in-law, Commissioner Charles H. Russell,” but eventually had to enter his proposal into the 1863 competition. Heckscher comments that “at first, none of the twenty-one entries was chosen, but in the end Hunt’s design was selected.” He might have paused for a moment to tell us whether the whiff of nepotism rising from those sentences is borne out by the historical record, but he’s already off, like a brisk docent, describing the winning designs. His book is also sadly marred by indifferent production values (flimsy covers, garish tones in some of the reproductions) that detract from the aesthetic pleasure it otherwise affords.
Overall, however, Heckscher displays a scholar’s authority with no trace of an obfuscatory academic tone; his book serves as an excellent introduction to Central Park’s story but will also appeal to New York–history aficionados. He makes an eloquent case for the park’s importance—its ability to open vistas to people downtrodden by the relentless pace and the inhuman scale of the great city. To him, “the park remains today a living emblem of democracy” as much as it remains a triumph of nineteenth-century landscape design. He clearly understands why Vaux once enthused, “Nature first and 2nd and 3rd—Architecture after a while.”