160 Years of Central Park: A Brief History

Central Park serves as a peaceful haven for New Yorkers—an escape from the City grind and a place to encounter nature up-close. Yet the captivating story of how the Park became a world-class destination includes the renovation of swampy land, several periods of decline, and the phenomenal work of many civic-minded New Yorkers.

New York City’s population was growing exponentially in the mid-19th century. A large influx of immigrants were coming to Manhattan and living in crowded, unhealthy conditions. The City’s grid system, which was rolled out in 1811, included plans for a number of small open spaces, but nothing close to the scale of Central Park now.

With this in mind, civic-minded philanthropists and City leaders sought to build a Park that would provide New Yorkers with plenty of green space and put New York City on the map as a world-class destination. In 1853, state officials approved funds to purchase the land from 59th to 106th Streets, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues.

The land was rocky and swampy, previously home to small farms and settlements. Also running through the site was Kingsbridge Road, one of only two roads that ran the length of Manhattan and provided a route to northern cities. Government officials needed help turning this varied landscape into an urban park.

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Settlement in Central Park, 1855. Photo courtesy of The New York Public Library

So, they held a design competition. Out of 33 entries, the commission selected the Greensward plan, submitted by Frederick Law Olmsted, a writer and farmer from Connecticut, and Calvert Vaux, a young English architect. The plan was naturalistic: large pastoral landscapes and wooded areas would provide New Yorkers with a rural repose from the City. One of the Greensward plan’s standout features was the sunken transverse roads, a required element of the design competition, which Olmsted and Vaux hid below the landscapes, out of sight from Park goers.

Olmsted’s vision for Central Park was inspired by Birkenhead Park, widely acknowledged as the first publicly funded park in England. Built in response to poor living conditions in the surrounding industrial areas, Birkenhead Park was built for public use, a novel idea at a time when European parks were often housed on formal estates. Olmsted believed Central Park should be a democratic space, a place where people of all backgrounds, rich and poor, women and men, could congregate and enjoy leisurely activities. Central Park would have informal woodlands with winding paths and naturalistic landscapes that would allow those without the means to travel an opportunity to experience a more rural setting.

Construction began on the Park in 1858. Workers moved nearly 5 million cubic yards of stone, earth, and topsoil, built 36 bridges and arches, and constructed 11 overpasses over the transverse roads. They also planted 500,000 trees, shrubs, and vines. The landscapes were manmade and all built by hand.

It was a huge success. Only months after the design competition was completed, the first section of the Park—the Lake—opened to the public in 1858. Central Park was built over the next 15 years and cost $14 million, a significant increase from the project’s original $5 million budget.

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The Mall, circa 1902. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Politics complicated the maintenance of the Park, and Central Park began to decline by the early 1900s. Plantings were not replaced, soil eroded, and pathways and waterways were clogged. Central Park experienced a revival in 1934, when Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia appointed Robert Moses NYC Parks Commissioner. Moses received federal funding to develop massive planning projects citywide, including 19 playgrounds, ballfields, handball courts, and Wollman Rink in Central Park.

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Central Park playground, 1942. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Moses resigned in 1960, leaving Central Park without any plan for ongoing maintenance. With no oversight, the Park became overrun with crowds of people. Meadows became dustbowls. Benches and lights broke, playground equipment became unusable, and the Park’s 100-year-old infrastructure began crumbling.

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The Mall, 1979.

Volunteer groups begin tackling Park projects. In 1979, with the support of Mayor Ed Koch and Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the director of a small advocacy group called the Central Park Task Force, was named the first Central Park Administrator. In 1980, many existing advocacy groups (including the Task Force) joined together to form the Central Park Conservancy in partnership with the City.

The Conservancy continues to care for the Park’s 843 acres. For the past 37 years, we have invested nearly $1 billion to restore and maintain the Park, a portion of which include: Sheep Meadow, the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, the Dairy Visitor Center & Gift Shop, and Heckscher Playground and Ballfields at the southern end of the Park; the Obelisk, the Lake shoreline and historic boat landings, the Great Lawn, and the Stephanie & Fred Shuman Running Track in the middle of the Park; and the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, East Meadow, the East 110th Street Playground, and the Ravine at the northern end of Central Park.

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The Great Lawn before and after restoration, 1997.

Today, Central Park welcomes more than 42 million visitors each year, many of whom are unaware of the Park’s rich and complex history. The Conservancy continues its mission to keep Central Park a beautiful and healthy destination for generations to come through reliable and thoughtful planning—while always honoring Olmsted and Vaux’s original intention to create a space for all New Yorkers.