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On February 12, 2005, 7,503 orange curtains unfurl across New York City’s Central Park from thousands of gates. The art installation, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “The Gates,” will be gone by the end of the month, but it will leave a lasting impression and be remembered as one of the best-known and most beloved works of site-specific public art.
Husband-and-wife artistic duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude first conceived of the project in 1979. The city rejected their proposal in 1981, but, as the artists later stated, the arduous process of getting approval for such a massive installation on city property was itself an artistic performance. “He adds a dimension to the work, no matter what he thinks,” Christo said of the parks commissioner who first rejected “The Gates.” After years of negotiating and resistance from the denizens of the Upper West Side, construction began in 2004 and Mayor Michael Bloomberg unfurled the first curtain on the morning of February 12, 2005.
Like the couple’s previous works, which included wrapping Berlin's Reichstag in cloth and hanging an enormous orange curtain across a Colorado mountain pass, “The Gates” was as conceptually simple as it was logistically challenging. It took over eight hundred workers to install the thousands of 16-foot-high gates, hung with cloth panels, which straddled 23 miles of Central Park’s pathways and transformed the park into a unique, ephemeral work of art.
Despite initial complaints from prominent locals like late-night host David Letterman, tourists flocked to see “The Gates” and most in the art world considered it an unmitigated success. “In the winter light, the bright fabric seemed to warm the fields, flickering like a flame against the barren trees,” wrote the New York Times. “Even at first blush, it was clear that ‘The Gates’ is a work of pure joy, a vast populist spectacle of good will and simple eloquence, the first great public art event of the 21st century.”
"The Gates" open in Central Park
Opening day was celebrated with a ceremony throughout the day where the vinyl fabric for each of the 7,503 gates was individually unfurled. The 23-mile-long art installation was only displayed for 16 days, but became one of New York City's most memorable public art installations. Outdoor artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude self-financed the project at an estimated cost of $21 million, which included costs incurred over a 26-year planning process and a $3 million donation to the Central Park Conservancy.
The gates were 12 feet tall and constructed in various widths to match Central Park's walking paths, from the narrowest at 5 feet 6 inches to the widest at 18 feet. The gates sat on large bases weighing from 615 to 837 pounds that were not anchored into the ground — an agreement with the city required that no modification be made to the park, and concerns over damage to the park had led three prior mayoral administrations to reject the proposal. After their two-week display, the gates were removed and recycled, with some pieces of the saffron material becoming souvenirs included in a later book.
The Gates via Mike Carlino on Flickr
The Gates being installed via Jessie Daniels on Flickr
Central Park History Overview
Central Park was the first landscaped public park in the United States. Advocates of creating the park--primarily wealthy merchants and landowners--admired the public grounds of London and Paris and urged that New York needed a comparable facility to establish its international reputation. A public park, they argued, would offer their own families an attractive setting for carriage rides and provide working-class New Yorkers with a healthy alternative to the saloon. After three years of debate over the park site and cost, in 1853 the state legislature authorized the City of New York to use the power of eminent domain to acquire more than 700 acres of land in the center of Manhattan.
An irregular terrain of swamps and bluffs, punctuated by rocky outcroppings, made the land between Fifth and Eighth avenues and 59th and 106th streets undesirable for private development. Creating the park, however, required displacing roughly 1,600 poor residents, including Irish pig farmers and German gardeners, who lived in shanties on the site. At Eighth Avenue and 82nd Street, Seneca Village had been one of the city's most stable African-American settlements, with three churches and a school. The extension of the boundaries to 110th Streetin 1863 brought the park to its current 843 acres.
The question of who should exercise political control of this new kind of public institution was a point of contention throughout the nineteenth century. In appointing the first Central Park Commission (1857-1870), the Republican-dominated state legislature abandoned the principle of "home rule" in order to keep the park out of the hands of locally-elected (and primarily Democratic) office holders. Under the leadership of Andrew Green, the commission became the city's first planning agency and oversaw the laying out of uptown Manhattan as well as the management of the park. After a new citycharter in 1870 restored the park to local control, the mayor appointed park commissioners.
In 1857, the Central Park Commission held the country's first landscape design contest and selected the "Greensward Plan," submitted by Frederick Law Olmsted, the park's superintendent at the time, and Calvert Vaux, an English-born architect and former partner of the popular landscape gardener, Andrew Jackson Downing. The designers sought to create a pastoral landscape in the English romantic tradition. Open rolling meadows contrasted with the picturesque effects of the Ramble and the more formal dress grounds of the Mall (Promenade) and Bethesda Terrace. In order to maintain a feeling of uninterrupted expanse, Olmsted and Vaux sank four Transverse Roads eight feet below the park's surface to carry cross-town traffic. Responding to pressure from local critics, the designers also revised their plan's circulation system to separate carriage drives, pedestrian walks, and equestrian paths. Vaux, assisted by Jacob Wrey Mould, designed more than forty bridges to eliminate grade crossings between the different routes.
The building of Central Park was one of nineteenth-century New York's most massive public works projects. Some 20,000 workers--Yankee engineers, Irish laborers, German gardeners, and native-born stonecutters--reshaped the site's topography to create the pastoral landscape. After blasting out rocky ridges with more gunpowder than was later fired at the Battle of Gettysburg, workers moved nearly 3 million cubic yards of soil and planted more than 270,000 trees and shrubs. The city also built the curvilinear reservoir immediately north of an existing rectangular receiving reservoir. The park first opened for public use in the winter of 1859 when thousands of New Yorkers skated on lakes constructed on the site of former swamps. By 1865, the park received more than seven million visitors a year. The city's wealthiest citizens turned out daily for elaborate late-afternoon carriage parades. Indeed, in the park's first decade more than half of its visitors arrived in carriages, costly vehicles that fewer than five percent of the city's residents could afford to own. Middle-class New Yorkers also flocked to the park for winter skating and summer concerts on Saturday afternoons. Stringent rules governing park use--for example, a ban on group picnics--discouraged many German and Irish New Yorkers from visiting the park in its first decade. Small tradesmen were not allowed to use their commercial wagons for family drives in the park, and only school boys with a note from their principal could play ball on the meadows. New Yorkers repeatedly contested these rules, however, and in the last third of the century the park opened up to more democratic use. In the 1880s, working-class New Yorkers successfully campaigned for concerts on Sunday, their only day of rest. Park commissioners gradually permitted other attractions, from the Carousel and goat rides to tennis on the lawns and bicycling on the drives. The Zoo, first given permanent quarters in 1871, quickly became the park's most popular feature.
In the early twentieth century, with the emergence of immigrant neighborhoods at the park's borders, attendance reached its all time high. Progressive reformers joined many working-class New Yorkers in advocating the introduction of facilities for active recreation. In 1927, August Heckscher donated the first equipped playground, located on the southeastern meadow. When plans were announced to drain the old rectangular reservoir at the park's center, Progressives urged than it be replaced by a sports arena, swimming pool, and playing fields. Other New Yorkers, influenced by the City Beautiful movement, proposed introducing a formal civic plaza and promenade that would connect the two museums at the park's east and west borders. Landscape architects and preservationists campaigned against these design innovations, however, and the site of the reservoir was naturalistically landscaped into the Great Lawn. Such debates over modifications of the Greensward Plan and proper uses of a public park have persisted into the present.
In 1934, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia placed Robert Moses in charge of a new centralized citywide park system. During his twenty-six year regime, Moses introduced many of the facilities advocated by the progressive reformers. With the assistance of federal money during the Depression, Moses built 20 playgrounds on the park's periphery, renovated the Zoo, realigned the drives to accommodate automobiles, added athletic fields to the North Meadow, and expanded recreational programming. In the early 1950s and early 1960s, private benefactors contributed the Wollman Skating Rink, the Lasker Rink and Pool, new boathouses, and the Chess and Checkers house. Moses also introduced permanent ball fields to the Great Lawn for corporate softball and neighborhood little league teams.
In the 1960s, Mayor John Lindsay's two park commissioners, Thomas Hoving and August Heckscher, welcomed "happenings," rock concerts, and be-ins to the park, making it a symbol of both urban revival and the counterculture. In the 1970s, however, severe budget cuts during a fiscal crisis, a long-term decline in maintenance, and the revival of the preservation movement prompted a new approach to managing the park. In 1980, the Central Park Conservancy, a private fundraising body, took charge of restoring features of the Greensward Plan, including the Sheep Meadow, the Bethesda Terrace, and the Belvedere Castle (designed by Vaux and Mould). From 1980 to 1996, the Central Park Conservancy was led by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, who was also appointed the Central Park Administrator in 1996, Karen Putnam assumed the dual private and public posts. By 1990, the private organization of the Central Park Conservancy contributed more than half the public park's budget and exercised substantial influence on decisions about its future. Central Park, however, continues to be shaped by the public that uses it, from the joggers, disco roller skaters, and softball leagues to bird watchers and nature lovers.
Above the Park, When 'The Gates' Open
Suddenly, New Yorkers with friends in high places are wondering: Are their friends in the right high places, that is, overlooking Central Park? And when is their party?
"The Gates," a $20 million art project by the artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, opens tomorrow in Central Park, and it promises to be a social event, not just an artistic one.
"Everybody I know who lives around the park is doing parties for 'The Gates,' said Annaliese Soros, who is planning two parties in her apartment on Central Park West. "The Christo events are happenings, and they attract a lot of enthusiasm. They attract a lot of people. They do something very special and very different. Berlin had five million tourists when he draped the Reichstag. We won't have that many here."
She meant in the city, not in her apartment. But some party-givers say the crowd they are expecting is bigger than they had originally planned. The guest list grew as friends called, and friends of friends and friends of friends of friends.
The 7,500 gates in the project have been installed throughout this week. Tomorrow morning, fabric will be unfurled from atop them. The project will be on view for 16 days.
Donna Rosen, who lives on the 43rd floor of a building a couple of blocks south of Mrs. Soros's, recalled her conversations with her caterer, Gretchen Aquanita, as they planned an open house in Mrs. Rosen's apartment. "I said, 'I think 75,"' Mrs. Rosen said. "Then I called again, 'I think we might be over 100.' Then I called, 𧈀.' She said, ɺhhgggh."'
As the gates were being set in place beneath Mrs. Rosen's floor-to-ceiling windows on Wednesday, the count was up to 240, and she was talking about Ms. Aquanita's plans for a menu to match the orange color of the fabric-covered gates on the park's pedestrian paths.
"She said, 'Shall we use saffron?"' Mrs. Rosen recalled. "I said, 'Of course."' Ms. Aquanita began planning shrimp and saffron salad.
Gail May Engelberg, who has invited friends to her apartment on Fifth Avenue, remembered chatting with Christo a couple of years ago at an event for the Guggenheim Museum. "I said, 'How's the project coming?"' she recalled. "I wanted to host my friends and be able for them to have a look down on 'The Gates' whether there is snow or ice or sunny blue skies."
For some, just looking out the window was not enough to make sure they had a clear view. "I walked over to the park to make sure that I could see the two windows of my apartment," said Rosamond Ivey, a trustee of the Art Gallery of Ontario, who is giving a "Gates" cocktail party in her apartment on East 79th Street between Madison Avenue and Park Avenue late next week.
Her guests will have drinks at her apartment after inspecting "The Gates" on a walk through the park. Then they will go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for dinner, where David Moos, the curator of contemporary art at the Ontario museum, will be joined by Jonathan Feinberg, an art historian who wrote a monograph on "The Gates."
Mr. Moos, whose museum has a Christo exhibition on display, said he is looking forward to seeing "The Gates" from ground level and from Ms. Ivey's apartment.
"If you think of Central Park as the great democratic American space, Jeffersonian, Whitmanic, in the heart of the metropolis, it is interesting to contemplate who has access to the aerial view," he said. "It puts into relief this political dimension."
And then there are the corporate parties. Budget Living magazine, for example, sent invitations for a breakfast-lunch-or-midday-break party that will begin at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday in a 24th-floor apartment with Oscar de la Renta furniture and 10 Christo images on the walls.
"It's more like a moving cocktail party all day, until it gets dark," said Donald E. Welsh, the magazine's founder.
And no, it will not break Budget Living's budget: the apartment, the furniture and the Christos are all borrowed.
Mrs. Soros, who lives on the ninth floor, will be closer to "The Gates."
"It will be like watching the Thanksgiving Day parade," she said. "I can practically touch the floats, and whoever is on the 36th floor cannot. From up there, you get, obviously, an idea. Down here, it's much more real and touchable. Here, you feel you want to go out and walk through the park and just be there."
Governor Cuomo Announces NYC's Largest State Park to Open in Brooklyn in 2019
Supports Governor's $1.4 Billion Vital Brooklyn Initiative Which Advances Critical Open Space and Recreation, Healthy Food, Education, Economic Empowerment, Violence Prevention, Healthcare, and Resiliency Initiatives Based on a Robust Community-Based Planning Effort
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced the largest state park in New York City will fully open in Brooklyn in the summer of 2019. The new 407-acre park will be named in honor of Shirley Chisholm, a Brooklyn-born trailblazer who was the first African American Congresswoman, as well as the first woman and African American to run for President. The park is a signature project under the Governor's Vital Brooklyn Initiative and complements the state's efforts to build 34 new or improved pocket parks, community gardens, playgrounds and recreation centers within a 10-minute walk for every Central Brooklyn resident.
The first phase of the park, which will be complete next summer when the park opens full-time, seven days a week, will feature 10 miles of trails for hiking and biking, including bike connector paths that will ultimately join the Pennsylvania and Fountain Avenue properties, waterfront access for kayaking, pop-up environmental education, a pier with a shade structure, picnic areas, concessions, comfort facilities, welcome and wayfinding signage and a park office. As part of today's announcement, Governor Cuomo directed relevant state agencies to start the process of park design and implementation.
"Our state parks are community treasures, and this new park transforms what was once landfill into exquisite open space, waterfront access and outdoor recreation for Brooklyn," Governor Cuomo said. "Shirley Chisholm led the fight to improve the health and wellness of underserved communities that we carry on today with the Vital Brooklyn initiative, and we are proudly naming this park after her in admiration for the example of leadership and devotion she set for all of us."
"Our work to revitalize Brooklyn continues with a transformational new state park named in honor of one of the greatest women in New York State history," said Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. "Throughout my career, I've looked to Shirley Chisholm as a role model and a strong woman who fought for her community. Her inspiration helped guide me toward a life of public service. It is an appropriate recognition to name this park for a Congresswoman and presidential candidate who spent her time in office working to move Brooklyn and our nation forward. This new state park is an important component of our Vital Brooklyn initiative and will enhance recreational opportunities and improve the quality of life for Brooklyn residents."
The new park is part of the Governor's $1.4 billion Vital Brooklyn initiative. Last month, Governor Cuomo announced New York State Homes and Community Renewal will finance 1,000 affordable homes for seniors on underutilized land owned by the New York City Housing Authority in Central Brooklyn. In April, Governor Cuomo launched phase two of Vital Brooklyn and announced five RFPs to construct more than 2,000 affordable homes and advance the initiative's $563 million commitment to build 3,000 units of affordable housing in Central Brooklyn. Earlier this summer, Governor Cuomo announced a $3.1 million investment to renovate and transform eight community gardens and deliver a much-needed direct water connection to 14 others, to be completed by fall of 2019. Prior to that, the Governor also announced flagship ambulatory care sites and partnerships with six Brooklyn-based federally qualified health centers to form the foundation of its $210 million, 32-site ambulatory care network.
Earlier last month, as the next step of the comprehensive initiative, Governor Cuomo announced new actions to increase access to nutritious foods and address chronic food insecurity and health disparities in Central Brooklyn communities. The Governor also announced a $1.825 million investment in new mobile markets, food insecurity screening for seniors, youth run farmers' markets, community gardens, and a food distribution hub siting study, to help ensure local communities have the ability to purchase fresh, local foods, and have the support they need for healthier lifestyles.
Phase 1 of the park is funded by a state investment of up to $20 million to open the ecologically restored property and make 3.5 miles of waterfront available to provide crucial new open space access in one of the most underserved areas of the state.
Public meetings will begin in the fall of 2019 for the design of Phase 2 which will be completed in 2020 and 2021. Based on community input, Phase 2 could feature a new amphitheater for live events, environmental education center, lawn patios and a cable ferry or a connector bridge over the water which will link the Pennsylvania and Fountain Properties.
The 407-acre site, which has never been open to the public, includes the former Pennsylvania Avenue Landfill and Fountain Avenue Landfill, which were operated by NYC Department of Sanitation from 1956-1983 and deeded to the National Park Service as part of Gateway National Recreation Area in 1974. In 2002, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection began a $235 million site remediation that included the installation of an impermeable cap and below-ground barrier to support future use.
Our state parks are community treasures, and this new park transforms what was once landfill into exquisite open space, waterfront access and outdoor recreation for Brooklyn.
In addition, more than 1.2 million cubic yards of clean soil, up to four feet deep, was spread across the site and more than 35,000 trees and shrubs were planted. The addition of prairie grass and native plantings prevents erosion and has created a diverse ecosystem of more than 400 acres of coastal meadows, wetlands, and woodlands that have attracted local wildlife. The full remediation and restoration of the site was completed with significant community input in 2009.
Under the agreement with the National Park Service and the City of New York, New York State Parks will plan, develop, open and operate the public park in cooperation with the Department of the Interior, the National Park Service and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which will continue to manage the former landfill infrastructure.
New York State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey said, "Thank you Governor Cuomo for your continued pursuit of creating and expanding public access in our communities and thank you to the National Parks Service and City of New York in helping bring access to this special waterfront at Shirley Chisholm State Park at Gateway National Recreation Area."
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said, "Parks and green spaces are essential to New Yorkers, and I'm excited that the creation of this new park will help give more residents access to outdoor activities. My administration will continue working with the State to push this vital project forward."
New York City Public Advocate Letitia James said, "The Vital Brooklyn Initiative has been crucial for a community that has long been underserved. This initiative has provided the men, women and children of Brooklyn with quality education and health resources that were previously unavailable to them. Today's announcement to open Shirley Chisholm State Park, NYC's largest state park, will create an incredible green open-space environment for our community. I thank Governor Cuomo for his vision of a stronger Brooklyn."
Congresswoman Yvette Clarke said, "Through the expansion of open spaces and recreational areas, Governor Cuomo's Vital Brooklyn initiative is improving the health and well-being of Brooklyn residents every day. The addition of the Shirley Chisholm State Park will encourage Brooklynites to explore the outdoors and the natural wonders of our great state, while getting the exercise they need to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I applaud Governor Cuomo for his leadership on this initiative and for his commitment to bettering the Brooklyn community."
Senator Kevin Parker said, "The public spaces, recreational activities, and miles of hiking trials in Shirley Chisholm Park will provide a vibrant cultural and social experience for Central Brooklyn residents. Governor Cuomo's dedication to ensuring the health and well-being of Brooklynites is unmatched, and I am especially grateful for the Vital Brooklyn Initiative."
Senator Roxanne Persaud said, "As a Brooklyn resident, I know first-hand how hard it can be to find well-maintained green space. Parks are more than just a gathering place—they are an opportunity for families to spend quality time, for children and adults to learn, and for people to take advantage of all the great outdoors have to offer. Parks help keep families close, encourage our youth to explore, and provide residents with a place to partake in outdoor recreation. I thank Governor Cuomo for spearheading this initiative and for recognizing the importance of parks in the everyday lives of New Yorkers across the state."
Assembly Member Maritza Davila said, "Since he took office, Governor Cuomo has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to helping revitalize our community. While others talked the talk, Governor Cuomo walked the walk. Today's announcement is no different, as the Governor is providing our community with New York City's largest State Park. I commend Governor Cuomo for this initiative that will benefit all residents of Central Brooklyn, young and old."
Assembly Member Erik Martin Dilan said, "I applaud the creation of this park, the largest in New York City, for bringing much needed open space to Brooklyn. This investment will completely transform the area, and I thank Governor Cuomo for prioritizing the health and well-being of our residents."
Assembly Member Latrice Walker said, "For far too long, our community has been neglected—without access to quality healthcare, quality food, and quality green open spaces. Governor Cuomo's Vital Brooklyn Initiative has changed the circumstances for our community, helping to transform Central Brooklyn—and today's announcement only enhances that transformation. The creation of Shirley Chisholm State Park is a welcome addition to our community, and I thank Governor Cuomo for his commitment to the people of Central Brooklyn."
New York City Council Member Robert E. Cornegy said, “Governor Cuomo’s Vital Brooklyn initiative continues to deliver for our borough and those who call Brooklyn home. Green space and clean, safe outdoor recreation are some of our community's critical needs, and now, with hiking and biking trails, kayaking, and more, Brooklyn residents will have opportunities to enjoy the outdoors like never before. I thank the Governor for his continued support for the people of Brooklyn, their health, and their happiness.”
New York City Council Member Laurie A. Cumbo said, "I am thrilled at today's announcement by Governor Andrew Cuomo of Shirley Chisholm State Park, which is set to open in 2019 and will be the largest state park in New York City. Shirley Chisholm is a personal she-ro of mine, and given how much she provided to the people of Brooklyn over the course of her life, I am proud that we are able to honor her legacy with this amazing green space that will continue to enrich the lives of our children, families, and communities for generations to come!"
New York City Council Member Mathieu Eugene said, "This new state park will provide Brooklyn with the beautiful open space outlet that this community has long desired. This park will serve as an epicenter for all Brooklynites, a healthy and safe environment for children to play, and for families to convene. I commend Governor Cuomo on his continued investment and dedication to our community."
The Brooklyn park will be the second state park opened by Governor Cuomo in New York City. Governor Cuomo dedicated Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park in 2012. State Parks operates seven state parks throughout the five boroughs of NYC, including Bayswater Point State Park and Gantry Plaza State Park in Queens, East River State Park in Brooklyn, Clay Pit Ponds State Park in Staten Island, Riverbank State Park in Manhattan, and Roberto Clemente State Park in the Bronx. The Governor also opened Buffalo Harbor State Park in 2015 and Hallock State Park Preserve on Long Island last year.
Remembering The Gates in Central Park
Earlier this week, we at NYU Abu Dhabi were treated to a visit by the artist Christo, who spoke about one of his signature projects — The Gates — which took place in Central Park in February 2005. The project was conceived in the late 1970s by Christo and his wife and artistic partner, Jeanne-Claude, who passed away two years ago tomorrow. The city repeatedly refused Christo and Jeanne-Claude permission to mount the project, until Michael Bloomberg became mayor. He gave it the go-ahead immediately, once the pair reapplied for a permit.
I fell in love with the Gates project and went to see it — no, experience it, immerse myself in it — as many times as I could. I made sure to see every bit of the park during the sixteen days it was up and reintroduced myself to areas I had visited since my childhood. The Gates transformed the Park’s bleak midwinter with its explosion of color it compelled many New Yorkers who had become blase about this jewel in the midst of Manhattan to see the Park afresh. On one visit to the Northwest corner of the Park, I was lucky enough to coincide with a visit to the area by Jeanne-Claude and Christo themselves and was able to watch them — from afar — enjoy their creation. Both of them refer in the film to the works of art as their children, and it was a parent’s joy that they seemed to exude as they looked at what they had done.
The process by which the project was conceived, planned, and ultimately mounted is beautifully documented in a film called The Gates (2005) made by Antonio Ferrera and Albert Maysles and originally shown on HBO. Christo and Jeanne-Claude were meticulous about documenting their work, not only by preserving drawings and other artifacts, but also by having the process of approval and construction filmed. The documentary work on The Gates was begun by the legendary documentary team of Albert Maysles and David Maysles, who first became famous for their legendary film
Making Way for Central Park
Before construction could commence on Central Park, destruction was necessary. Central Park wasn’t uninhabited. In fact, around 1,600 people were living there. In order to remove those people, authorities called on eminent domain.
The New York Times explains, “In today’s world, it is hard to imagine even a progress-minded city administration evicting a well-established minority community after arbitrarily paying its residents for their possessions. But that’s how Central Park was made, with most newspapers cheering the removal of ‘the insects.’”
While multiple communities were destroyed, the largest appears to have been the black community of Seneca Village. 264 residents were evicted in 1855. These residents were given no options, and those who resisted were removed violently. Ironically, the community had previously served as a safe haven from the discrimination black residents were encountering elsewhere.
You can visit the site where Seneca Village used to be located by visiting West Side at 82nd-89th Streets. If you want to learn more about the history of the village, you can get tickets for a tour which lasts 90 minutes and gives you a in-depth look at what happened during that time.
Today, everyone can enjoy Central Park, but it is important to recognize the classist and racist roots of the development. But this isn’t to say that everyone involved in the project was intent on clearing out the “insects.” Some had motivations that were entirely the opposite and saw the park as a way to bring the residents of NYC together across class divides.
Indeed, Smithsonian Magazine explains , “In Olmsted’s eyes, the park would be a great equalizer among New York’s stratified classes. He’d been inspired by gardens in Europe, and especially by a visit to Birkenhead Park, the first publicly funded park in England. He noted that the site was enjoyed ‘about equally by all classes,’ unlike most of the other cultivated natural grounds at the time, which were privately held by the wealthy elite.”
Smithsonian Magazine continues, “A similar park would be, for Olmsted, an important part of the ‘great American democratic experiment,’ says Stephen Mexal, an English professor at California State University … ‘There was a link that he thought was meaningful between genteel manners, people of genteel birth and genteel landscapes,’ Mexal says. ‘And he said, ‘Well, what if we just kind of took those
landscapes and made them more available to everybody?’ So, he said that the park would have this, quote, ‘refining influence’ among everybody in the city.’”
There is still classism inherent in this thinking, as Olmstead was projecting his expectations of a “genteel” way of life on the masses. He saw a superiority in the white upper class lifestyle, and thought that everyone would naturally agree with his vision as one which was universally appealing.
At the same time, for that time and place, his vision was idealistic. It is clear that he felt he could reduce social ills for all classes through smart and democratic urban planning.
The Central Park: Original Designs for New York’s Greatest Treasure
In The Central Park: Original Designs for New York’s Greatest Treasure, Cynthia Brenwall presents materials from the rich collection of the New York City Municipal Archives to give new insights about the making of the city’s, and the nation’s, quintessential public park. Published in April of this year by Abrams, the copiously illustrated, hardbound volume presents and contextualizes a sizeable cache of plans, maps, elevations, hand-colored lithographs, photographs, and mechanical drawings, which together form an indispensable record of the park’s origins. Many of the images have never before been published. Including visual materials from the original, competition-winning entry submitted by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., and Calvert Vaux, the book showcases in meticulous detail the surprisingly wide range of elements and features—many built, and others that never came to fruition—that came within the park designers’ purview. Its color-filled pages of large-format maps and drawings also supply the visual evidence for an age of bold planning and unprecedented civic achievement.
The staggering variety of arts and skills—including carpentry, plumbing, masonry, metalwork, engineering, sculpture, hydrology, botany, architecture, and landscape architecture—that were marshalled to create Central Park are represented in elegant drawings executed in painstaking detail, which themselves evince exceptional craftsmanship (even the sluice gate for the Skating Pond is beautifully and precisely rendered). What do the illustrations reveal about the relationship between the art of drawing and the art of landscape architecture?
“Staggering variety” is absolutely correct! The rendering of the sluice gate is one of my favorite drawings in the collection. That former drawing and the subsequent one made for the drainage system that was used for the transverse roads were my introduction into what I like to call, “underpinnings of the park” —those unseen and utilitarian aspects of design that evoke the sensation of being surrounded by nature in the middle of a metropolis. While many of the plans in the collection appear to be works of art by our standards, it is worth remembering that they were working drawings that passed through many hands to shape the park. The visual language that was expressed through drawing was used to communicate directly to either those engaged in the construction of the landscape and the architectural elements or others involved in approving every aspect of the plan (most notably, the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park). It is through this collaboration between planning, drawing, and construction that a sense of a unified design was achieved.
Given the wide range of visual materials available to you, how did you decide what to include in the book and what to omit?
This was one of the more challenging tasks while authoring the book. With more than 1,700 drawings and plans in the collection of the NYC Municipal Archives, dating from 1856 through the mid-1930s (all of which were directly related to the construction of Central Park) there were many “must haves” that did not finally make the cut. It was, finally, a detailed map dated c. 1875 which decided the framework for the book—which was conceptualized around “a walk through the park.” This aided my decision-making on illustrative materials and narrative structure. In general, there were many cross sections of landscapes and single lines on graph paper that were easy to eliminate although my favorite was a simple black outline of a small body of water on a single sheet of drafting cloth. An elegant sketch, although hardly any help in telling the complex story of the park.
Similarly, although I am personally partial to detail drawings featuring intricate rooflines, fireplaces and detailed decorative elements, an over-representation of such drawings would only illustrate a small section of such a monumental effort. Therefore, I had to include a broader mix, encompassing construction details, renderings, maps, architectural plans, and historic photos to effectively narrate the story of the park.
Repeatedly emerging in both the book’s imagery and in the wonderful foreword by Martin Filler is the concept of creative forethought. Do you think that the ability (and willingness) to conceive of detailed plans that would only be fully realized in the distant future was a quality particular to Olmsted, or was it characteristic of the age in which he lived?
To be honest, I think that this method of designing was not particular to Olmsted, but perhaps more characteristic of the partnership between Olmsted and Vaux. The Greensward plan outlined this vision and provided a robust framework for the realized design. For example, they were conscious of the need to have the southern section of the parkland, especially the skating lake, open to the public as soon as possible. And the sunken transverse roads were key to allowing this while construction continued smoothly. It was this manner of thoughtful planning from the onset which allowed the glorious terrace and arcade to be realized.
Scanning the book’s many plans and drawings reveal the prominent role of artifice in making the park, from creating a lake with pipes and hydrants to building floating swans’ nests whose designs were varied for use in rough or calm waters. What does that use of artifice say about the nineteenth-century relationship between humans and nature?
In many ways, I think that the role of artifice in mediating the interaction between people and nature is almost quintessentially nineteenth century. In an era when the promenade or evening stroll to “see and be seen” was the height of fashion, and park-goers donned their finery to attend a concert at the music pavilion, it would not seemed too outlandish to use visual devices such as a hidden grotto under a bridge to create an illusion of a history or the use of massive plantings to create the verdant Ramble in an area that was originally rocky and barren. Constructed nature was still nature and New Yorkers of the day were thrilled to have it as their own.
What do the many plans and drawings tell you about Olmsted’s and Vaux’s capacity for three-dimensional thinking?
I think that this is one of the most important aspects of their partnership. The intersection of Vaux’s work with Downing and his formal training as an architect in combination with Olmsted’s knowledge of horticulture, the park’s terrain, and his interpretation of the landscape, helped to create their shared vision of a democratic space filled with natural visual effects. This aspect is evident specifically in the presentation boards that were included in their entry for the design competition. Vaux developed before-and-after drawings of the landscape to trace the transformation of the land with water features, long vistas and elegant architectural details and highlighted the character of nature and space rather than that of the architecture. And the genius of their collaboration is embodied in this type of spatial planning.
The book introduces a wide cast of characters, including the West Point-trained civil engineer Egbert Viele, whose maps remain essential but whose hopes to design the park were dashed. What are the most interesting parts of Central Park’s history that have yet to be fully explored?
Obviously, there has been a LOT written about Central Park, but I believe that there is still much to know. For instance, the history of the land before it was taken by eminent domain. During my research, I found a small map dated 1856 in our collection that shows that there was a small Jewish cemetery among the buildings at Mount Saint Vincent in the north of the park. Who were the interred and what happened to those who were buried there?
I am also fascinated by how much can be learned about a broader history of New York City and the late 1900s through the lens of the park’s creation. An egalitarian public space that was planned for all New Yorkers to benefit from access to nature, it is rich with the untold stories of men (and yes, they were all men) who planned, designed and built the park. Furthermore, the amenities provided for city dwellers, including areas for culture and music, access to clean drinking water and venues for “healthful recreation” such as lawn tennis courts and ice skating and quiet contemplation—this gives reason to explore Vaux and Olmsted’s views on urban planning and their convictions on the role of civic space.
How did your training as a conservator influence the content of the book?
My training as both a conservator and an art historian have taught me to decipher the fine details in a drawing that aid in telling a visual story. Seeing the hand of the maker in each drawing and its role in communicating with builders during construction was essential. Further, critical thinking is also an important aspect of my background. This was invaluable while drafting the book, as conservators test materials and techniques rather than rely on assumptions before undertaking the treatment of a document. And this was my approach to annual reports, photographs and documentation related to the park, I detached myself from my own mooring in the twenty-first century and dispassionately interpreted supporting material to confirm details.
In your research for the book, what surprised you most about Central Park and/or its makers?
Honestly, there were so many little things that make the story of the park so rich and interesting. But most notably, three things kept coming up as I worked on the text for the book. Firstly, it was astonishing that Calvert Vaux predicted his place in history very early into his partnership with Frederick Law Olmsted. While Vaux was a well-trained architect, a partner in Alexander Jackson Downing’s influential landscape design firm in Newburgh, NY as well as the one who initiated the partnership with Olmsted to enter the design competition for the park, he is all but forgotten today by the general public. Only days after work began on the park, Olmsted was named architect-in-chief and superintendent of the project and given a non-voting seat on the board of Commissioners, while Vaux was referred to as “the superintendent’s associate in design No. 33” in the minutes of the Board of Commissioners. And he had to be hired by Olmsted as one of his assistants with a daily wage rather than a yearly salary despite being the one entrusted with the elegant architectural design and planning of the park.
Secondly, I found the plans for the drainage and water systems incredible. The park could not have been built without having proper drainage installed a fact that Viele pointed out to the Board in 1856 when he warned that if the land was not properly drained, it would remain, “a pestilential spot, where rank vegetation and miasmic odors taint every breath of air.” Many of these components are drawings that are fully colored renderings of pipes, stone fill and basins that were used to drain the land as well harness water from the Croton Aqueduct to create man-made bodies of water, fill the ornamental fountains and provide drinking water throughout the park.
Do you have any plans for other books or projects?
I’m in the early stages of researching and brainstorming for my next project. Writing this book has been such an opportunity to delve into the social history of the city through the lens of civic art, design and architecture that I am hoping that I will be able to further explore this aspect.
Cynthia S. Brenwall is a conservator at the New York City Municipal Archives, which preserves the historical records of the government of New York City. A graduate of the Pratt Institute and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she has previously worked in the Smithsonian Institution as an archivist.
The Ramble CaveView all photos
In New York City’s Central Park, just below the 79 th St. Traverse, lies a heavily wooded area, interwoven with narrow, winding trails, and dotted with large granite boulders.
While The Ramble, as it’s known, may appear to be the most natural place in the city it only appears that way thanks to the efforts of Central Park’s planners Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, as well as the original builders of the Park who put in countless hours constructing a landscape that would seem rustic and remote. But for all their hard work, Central Park has changed. Like everything else in New York City the Park is constantly evolving, but if you know just where to look you can still find traces of its original features. One of the more interesting cases is that of the long-lost Ramble Cave.
The Ramble Cave was not part of Olmsted and Vaux’s ‘Greensward Plan’, their design for what would become Central Park. They did lay out the Ramble, complete with paths and trees, but to construct their artificial wilderness required a lot of construction and excavation. It was during one such dig that a large deposit of “rich mould” was found in a small bay on the north side of The Lake (‘mould’ in this case being extremely fertile soil, not what you find on bread that’s been sitting on your counter for too long). The mould was carried away, cart-full by cart-full, revealing a narrow cavity, at water level on the lake-side and sloping uphill thirty feet or so to the north, meeting up with a planned path just to the east of the Ramble Arch.
While the cavity was certainly an interesting find, it didn’t quite fit the look that Olmsted and Vaux were going for, nor was it easily accessible from the elevated lake-side trails. To solve the first problem, several large rocks were set on top of the eastern wall with more stones set into the hill beside the north exit, giving the impression that they had slid down naturally.
As for accessibility, at the southern exit, by the Lake, rough stones were laid out to form a narrow staircase leading from the lake-side path down into the cave, with a border of larger stones hiding the stairs from view except from above.
The cave was a popular attraction in the Park, with one early guidebook calling it “a great attraction to boys and girls, and hardly less to many children of a larger growth.” Later in its life it would become known as the ‘Indian Cave’, supposedly because the floor showed evidence of early Native American inhabitants, though evidence of this is hard to find. Early sources refer to it simply as “the cave” or “the Ramble Cave”.
Sadly, it was also a popular spot for trouble. In 1904 a man was found near the steps, shot in the chest, supposedly the victim of a suicide attempt (the man, Samuel L. Dana, would recover, but the incident and its mysterious aftermath would set off a media frenzy). In October, 1929 the Times reported that 335 men had been arrested in the Park just that year for what they generously termed “annoying women”, with the Ramble Cave held out as a particularly popular spot. Sometime in the 1930s the Cave was sealed off. The entrance by the lake was simply bricked up while the opening by the Ramble Arch was more elaborately sealed and covered over with dirt to make it appear as just another hillside in the Ramble.
The steps by the Lake are still there however. Unless you know of their existence they, and the Cave, they are the easiest things in the world to walk past, blissfully unaware of this once lovely feature of a young Central Park.
Know Before You Go
On the western side of the Ramble, just below the Ramble Arch. The stairs are on the west side of the second small bay at the northwest of The Lake.