Morrison Heckscher, On the Park

A lot of people know about Frederick Law Olmsted. But can you explain the role of Calvert Vaux in the park’s conception and design?

Calvert Vaux had worked with Downing, the father of American landscape gardening, and if Downing had been alive—he died in 1852 in an accident on a steamboat on the Hudson River—he would’ve clearly been the designer of Central Park.

He was in Newburgh, and Vaux had moved to New York City after his death. And then Vaux saw Central Park, the legislation for it; and then Egbert Viele [came] in as the engineer and [came] up with the design of the park, which was published in 1857 by the parks commissioners saying ‘approved by the commissioners.’

Well, Vaux saw it and thought, ‘This miserable plan is a disgrace to the memory of my beloved A. J. Downing.’ And so he systematically went about getting some of the commissioners to open the design up to a public competition. So, he was the man responsible for the competition in the first place.

What set Vaux and Olmsted’s design submission apart from the others?

There were 33 submissions. … But the thing that set their proposal apart was a really workable way of integrating the east and west sides of Manhattan on either side of this long, long, long park. The legitimate criticism was that Central Park could’ve divided the city in a way that would’ve been commercially and realistically impractical; and would’ve meant that, within a generation, big roads would’ve gone through the park. And it was Olmsted and very much Vaux, as the architect, who said, ‘You can actually put a lowered transverse road through the park in certain areas so that the necessary non-park traffic will be able to flow seamlessly 24 hours a day.’

And that, really, was the key to this because the commercial interests looked at it and said, ‘Otherwise, it’s not going to work.’

I was coming from the West Side on the bus this morning and going down Fifth Avenue, and there were these tourists from Indiana on the bus; and they were scoping locations in the city to visit because they were chaperoning a high-school group that wasn’t yet with them. And so we’re rolling down Fifth—the park is to our right and these wonderful museums like the Guggenheim, the Museum of the City of New York and, finally, the Met are there as well. But the tourists were asking people how to get to the Trump Tower on Fifth because that’s where The Apprentice, the TV show, is filmed sometimes. So I wanted to know: What fuels you to write about and research Central Park as a work of art? What fuels you professionally?

Number one, to celebrate the anniversary of the acceptance of the Vaux and Olmsted plan. Personally, I live on the West Side; I walk through Central Park day and night, year-round, and have for more years than I care to admit. And it’s an integral part of my life.

It’s also a very complex role that Central Park plays in the city. It started out as a pure landscape design; and then you get architecture, you get public buildings like the Met involved in it. You have the conflicts of, do you want to have cars in the park, and all the tensions of who gets to decide how to use the park.

And I thought it would be healthy for people to be able to go to one source and actually read about how the park came to be—and to see that there’s always been this tension.