Discover the history of architecture through the RIBA’s collection of 2,000 periodical titles. Today, the British Architectural Library looks at the hopes and plans for New York’s Central Park as it was being constructed in 1862:

Bow Bridge, Central Park, New York, 1860s (© RIBA Library Photographs Collection)

Bow Bridge, Central Park, New York, 1860s (© RIBA Library Photographs Collection)

When The Building News in September 1862 was describing the New York commissioners’ report on the progress being made on the construction of Central Park, it seemed to be in awe of the statistics and ambition of their efforts. Some of the statistics it gives are impressive. At the start of 1862, four years after construction began, The Building News stated that the following quantities of materials had been excavated from the site:

  • 1,992,00 cubic yards of earth-works and other materials
  • 300,000 cubic yards of rock
  • 70,000 cubic yards of masonry

The amount of masonry removed is a reminder of the fact that the land upon which Central Park stands was not a pristine wilderness. It was mostly rough but inhabited ground and its occupants were removed to allow Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s vision to be implemented. Some of the plans were never realised, such as the creation of 20 gates, each manned by a keeper, and the move of the New York Historical Society and New York Lyceum Society to permanent bases in the park. The greater aim of creating a public amenity “for the benefit of the people” was achieved.

This journal article was published exactly 150 years ago during the early years of the project which, by its completion, created a mixed landscape of pastoral, picturesque and formal elements covering 843 acres. In the RIBA’s collections are contemporary photoprints of key man-made landmarks of the new park such as the bridges which were mostly designed by Vaux. In today’s post, Bow Bridge is shown as it was in the 1860s amongst young trees while grass lawns surround the Trefoil Arch. Today, mature trees and abundant vegetation (at least in the summer) are the settings for those same features.

Trefoil Arch, Central Park, New York, 1860s (© RIBA Library Photographs Collection)

Trefoil Arch, Central Park, New York, 1860s (© RIBA Library Photographs Collection)

The park’s decline in the early 20th century – and recent rejuvination – was far into the future when The Building News was at pains to describe its civilising atmosphere. It was a place for those with “purity in morals and manners, and who appreciate the beautiful in art and nature.”  There were only 93 arrests made in the previous year when 2.5 million visits were made.

A century and a half separates us from the publication of this article which ends with the hope that the extensive alterations and improvements proposed by the commissioners, if implemented, will result in: “the noblest public park in the world”. Time has shown that the energy of New Yorkers has made this happen.

Reference:
The Building News, 5 September 1862, vol. 9, pp.172-3

About Wilson Yau
I work for the British Architectural Library at the RIBA as part of a team to share news, images and information online about the activities of the Library and the fascinating items we have in our architectural collections – it contains over four million items, so there's plenty to see! If you’re curious about what we do at the Library and with the collections, or want to discover the latest about our education programmes, public events and exhibitions at the RIBA, please visit www.architecture.com

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