In the center of Manhattan Island lies a great expanse of sculpted nature. This large swath of greenery — Central Park — was the first great manifesto of a new urban vision that sought to introduce nature into the heart of commercial and industrial cities in the United States. As a measure of its tremendous success, the park quickly and enduringly became one of the most popular public attractions in New York City and an icon of a metropolis often famed more for its commercial power than for its art.
Originally conceived in the salons of wealthy New Yorkers in the early 1850’s, the park project spanned more than a decade and cost the city ten million dollars. The purpose was to refute the European view that Americans lacked a sense of civic duty and appreciation for cultural refinement and instead possessed an unhealthy and individualistic materialism that precluded interest in the common good. The bruised egos of New York high society envisioned a sweeping pastoral landscape, among which the wealthy could parade in their carriages, socialize, and “be seen”, and in which the poor could benefit from clean air and uplifting recreation without lifting the bottle.
The land for the park had been included in the city’s gridded urban plan of 1811, which was an early effort to take control of Manhattan Island’s development. The area was treeless, rocky terrain. On the west side it encompassed a small settlement that counted 264 residents in the 1855 census. About half of the modest houses in “Seneca Village”, as it was known, were owned by free African Americans, along with many German and Irish immigrants. There were at least two churches, cemeteries, and a school. City and state government used the legal power of eminent domain to claim the land as part of Central Park, forcibly evicting all the residents by 1857.
New York engineer Egbert Viele — who was responsible for the first, unbuilt plan for Central Park in 1856 — described the land as a “pestilential spot” with “miasmatic odors” emanating from the untended ground. Unhealthy and unsightly, the land was ripe for reform as projections for Manhattan’s future growth pushed the boundary of built-up land further and further north. Reformers and politicians also soon realized that the 1811 plan had not sufficiently taken account of the need for recreational and other types of open space. Even the few parks provided by that plan had mostly been built over in the intervening decades as real estate interests trumped the public good.
In 1853, the state of New York authorized the creation of a large park in Manhattan, originally to be built and designed by Viele. However, his design was considered perfunctory, offering little in the way of artistry or ingenuity. The Central Park Commissioners, as the governmental body was known, appointed Frederick Law Olmsted as superintendent of works and called for an open competition for a new design.
Olmsted and Vaux won the design competition with their “Greensward Plan”, the last of thirty-two to be submitted. Two elements distinguished the Greensward design from those of their competitors. One was the sheer allure of their landscape features, conveyed in twelve before-and-after panels included in their submission. The other was the ingenious separation of pedestrian and cross-park carriage (now vehicular) traffic. Architectural structures were to be kept to a minimum, only four buildings existed in the original plans for the park, and the design and building material of the bridges were chosen to assure that they were integrated as naturally as possible into their surrounding landscapes.
The competition brief had insisted that four roadways should connect the east and west sides of Manhattan through the park. All other submissions put those roads on the ground surface, effectively dividing the park into five zones separated by street traffic. However, Olmsted and Vaux submerged their “transverse” roads below ground level and created a continuous expanse of park differentiated by designed topography. As they discovered during construction, this critical invention gave them the chance to increase the park’s picturesque scenery since the many drives and walking paths that cross over the transverses and bridal paths could be embellished by attractive bridges.
Olmsted was born in 1822 and grew up in New England. He had no formal design training and didn’t commit to landscape architecture until he was 44. Before that, he was a New York Times correspondent to the Confederate states, the manager of a California gold mine, and General Secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission during the Civil War. He also ran a farm on Staten Island from 1848 to 1855 and spent time working in a New York dry-goods store.
His views on landscapes developed from travelling and reading. When he was young, he took a year-long voyage in China. And in 1850, he took a six-month walking tour of Europe and the British Isles, during which he saw numerous parks, private estates, and scenic countryside. He was also deeply influenced by Swiss physician Johann Georg von Zimmermann’s writings about nature’s ability to heal “derangements of the mind” through imagination. Olmsted read Zimmermann’s book as a boy and treasured it.
Central Park was his first project, creating sculpted nature out of rocks, swamps and hog farms. Calvert Vaux approached Olmsted about jointly submitting a design to the park competition. Vaux, an English architect, had earlier worked in partnership with Downing and eagerly took up the latter’s Romantic ideas about landscape. His partnership with Olmsted resulted in a pairing of like-minded, strong-willed individuals determined to mold the park to their shared vision.
Landscape architecture didn’t exist in the U.S. before Olmsted began applying principles of horticulture, architecture, engineering, land management, forestry, fine arts and even psychology to create coherent, elegant designs for outdoor spaces. His genius was in creating the illusion of nature in manmade environments. Stroll or drive a meandering road in one of Olmsted’s parks and you may feel like you’re traversing a rustic path that was carved through nature’s own woods and meadows. But virtually every tree, stone, brook and field you encounter was put there by Olmsted, by design. Take a photo of a flowering tree by an Olmsted pond with a stone bridge and it’s his eye you can thank for making the shot so picture-perfect.
Puffles and Honey went exploring to find the picture-perfect locations.
Two Orchids heralds the entrance to Central Park in voluptuous full flower, pristine white petals free from any blemishes. The sculpture stands as an idealized, colossal version of the familiar plant: a civic monument to the perfect orchid, now the chosen ornament of contemporary culture. For German artist Isa Genzken, the mass-produced white orchid has become the quintessential flower of our age: global, accessible, and open to interpretation. Rising to 8.5 and 10 meters respectively, the paired stems of Genzken’s towering sculpture wind elegantly skyward, capturing light and casting shadows in a play of rhyming forms. The two flowers appear delicate and willowy, despite their stainless steel construction. The impossibly thin stems are “tied” to straight metal shafts that support their beautiful white blooms.
Like a Victorian confection reflected in the waters of Central Park’s Lake, the Bow Bridge gracefully gathers lovers of New York in real life. In real life the Bridge has been a magnificent setting in films such as Manhattan, The Way We Were and Keeping the Faith.
Crafted of cast iron, it was designed with Classical Greek refinement during the mid 19th century by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould. Found mid-park at 74th Street, west of Bethesda Terrace, the bridge spans 18 meters with a walkway constructed of ipe, a South American hardwood that turns a rich deep red when wet.
The Cherry Hill Fountain, first unveiled in 1860, was originally designed to function as a watering trough for horses. Though no horses drink from the Fountain today, they and their carriages still frequent the area, available for park-goers who wish to take a scenic drive in one of these old-fashioned vehicles. The Fountain was designed by Jacob Wrey Mould, the designer of the Bethesda Fountain, which lies to the west. The Cherry Hill Fountain can be recognized by its decorative glass lamps and globes.
Bethesda Terrace is divided into upper and lower sections, a remarkably classical environment with wide, symmetrical stairs and a sense of formality. Jacob Wrey Mould, an English architect who worked on the park for Olmsted and Vaux until 1874, designed its ornament. A surprising and elegant space, the Terrace is a delightful foil to the landscape around it.
The fountain at the centre of the Terrace is one of the most well-known fountains in the world, and the statue at its center was the only sculpture to have been commissioned as a part of Central Park’s original design.
The neoclassical sculpture, also known as Angel of the Waters, features a 2.4 meters bronze angel who stands above four small cherubim representing health, purity, temperance, and peace. The angel herself carries a lily in one hand while the other remains outstretched, poised in the action of delivering a blessing on the water pouring from around her feet and into the basin at the bottom of the fountain. Installed in 1873, the sculpture commemorates the 1842 opening of the Croton Aqueduct, which supplied New York City with fresh water.
Between the Terrace steps is the Arcade, a long subterranean space with a stunning ceiling decorated with tiles designed by Mould and manufactured by the Minton Tile Works in England. The formal but festive appearance of the Terrace is appropriate for a space conceived as the city’s “open air hall of reception”.
The Central Park Lake was an essential part of the “Greensward” design plan created by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux when designing the initial features of what would become Central Park. What is now a stunning and picturesque 18-acre lake was once nothing more than a large, untamed swamp. After its excavation in 1857, the Lake was opened for its first winter of ice-skating in 1858. Until 1950, the Lake was used for ice-skating during the winter months and boating in the summer. After 1950, however, the skating rink was officially closed, allowing the Lake’s former wildlife inhabitants to take up residence there once more. As such, the Lake is now an excellent location for bird watching, where one can spot swans, ducks, and even the occasional egret or heron.
North of the Lake is the Ramble, also part of the original design, a series of small, twisting paths along rocky outcroppings of the local stone, called schist, that can be seen throughout the park. At the northernmost edge of the park is the most rugged landscape with the densest foliage, then and now the park’s least visited section. But the area offers some of the park’s most stunning features, including the Ravine with its small brook, waterfalls, and tomb-like Glen Span Arch, made from massive, rough-faced stones. The quiet of the area is an almost haunting experience; it feels much more secluded than its actual distance from the busy surrounding streets would suggest.
To the east of the Lake, at East 74th Street, Alice in Wonderland stands 3.3 meters tall in bronze, surrounded by the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit and a few of her other friends.
The sculpture was constructed in 1959 by José de Creeft under the commission of philanthropist George Delacorte so that children could visit and experience the wonder of Lewis Carroll’s classic story. Atypical of most sculptures, children are invited to climb, touch and crawl all over Alice and her friends. Little bears do that as a matter of course, without any invitation 🙂 In fact, through the decades, thousands of hands and feet have literally polished parts of the statue’s surface smooth.
The design for the bronze sculpture was patterned off the original illustrations of John Tenniel that were used in the first published edition of the book. The obvious centerpiece of the work, Alice, who depicts the face of Creeft’s daughter, Donna, is pictured sitting on a giant mushroom reaching toward a pocket watch held by the White Rabbit. Peering over her shoulder is the Cheshire Cat, surrounded by the Dormouse, Alice’s cat Dinah, and the Mad Hatter – a caricature of George Delacorte.
Another gift from publisher and philanthropist George T. Delacorte (1894–1991) is the Musical Delacorte Clock. One of the most beloved monuments in the parks of New York City, the musical clock hovers above the arcade between the Wildlife Center and the Children’s Zoo.
The Music Clock was modeled after the musical clocks that George Delacorte saw while travelling in Europe. The whimsical, bronze animal sculptures that adorn the Clock were created by sculptor Andrea Spadini, and include a goat playing the pipes, a kangaroo playing horns, a penguin on drums, a bear with a tambourine, and a hippo playing the violin. Each day between eight in the morning and six in the evening, the clock, now digitally programmed, plays one of thirty-two nursery rhyme tunes on the hour. On the half-hour, the mechanical performance is a bit shorter. The animals rotate on a track around the clock and each also turns on an axis. The Clock’s usual repertoire of songs changes to a collection of Christmas carols around the holiday season.
The clock was officially unveiled before a large crowd of spectators and dignitaries on June 24, 1965.
A few meters away from Alice in Wonderland is Hans Christian Andersen’s statue. The idea for the statue originated with Baroness Alma Dahlerup, then president of the Danish-American Women’s Association of New York, who had for years arranged for Andersen’s stories to be read on the radio. Robert Moses, then New York City Parks Commissioner, secured the ‘perfect’ site and the City Department of Parks and Recreation and the Central Park Conservancy have given their active support ever since. A significant share of the funding for the statue came from donations made by school children both in Denmark and the United States. Danish-American sculptor George Lober created the larger-than-life bronze statue that was commissioned in 1954, in anticipation of marking the 150th anniversary of the author’s birth. Hans Christian Andersens’ well-rubbed knees are ample evidence of the fun children continue to have sitting on his lap 🙂
The statue has become a symbol of the good relations between the United States and Denmark. Following a tradition established by her father and mother, her Majesty, Queen Margrethe II visited the statue in 1976 during her American Bicentennial trip. Other members of the Danish royal family continue to visit. In 1964, the City of Copenhagen contributed two 19th century street lamps that now stand on each side of the statue. In 1985, New York City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, wishing to reciprocate, sent two New York City street lamps to Copenhagen, which can be seen standing in Dantes Plads.
Since New York City is very grid-like, the designers of Central Park purposely made the paths and roads inside the park winding to give city dwellers a place where they could wander. There is only one straight line in whole park and it’s the Mall. The 400 meter stretch, which also happens to be the park’s widest pedestrian way, is lined with American Elm trees that create a cathedral-like canopy over the path.
Once referred to as an “open air hall of reception” by its creators, the Mall was specially designed to accommodate the width of carriages passing through its bounds. Around the turn of the century, these carriages would drop off their wealthy inhabitants at the Mall’s starting point, where they could enjoy the natural scenery and mingle with people of lesser status. When these visitors finally reached the Bethesda Terrace, their carriages would be waiting to bring them to their next destination.
All that strolling and statue climbing made little bears hungry so they went to the Loeb Boathouse for dinner…