Sunday, September 06, 2009

Back When Republicans Liked Fresh Air

Morrison H. Heckscher. Creating Central Park. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.

New York was governed, in the early 19th century, by a Mayor and Common Council, consisting of Aldermen. Yet the Governor and state legislature had the authority to override any city decision. In 1807, the state government approve having three commissioners determine roads and public squares for Manhattan north of Houston (then called North) Street. A survey was conducted. A plan, mostly for commerce and real estate planning, was published in 1811. It offered some open space, calling for nine new squares of open space, including a plan in the island’s center between 23rd and 32nd streets. This plan was criticized for having too much open space. In 1815, two of the proposed squares were scaled back in size.

Madison and Lexington Streets were created in 1833 to alleviate traffic. The thinking on open spaces was changing then. Foreign visitors were criticizing the lack of public squares. Some citizens wanted an area for festivities.

Land for Gramery Park was donated in 1831. Land for Stuyvesant Park was donated in 1836. The state created Tompkin Square in 1833 and Madison Square in 1837.

The press called for more open space. William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post, wanted park land purchased while it could still be inexpensively bought. Andrew Jackson Downing, editor of the Horticulturist, proposed landscape gardening and public parks. These became popular ideas that were adopted by political candidates, including Caleb Woodhull, who was elected Mayor in 1849. Mayor Woodhull declared a need for more breathing places. The successive Mayor, Ambrose Kingsland, elected in 1850, proposed creating a large uptown park. The state government approved the Jones’ Wood Park Act to purchase land for a park.

There was some political bickering over where this park should be located. The Journal of Commerce, among others, opposed creating any park. The Central Park Act was passed. Disputes over assessments went to the State Supreme Court. A plan to reduce the park form 59th to 72nd Street passed but was vetoed by Mayor Fernando Wood.

The park area was surveyed. Several plans were submitted and a play by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead was chosen. The plan included east-west park drives, minimum elevation, and five park sections.
Ground drainage was the first task. 400 workers placed 105,000 feet of drain tile. The four transverse roads were built. Planting and nursery efforts began. The buildings were not in the original plan but added later. Grand entry gates were later designed. Sculptures were added. The park was completed and considered a success.


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