Staying Connected to Central Park through History

The history of Central Park is integral to the mission of the Central Park Conservancy. As stewards of the Park, we uphold its original, timeless purpose as a respite from urban life, while enhancing the Park for today’s visitors. The Park’s history and purpose guide our restoration projects, provide the content of our programming, and shape our communications with the public.

A deep knowledge of the Park’s landscapes and structures and how they have changed over time steers all of our work, from recreating Park features that have been lost to restoring the Park's woodlands to creating healthy, sustainable landscapes. We share this knowledge with the public through tours and other programs that allow for a deeper study of the Park and its past. As the Conservancy’s historian, I support this work, conducting research and assisting Conservancy staff and the public in their explorations of the Park’s history and significance.

Masked parkgoers strolling under a bridge near the Children's Zoo in summer

Central Park, the country’s first large public park, has been a center of New York City’s cultural and social life since its creation.

The history of Central Park is rich and varied. The Park’s origins as the country’s first large public park make it an extraordinary designed landscape that deserves preservation and study. But it is not a static object, frozen in the 19th century. The Park is a living, dynamic environment that has undergone innumerable changes, and has been a center of New York City’s cultural and social life since its creation.

The Park has been through a lot and seen a lot. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, I’ve been reflecting on and researching the Park during other times of crisis, such as the Depression and 9/11. This has served as a reminder that this too shall pass, and that the Park has always been a place of sanctuary and solace for New Yorkers.

While I’m fortunate to be able to work from home, it’s been challenging to be away from Central Park and my colleagues during this time. I've been staying connected by reading and thinking about the Park’s history, exploring various books and resources, and visiting other historic landscapes with important connections to the Park. Throughout all of this, I’m learning that even when we can’t get to the Park, it can still be a source of inspiration and nourishment, and even comfort and escape. Read on for some of my recommendations to deepen your insight into the Park.

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Frederick Law Olmsted, ca. 1859. Courtesy of New York Public Library, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs: Print Collection

Frederick Law Olmsted: Park designer and more

As part of reflecting on the value of the Park during this crisis, I’ve been revisiting the writings of the Park’s co-designer Frederick Law Olmsted. He was a voluminous writer and in numerous essays, reports, and personal communications sought to communicate why public parks were so essential to urban life.

While Olmsted’s ideas about parks still feel quite relevant, they also take us back to a time when public parks were not only innovative but anticipating a future city that did not yet exist—and therefore needed some explanation and justification. When Central Park was built, beginning in 1858, it was not yet at all central. At the end of his life, Olmsted reflected, “I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future. In laying out Central Park we determined to think of no result to be realized in less than forty years.” Now, over 150 year later, it’s as central as ever and we can’t imagine New York City without it.

A collection published in 2015 by the Library of America, entitled Olmsted: Writings on Landscape, Culture and Society, brings his most important writings together and also reveals his wide-ranging impact on American life and culture, including and beyond Central Park.

I’ve been reading these writings along with Olmsted’s most well-known biography, A Clearing in The Distance, which is a helpful complement and another window onto his fascinating life and career. Before designing Central Park, Olmsted was primarily a farmer and writer, and became well-known for his reporting on slavery in the south. During the Civil War he was one of the leaders of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a predecessor to the Red Cross that organized care for wounded soldiers.

After Central Park, he went on to design numerous parks and park systems, as well as parkways, suburbs, and college campuses. His contributions to the development of the American landscape is also captured in the 2014 PBS documentary Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America.

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Green-Wood Cemetery, ca. 1873. Courtesy of New York Public Library, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection

Exploring other historic landscapes

Although I can’t get to Central Park right now, I’m fortunate to live near two important designed landscapes with close connections to Central Park: Green-Wood Cemetery and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Visiting these landscapes regularly has not only alleviated some of my stress and anxiety but has helped me to better understand their relationship to Central Park and the history of public parks in New York.

Both the design and purpose of Green-Wood Cemetery had a large influence on the development of Central Park. Founded in 1838, 20 years before Central Park opened, Green-Wood was a new type of burial ground, called a rural cemetery, that aimed to address overcrowding in urban cemeteries and concerns about public health, as well as changing attitudes toward death and mourning.

Located on spacious tracts outside of city limits, rural cemeteries were designed as beautiful, picturesque landscapes that provided opportunities for solace, introspection, and communion with nature. Although rural cemeteries were intended as much for the living as for the dead, their creators did not anticipate their immense popularity. They became places for strolls, picnics, and carriage rides, and even became tourist attractions. By the 1860s, Green-Wood Cemetery was almost as popular a destination as Niagara Falls.

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Early spring in Green-Wood Cemetery, April 2020, photo by author.

Olmsted was one of many who found pleasure-seeking in a cemetery somewhat incongruous, but this very activity became part of the argument for the need of large urban parks. In his book, The New Urban Landscape, scholar David Schuyler investigates the connection between rural cemeteries and the movement to create public parks, explaining, “The popularity of rural cemeteries contributed significantly to the realization that large expanses of natural beauty were essential means of protecting the health and vitality of an urban population.” With their winding pathways, water bodies, broad vistas, and groves of trees, rural cemeteries provided a model for the design and purpose of parks, for an idealized rural landscape that would provide the utmost escape from urban life.

The third episode of the PBS documentary series 10 That Changed America, which features 10 important parks including Central Park, also explores the connection between cemeteries and parks and how the parks movement continued to unfold in the United States.

Green-Wood is also connected to Central Park history as the resting place for some important figures in its history, including architect Jacob Wrey Mould (1825–1886), sculptor Emma Stebbins (1815–1882), and William “Boss” Tweed (1823–1878). Jeffrey Richman, Green-Wood’s historian, explores the history of the cemetery by focusing on the lives of the many illustrious New Yorkers who are buried there in the book, Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery: New York's Buried Treasure.

Discovering historic images

Lately, if I’m finding it hard to read, I explore the history of the Park through images in online collections. Central Park has been so well-documented and a subject for many artists and photographers, so there is a wealth of material in institutions such as the New York Public Library, New-York Historical Society, and Library of Congress.

The Museum of the City of New York (MCNY)’s collection of material related to Central Park—one of my favorites—is somewhat unique in that it encompasses a great range of media, makers, and time periods. It includes maps, ephemera, paintings, and decorative arts objects; the majority are photographs, in a variety of formats, many by well-known photo studios and artists. At a time when many of us can’t get to the Park, these and other historic images can provide alternative ways to wander through the Park and participate in its role in the City’s life and culture.

Here are a few recent discoveries in MCNY’s collection.

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John O-Brien Inman. Moonlight Skating - Central Park - The Terrace. Oil on Canvas, ca. 1878. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York, 49.415.2

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"Stream in Central Park" Cyanotype photographs, ca. 1890. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.1180

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Theodor Eismann, Fine Art Printing and Publishing. Greetings from New York Postcard, ca. 1908. Courtesy of Museum of the City of New York, X2011.34.2732

For those exploring the Park from home and for those who are able to visit, history can help provide some perspective on the present moment or offer a way to briefly escape it. At the Conservancy, the history of Central Park is always an important way that we stay connected to the Park and its purpose as a respite from urban life and open space for all New Yorkers.