The 1850s

The 1860s

The 1870s

The 1880s

Early 20th Century

The 1920s

The 1930s

Post World War II

The 1960s

The 1970s

The 1980s

All text from:
The Park and the People

Click here for
more info.

The Idea of a Great Park   |   The First Park Proposal   |   The Great Park Debate
Taking the Land   |   The Design Competition   |   The Victors
The Greensward Plan   |   The Debate over the Greensward Plan   |   Building the Park   

The Debate over the Greensward Plan
Not all New Yorkers shared Vaux and Olmsted's assumption that the "popular idea of a park is a beautiful open green space." That fact became apparent in the weeks after the award was announced. Critics for the Horticulturalist and the Crayon (a Ruskinian art journal) heartily endorsed the selection of the Greensward plan, but the Herald's James Gordon Bennett found it "impossible to make head or tail" of the winning plan and attributed its selection entirely to politics; Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly admired the winning plan but primarily the Parade, playgrounds, Mall, and concert hall, ignoring the naturalistic landscape effects; and even the Times, Post, and Courier and Enquirer, which all agreed that the first prize was deserved, hoped that the plan would be modified by "valuable hints" that appeared in some of the losing plans. [Ch551]

Although the park commissioners arranged a public exhibition of the plans, they also attempted to preempt public discussion of the design. A week after the awards, a committee (Andrew Green and Charles Russell) consulted with Superintendent Olmsted and proposed three modifications: first, thirty-foot roads with a fifteen-foot pedestrian walk on one side and a twenty-foot bridle path running for three miles on the other to save paving costs and to satisfy the expectations of equestrians (the Greensward plan itself pointed to the example of the Vienna Prater and the Bois de Boulogne in proposing sixty-foot carriage drives, flanked on either side by twenty-foot walks); second, a cost-saving "footway" instead of the carriage entrance between Sixth and Seventh avenues; and third, drawing the western drive deeper into the park, thereby reducing the Parade. [Ch552]

In his campaign to modify the winning plan, Commissioner Robert Dillon recruited the board's newest member, financier August Belmont, also a prominent Democrat. Dillon and Belmont invoked the design tradition of artificial civic display when they announced their "dissent entirely" from the Greensward plan's naturalistic aesthetic. [Ch557]

The two commissioners thought that the park would be more urbane if its circulation system allowed for more intensive use of the grounds. With Belmont's public support, Dillon proposed the separation of drives, walks, and rides as a "cardinal" design principle both for practical and for aesthetic reasons. To install paths on either side of the drives would expose pedestrians to "the distractions, noise, dust, and dangers of horsemen and carriages." And in place of the Greensward proposal for a equestrian path only around the reservoir, Dillon suggested a separate ride running the length of the park "to accommodate manly and invigorating horsemanship." [Ch558]

A majority of the board rejected Dillon and Belmont's proposals for enhancing the park's grandeur and endorsed Olmsted's rebuttal that a grand avenue would "destroy scenery at great cost" and that "straight lines of trees or stately architecture ... belong not to parks for the people, but to palatial gardens." [Ch560]

By publishing their suggestions for modifying the Greensward plan, Dillon and Belmont brought a wider public into the design negotiations and recruited both the Herald and the Tribune to their call for more ample rides and walks and the "convenience" of their separation. Since many historians have identified the separation of ways as one of the most praiseworthy elements of Central Park's original design, it is worth stressing that without Dillon and Belmont's public protest, this feature would not have been adopted. By the end of June, Republican commissioners successfully closed further public debate and fixed the park's definition as rural scenery. Then, apparently without a formal resolution, they directed Vaux and Olmsted to rework the circulation system into the separate ways advocated by the Democratic commissioners and the press. [Ch562]

The designers ingeniously responded to the commissioners' demands in such a way as to accommodate the convenience of parkgoers and to give the natural landscape even greater emphasis. Not only did they design winding rides and walks separated from the drive, they introduced more than thirty bridges to carry the various routes over each other. In a technique that Vaux, as architect, appears to have most fully mastered in the later design of Brooklyn's Prospect Park, bridges themselves became graceful frames for landscape scenes beyond. [Ch563]


The Idea of a Great Park   |   The First Park Proposal   |   The Great Park Debate
Taking the Land   |   The Design Competition   |   The Victors
The Greensward Plan   |   The Debate over the Greensward Plan   |   Building the Park