Central Park was designed to bring a slice of the country right to the middle of New York City. This effect is built into the landscapes of the Park, in carefully designed woodlands that block out the urban soundscape with trickling rivulets, paths that meander across glades and hills, and rocky outcroppings exposed at apparently random spots. The sense of being in the country is enhanced by rustic wood structures that can be seen around the Park. It might surprise you to learn that these bridges, shelters, railings, pergolas and benches are built inside the Park by members of the Conservancy's carpentry team.
The five members of the Conservancy's carpentry team, Louis Urruttia-Orme, Sam Vargas, Rith Hun, Jack Khiev and Juan Vargus, have more than a century of combined experience working in the Park. Their carpentry is a cross between maintenance work and art. "We think of ourselves as craftsmen," Sam said. "We're just working and building together."
Unlike traditional carpentry, involving standardized parts and exact measurements, the process of making a rustic piece is more uncertain. Work begins with a pile of raw timber (not to be confused with lumber, which is shaped and sized to exact specifications). If the team is building a bench, they start with the legs. Once those are assembled, a piece of timber is selected, cut and placed across the legs, which determines the final length of the bench. From there, construction becomes a puzzle. Timber is selected one piece at a time, based on which shapes and sizes are needed. Each piece is carefully trimmed using a chainsaw. "We always leave the piece longer than we think we need," Jack said, "because if you cut it too much, that's it for that piece."
Like assembling a puzzle, the process can be frustrating at times and joyfully easy at others. One day, the team might have trouble finding the "perfect piece" for the next spot on the bench. Every piece in their pile of timber will start to look the same. "Then we'll come in the next day, and right away: 'ah, there's the piece'!" Sam said. Rith agreed: "When we get into it, things just fall together easily." Louis, who's worked for the Conservancy for almost thirty years, said he's been doing it so long that "everything just flows naturally."
Most of the Park's rustic shelters and some benches were built using Eastern Red Cedar wood, the same wood the Park's designers used. After working with Eastern Red Cedar for a few years, the carpentry team determined that Black Locust wood provided more durable timber than Eastern Red Cedar, doubling the life of a rustic structure, as well as offering curvier timber, which helps in design detailing. The timber is stripped of its bark, also a departure from the original designs, because bark holds in moisture after rainfall, which contributes to fungus growth that decays the wood, and allows insects that lived in the tree to remain in the wood. Most of the timber is purchased, but on rare occasions, when one of the Park's roughly 800 Black Locust trees falls in a storm, the wood is repurposed for use in rustic structures. Benches built using Black Locust last approximately eight years before requiring maintenance or replacement. Black Locust wood is so hard that the team cuts it with chainsaws, rather than hand or table saws. "You could cut it with a hand saw," Jack said, "but you'll be there all day."
The Conservancy's commitment to rebuilding rustic woodwork throughout the Park is a return to Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s original pastoral vision. Rustic structures in the landscapes contribute to the Park's bucolic identity. Originating in China, rustic woodwork made its way to the United States, at least in part, through Vaux’s mentor, Andrew Jackson Downing. In the Park's early years, there were roughly 100 individual rustic features in the Park. Rustic shelters provided shade in a young Park filled with small, young trees. By the 1950s most of the Park’s rustic work had deteriorated, and was generally razed rather than restored. During that period, construction in the Park focused on more urban elements like playgrounds, sports facilities and restaurants.
In the early 1980s, one of the first design objectives of the Conservancy was to restore the few remaining rustic elements and to rebuild the shelters, pergolas and benches originally in the Park. The spirit of the original structures is alive in the Conservancy's work today. "We're always trying to make something different," Rith said. "However the wood grows, that's how the piece will turn out."
Want to see the carpentry team's work up close? Rustic woodwork can be found all over the Park. Head into the Ramble or North Woods to see rustic benches, bridges and railings. The Shakespeare Garden is surrounded by a newly restored rustic fence and benches. Pergolas at the western entrance to Strawberry Fields provide cool shade in warmer months. Or enjoy a rustic rest at the Cop Cot, Dene or Ramble shelters.
When Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Central Park in the 19th Century, they designated this 10-acre meadow in the southwest corner of the Park as a "playground" — the term used to describe a versatile open meadow intended for games, sports and informal play.