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Olmsted's Triumph

One hundred and fifty years ago this month, the New York State legislature set aside the land that would become Central Park. By 1876, landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux had transformed the swampy, treeless 50 blocks between Harlem and midtown Manhattan into the first landscaped park in the United States. Here's to New York City's 843-acre backyard!

What exactly is it that we recognize? Many cities have great parks, but New York’s is the only one that runs smack into an architectural escarpment. This meeting of the natural and the man-made is palpable and oddly poignant. In Ruth Orkin’s view of Sheep Meadow (opposite, top), the buildings protectively hug the misty park. Bruce Davidson catches—it is exactly the right word—four boys skylarking in the lake (below). They splash, whoop and holler as Central Park West’s elegant towers look on. Here is the essence of Central Park—and of American culture: Huck Finn meets Fred Astaire.

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