Sara Cedar Miller first joined the Central Park Conservancy in 1984 as a photographer — a job she says changed her life. Since then, her role has evolved; today, as the Conservancy’s historian emerita, she conducts extensive research on Central Park, lectures on its history, and writes award-winning books.
Thirty-six years after her start with the Conservancy, Miller reflects on the changes she’s seen in the Park, how the green space has transformed New York City, and what the Park means to her during these unusual times.
Jessica Sain-Baird: What’s the story behind how you joined the Conservancy?
Sara Cedar Miller: After operating for four years without a staff photographer, the Conservancy [founded in 1980] realized they needed to hire one. Potential funders were reluctant to come to the Park due to its reputation as a dangerous place. Therefore, we needed to bring photographs of the Park to them so we could get support for our mission, and I was the lucky person to be hired for that task.
What kind of changes have you seen in Central Park?
The transformation from 1984, when I joined the staff, up through today is hard to put into words. When I look at pictures that I took back then, I am shocked and disoriented. I find it hard to remember that the Park could have looked so bad, and I can’t even identify many of the depicted areas, as they have changed and improved so much.
How do you think New Yorkers’ relationship to the Park has changed?
Visitors are very respectful now. When we restored Sheep Meadow in 1979, we retained the construction fence. People were horrified; they would jump over the fence anytime the meadow was closed. They didn’t understand about grass compaction after a storm or after lawn maintenance. Fast forward to the late 1990s, when we restored the Great Lawn. We put up signage and sent out public announcements about how important it is to let the grass grow—and people got the message. The day before it opened to the public, I was on the Great Lawn, photographing, and so many people yelled at me to respect the signs. It was that moment when I realized the Conservancy’s communication efforts had changed New Yorkers’ respect for the Park.
Tell us about your new edition of Seeing Central Park.
The Conservancy has accomplished so much work since the publication of the first edition in 2009, and we are proud to produce a new edition. This volume includes all new photography and several landscapes and features that did not exist 11 years ago: the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, the Dene Slope, the Fort Landscape, and the new tower on the Belvedere pavilion. We also included several playgrounds in the new book.
What does Central Park mean to you in this time of COVID-19?
As Park co-designer Frederick Law Olmsted often noted, “the primary purpose of the Park is to provide the best practicable means of healthful recreation for the inhabitants of the city.” During this unprecedented time, the need to connect with the healing properties of nature has never been greater—especially now that it’s spring, a season always associated with rebirth. I am proud to work for the Conservancy, whose highest priority is to keep the Park beautiful, clean, and safe in order to enhance both the physical and mental health of the New Yorkers who visit during this crisis. My heart goes out to my colleagues of the operations staff who, similar in many ways to those in the medical profession, are out there in the trenches every day, dedicated to ensuring those vital needs for our visitors are met.
When the doors of our cultural institutions are slammed shut, Central Park is still there—forever free and open to all, and now at a safe distance: to provide New Yorkers with the City’s most beautiful moving picture, a living sculpture and decorative arts gallery, a museum without walls, a library reading room, a museum of natural history, reminders of American history, a planetarium, a gym, and our most magnificent masterpiece of art. Everyone always asks, “Can you imagine New York without Central Park?” Today, more than ever, the answer is a powerful and resounding, “No.”
What are some of the original elements of the Park that people can still experience?
This is not scientific, but I like to say that about one-third of the Park is exactly the same, one-third is slightly different, and one-third is entirely different. Bethesda Terrace, the Mall, the Lake, the Pond, the Dairy, and the bridges are part of that one-third that closely matches the original Park. Because of what the Conservancy has done in the woodlands, they are even better than they were in the 19th century. In the 20th century, the desire for active recreation added many new facilities to the Park: the playgrounds, the rinks, the tennis courts, the baseball diamonds and back stops, and a swimming pool—in contrast to the formerly passive activities of strolling, carriage riding, and boating. The old Receiving Reservoir was replaced in the mid-1930s by “The Great Lawn for Play,” a name that combined active sport areas with the enduring desire for quiet enjoyment.
Can you talk about the importance of Calvert Vaux in the creation of the Park?
In 1856, Chief Engineer Egbert Viele was chosen to design the Park by the first Central Park Commission. Calvert Vaux, a British-trained architect, felt that Viele’s plan was woefully inadequate for such a significant and costly project. Rather, Vaux suggested to a member of the newly installed board that a design competition would be more appropriate. Once Vaux’s idea had been approved, he approached Frederick Law Olmsted, Park Superintendent, to partner with him on a design—but Olmsted flatly refused. He didn’t feel it was appropriate for him to compete with Viele, his boss—who would, as Olmsted rightly assumed, re-submit his original plan. Under pressure from Vaux, Olmsted finally approached Viele, who underestimated the talents of his inexperienced subordinate and indifferently approved his partnership with Vaux. Olmsted was not new to the art and science of landscape design. He had been a gentleman farmer in Connecticut and Staten Island, though he considered himself primarily a writer and a journalist. If Calvert Vaux hadn’t envisioned the potential in his new partner, the world would probably never have heard of Frederick Law Olmsted.
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