The Architectural Vision of Prospect Park: Olmsted & Vaux

Early Visions & Quotes

“To Authorize, the Selection and Location of Certain Grounds for Public Parks, and also for a Parade Ground for the City of Brooklyn”

~Legislature of the State of New York, April 18, 1859

“The primary object of the park [is] as a rural resort, where the people of all classes, escaping from the glare, and glitter, and turmoil of the city, might find relief for the mind, and physical recreation . . . nature in its beauty and variety never palls upon the senses, never fails to elicit our admiration; whether displaying its wild grandeur in the vast solitudes of the forest . . . whether bursting the fast of winter, it opens its buds in spring-time, or yielding to the chilling blasts it scatters its autumn leaves — it conveys in all its phases and through all its changes no emotions which are not in harmony with the highest refinement of the soul.”

~ Egbert L. Viele, Chief Engineer for Central Park/First Designer of Prospect Park
“The intense activity and the destructive excitement of business life as here conducted, imperatively demands these public places for exercise and recreation . . . Mount Prospect Park [will be easily accessible] to the masses of our people, [either] on foot or the cheap railroad lines.”

~Committee (created by NYS legislature for park projects)

“Prospect Park in the city of Brooklyn must always be conceded as the great natural park of the country.”

~James Stranahan, January 1862

Frederick Law Olmsted & Calvert Vaux

The architecture of Prospect Park was turned over to British architect Calvert Vaux after the project was halted by the Civil War in 1861. Vaux wanted an overhaul of the design for the park. He was an experienced architect that worked on the landscaping of the Smithsonian Institution and part of the Capitol grounds in Washington. He was appointed Consulting Architect of Central Park in Manhattan, which he worked on for 8 years along with Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1844, Vaux created a new design for the park. He partners with Frederick Olmsted and they create what would become the “birth certificate of Prospect Park.” On May 29, 1866, Olmsted and Vaux are officially made Landscape Architects of Prospect Park and given full responsibility for the execution of the development.  Their plan was essentially a division of the land into three regions: a region of open meadow, with large trees singly and in groups, used for extensive playgrounds; a hilly district, with groves and shrubbery, allowing for shaded walks and broad views; and a lake district with shores and islands, allowing for skating and rowing. (www.nyc-architecture.com)

Generally, Olmsted is considered the genius in composing scenery and Vaux in planning architectural accents. Olmsted vocalized and visualized “a varied landscape that would provoke sensations of relaxation.” His design included open meadows, splashing waterfalls and wooded walkways. Vaux designed the park’s structures such as bridges, arches, concession areas, and shelters. “His signature rustic style ensured that architectural features were situated within, rather than dominant to, the landscape.”(www.prospectpark.org)

Olmsted specialized in natural scenery and landscaping.  His passion for nature and landscaping stems from his upbringing in Hartford, Connecticut. He was influenced by books such as An Essay on the Picturesque by Sir Uvedales Prince and Remarks on Forest Scenery by William Gilpin. When he was just 14, he learned surveying though his apprenticeship with a topographical engineer. At 21, he became a seaman and shipped aboard the Ronaldson to Hong Kong; at 25, he finished a course at Yale and took up scientific farming, first at Gilford and then on Staten Island, where he spent much of his time in landscaping and yet was successful as a farmer. He was 35 when he assumed the role of Superintendent in Central Park, and the next year he devised the Greensward plan with Vaux.

Olmsted had a very complex vision for his parks. He believed the profession of landscape architecture could improve the quality of life of America.

“[His parks were] designed so as to counteract the artificiality of the city and the stress of urban life . . . the park system, offering a wide range of public recreation facilities for all residents in a city; the scenic reservation, protecting areas of special scenic beauty from destruction and commercial exploitation; the residential suburb, separating place of work from place of residence and devoted to creating a sense of community and a setting for domestic life; the grounds of the private residence, where gardening could develop both the aesthetic awareness and the individuality of its occupants, and containing numerous ‘attractive open-air apartments’ that permitted household activities to be moved outdoors; the campuses of residential institutions, where a domestic scale for the buildings would provide a training ground for civilized life; and the grounds of government buildings, where the function of the buildings would be made more efficient and their dignity of appearance increase by careful planning. In each of these categories, Olmsted developed a distinctive design approach that showed the comprehensiveness of his vision, his uniqueness of conception that he brought to each commission, and the imagination with which he dealt with even the smallest details.” (National Association for Olmsted Parks)

Olmsted and Vaux ended their partnership during the economic downturn in 1873. Vaux went on to building the first pavilion of the Museum of Natural History on Central Park West at 79th Street in 1874, and the first wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park on Fifth Avenue at 83rd Street several years later. “Olmsted, in 1873, was appointed Commissioner of the New York Department of Public Parks. His former position in Brooklyn was dissolved due to a financial crisis and he was retained only as consultant. He kept his post in New York until the beginning of 1878, at which time he left for Europe. Upon his return to America, the center of his activities shifted to New England, and in 1883 he established his home in Brookline, Massachusetts, and his practice in Boston. As for Prospect Park, the team had made its memorable contribution in devising a magnificent and appropriate design and in directing its development up to the time of the depression, and it fell into the hands of others to further, to maintain, and to change — sometimes to spoil — the masterpiece that Olmsted and Vaux had created. For the next 18 or 20 years, however, the general tenor of improvements in Prospect Park was channeled in the Olmsted-Vaux tradition” (nyc-architecture.com).

One Response to The Architectural Vision of Prospect Park: Olmsted & Vaux

  1. Jason Munshi-South says:

    A decent start here, but the images, quotes, and textual information need to be edited to work together and provide a clear story.

    Jason

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