On October 13, 1857, just two weeks after the park dwellers left their homes, the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park offered prizes of four hundred to two thousand dollars for the four best proposals for "laying out the park." This notice for the first important landscape design competition in the United States elicited thirty-three varied proposals, which revealed the influence of English and continental traditions of landscape design as well as more eclectic vernacular ideas about what would make this public place appealing. But when the commissioners opened the proposals six months later, they found one curious entry. Plan 2 by an anonymous contestant was nothing but a pyramid. [Ch41]
Although the park commissioners themselves expected a unified aesthetic conception of the design, their specifications mandated a mix of facilities. They provided each competitor a copy of the topographical map done by Egbert Viele (who had also presented an early park design to the mayor's consulting board), with instructions that construction cost no more than the $1.5 million authorized by the legislature. Certain details Viele had defined as part of his park also appeared in the board's specifications: four or more cross streets connecting Fifth and Eighth avenues along the park's two-and-one-half-mile length; a twenty- to forty-acre parade ground (significantly reduced from Viele's fifty acres) with "proper arrangements for the convenience of spectators"; and three playgrounds, three to ten acres each. Responding to suggestions from Greeley, Bennett, and other editors, the commissioners also specified sites for an exhibition or concert hall, a flower garden, a winter skating lake, a prominent fountain, and a lookout tower. The requirements thus included at least one institution of cultural uplift or practical knowledge, playgrounds for healthful exercise, and a parade ground for the civic function of militia drills. [Ch437]
Contest entries came from both professional and amateur designers -- from landscape gardeners familiar with the theories and rules of their trade; from engineers who were attuned to the topographical problems of building roads, lakes, and scenic effects; and from general enthusiasts with ideas about landscape beauty or the kinds of amusements that should go into a park but with limited practical experience in laying out extensive grounds. [Ch438]
Although the commissioners had hoped to attract European experts in landscape design, all but two of the entrants who can be identified were Americans. At least half were from New York City, with nine proposals submitted by officers, engineers, surveyors, gardeners, or foremen who had been hired by the new park commission during its first eight months in office, or by its predecessor. The surviving verbal descriptions demonstrate that the contestants recognized common problems with the park site and, in many cases, offered similar solutions. Most entries, for example, embraced the logic of ordering the park -- particularly the drives and lakes -- in conformity with the natural topography. [Ch439]
Virtually all the designers recommended that the park north of the existing receiving reservoir and the planned new one be treated naturalistically, with scenic carriage drive and walks generally following the contours identified by Viele. Modifying the rugged terrain northwest of the reservoirs would be prohibitively expensive, and the territory from 85th to 106th streets was largely inaccessible to park visitors arriving by public transportation. Several contestants took up a theme already sounded by the commissioners and the press and proposed that the park boundary be extended northward from 106th to 110th Street to encompass the high point of the northwest rocky ridge. (The suggestion was implemented in 1863.) [Ch440]
The plans differed much more dramatically in the design of the lower half of the park. Although all contestants included the required parade ground, formal garden, major fountain, and an exhibition or concert hall, each pursued a different approach in treatment of these features in relation to the natural setting. Roughly two-thirds of the proposed plans highlighted the natural landscape itself. Working primarily within the naturalistic tradition, these plans provided relief from the city amid pastoral scenery of artistically arranged rocks, trees, lawns, lakes, and streams. The other one-third emphasized an artificial civic display of formal avenues, exhibition halls, museums, fountains, statuary, and zoological or botanical gardens, intended simultaneously to instruct and inspire their viewers in the accomplishments of civilization. [Ch441] A cluster of proposals within each of these dominant modes showed the influence of "popular eclecticism," some stressing the diverting ornamentation of the natural landscape, others emphasizing the parade and playgrounds as popular features accommodating large crowds of spectators and participants. And one particularly ambitious plan tried to merge all these impulses.