Great Works Possible Even in Hard Times

This year, when Central Park marks its 150th birthday, is also the 100th anniversary of the death of Andrew H. Green. This largely forgotten but extravagantly gifted city planner supervised the construction of Central Park, developed upper Manhattan and midwifed the consolidation of Greater New York. It took Robert Moses, Fiorello La Guardia and Franklin Roosevelt, drawing upon the combined resources of the federal, state and city governments, to exceed Green’s accomplishment.

Around the middle of the 19th century, a handful of cities formed critical centers for the new “age of capital,” developing modern industries, assembling the financial resources, and coordinating the new knowledge and populations critical to the emerging global economy. In these years, London began a long-awaited overhaul and consolidation of the city. Vienna inaugurated its acclaimed Ringstrasse road system. In France, Napoleon III installed Baron George Eugene Haussmann and remade Paris. In the U.S., modern Chicago rose from the devastating fire of 1871, and immense new urban parks were planted in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Baltimore and San Francisco. In these and other cities, the tightly contained municipality, with its religious, commercial, business and governmental functions arrayed within walking distance, was extended and partitioned into the sectored metropolitan landscape that we recognize today.

Andrew H. Green was appointed to the Central Park Commission in 1857. He helped push through the “Greensward Plan” drafted by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. The two landscape architects designed a 700-acre pleasure grounds filled with undulating lawns, artfully created waters and rustic patches. This greenspace would provide respite from the kinetic city, producing calmer, healthier and more wholesome citizens. Green hoped that it would also inspire the preservation of the “forests of the country” and “the beasts and the birds that live in their shelter.”

The park project proved that Gotham could carry out complex and expensive public undertakings, but Green had much more in mind. He drafted plans for the coordinated development of the Upper West Side, Washington Heights, the northern riverfront along the Harlem River and Spuyten Duyvil.

From the time that Manhattan was laid out in 1811 as a grid, the city had favored Procrustean utility over inspiration and flair. Green cast aside the flat grid, dappling the uptown landscape with tree-filled squares, grand boulevards and scenic riverfronts. He erected new parks and picturesque bridges, an imposing “Grand Circle” entrance to Central Park (later named after Christopher Columbus), and a series of terraced drives for recreational use along the unspoiled bluffs of the Hudson Valley.

He also rejected Olmsted’s aim to limit Central Park’s vast privileged domain to reflecting gardens and rustic meadows. Even more than pristine greens, he believed that great cities needed institutions for enlightenment and uplift.

He gave the park America’s first “urban menagerie,” modeled after the great zoos of Paris and London. Nearby rose the new Metropolitan Museum of Art, the natural history museum (with its grand observatories) and the beginnings of New York’s magnificent public library system.

Troubled by the open wrangling that marred Central Park’s early history, Green was determined to protect the new cultural complex from the rough stewardship of partisan politics. While the city picked up the tab for the buildings, private sources funded the collections and managed the institutions.

Projecting the metropolis as a center of enterprise and cultural resplendence, Green also promoted its expansion. For years he had advocated joining the independent municipalities of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Richmond and the Bronx into a single metropolis. Only the colossal city could bridge the Hudson, throw spans over the East River and tunnel under it. A unified city would be able to afford rational urban development. And it promised to keep corporate power in check.

Andrew H. Green’s 30-year dream was fulfilled on Jan. 1, 1898, resulting in a city that covered 359 square miles and held more inhabitants than all but six states.

It is not hard to fault the untempered faith in progress and growth. But at a time when New York confronts retrenchment, it is instructive to reflect upon the city’s power to transform itself even in challenging times. In the midst of the Civil War, Andrew H. Green offered this response to those demanding curtailment: “In … war and pestilence those great works that render … [New York City] the convenient abode of masses of men and attract to its shores the industry and capital that determine its metropolitan character, should in anticipation of its brilliant future, not only not be abandoned, but should be steadily prosecuted.”

Thomas Kessner is the author of Capital City: New York City and the Men Behind America’s Rise to Economic Dominance, 1860-1900.