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

Central Park was more than 20 years old when Augustus Hepp made the cyanotype at right—created with a blueprint-like technique—but in the image, the park retains the sweet bloom of youth. He photographed the original GapstowBridge, a wood and cast-iron confection designed by architects Jacob Wrey Mould and Calvert Vaux, that arced over the pond near 59th Street. The bridge, completed in 1874, appears freshly painted; the water sparkles and the bushes look just-planted. The air of lazy calm is deceptive, however. From the day its southernmost section opened to the public in 1858, Central Park attracted crowds. Look at the throng on Bethesda Terrace (below) at the rim of the park’s big lake on an 1894 summer day. The strollers mill about the fountain beneath Emma Stebbins’ joyful winged angel. And at the water’s edge, people wait to take a ride on an electric launch.

Central Park’s 843 acres have always made room for intimate moments. A family, circa 1900 (top left), sits expectantly for a portrait of their outing while the photographer adjusts his apparatus. The young man looks grumpy, but maybe he is simply tired of holding still for the long exposures. Fifty years or so later, on a snowy night, a debonair couple pauses beneath the halo of a lamp (middle left), the frozen silence broken by the click of his cigarette lighter.

Central Park is the place where all New York rubs shoulders; there is no first-class section here. Ananny and her young charge (opposite) take the sun beside an eerily deserted Conservatory Water near 72nd Street and 5th Avenue. An impeccably attired Jacqueline Kennedy (bottom left), already a widow, expertly rows her children on the big lake, which stretches east to west across the park, apparently unnoticed except by one observant amateur photographer. Very much the center of attention, three young men with shaggy haircuts pose in one of the famous horse-drawn carriages. They have arrived from England the day before, and from their beaming smiles it’s clear that they know that they are about to take America by storm.

Frederick Law Olmsted and Vaux designed Central Park as an oasis of tranquillity, but it has witnessed many untranquil events. New Yorkers seem drawn there at moments of common crisis, perhaps because the city lacks a central square or plaza. In the Depression, a Hooverville shantytown sprang up at the old reservoir, now the Great Lawn, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The green confines have seen many demonstrations, both for and against war. More than 50 monuments and sculptures dot the park, and there are countless less permanent tributes: a makeshift memorial to George Harrison at Strawberry Fields near Central Park West; a vigil at the Great Lawn on the anniversary of September 11.

Olmsted organized the park’s first concert on July 9, 1859, and public performances, from Souza to Shakespeare to Streisand, are now a tradition. Such events, and the hundreds of movies and TV shows that have used Central Park as a backdrop, have made it as instantly recognizable as the EiffelTower or Big Ben.

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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