Central Park’s Designers Had a Favorite NYC Park—and It Wasn’t Central Park
Brooklyn now rivals Manhattan as a great place to live, work and visit—and its city park is at least the equal of the famous Central Park.
In the heart of Brooklyn, you can walk a country mile. During the pandemic, denizens of New York’s most populous borough escaped to the Long Meadow, visited a woodland called the Vale of Cashmere, and looked upon the rugged cataract known as Ambergill Falls. Today, within the constructed countryside that is Prospect Park, Brooklynites and out-of-town visitors alike can experience the rejuvenation of a varied parkscape that provides, as one of its creators claimed, “healthful recreation for the poor and the rich, the young and the old, the vicious and the virtuous.”
The man who wrote those words, Frederick Law Olmsted, created Central Park, together with architect Calvert Vaux, just before the outbreak of the Civil War. Prospect Park would be their next joint project, when Brooklynites, wanting a park of their own, reached out to the partners a few years later. Looking back on Prospect’s origin story seems especially apt right now, since 2022 is the bicentenary of Olmsted’s birth, and the man and his parks are being celebrated across the country.
Brooklyn was incorporated in 1834 — it would not become a borough of New York City until 1898 — and its population exploded from 25,000 to nearly 400,000 by 1860. Its footprint expanded when it consolidated with inland Williamsburg and Bushwick, and Manhattan’s younger sibling became the country’s third largest city. However, with Brooklyn’s busy streetscapes encroaching upon villages farther and farther east, the Brooklyn Park Commission wanted to create an urban oasis for the burgeoning populace before all the open land was developed. With the wartime moratorium on construction ending, the commissioners turned to the men who had designed Central Park, a place already generally regarded as one of the great wonders of the 19th century.
Olmsted comes down to us today as our most renowned parkmaker, his name remembered for his work in many cities across the country. But he was out of town when Vaux first walked the acreage the Brooklyn Park Commission had in mind for a new parkland. The designated area straddled Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue, but on a wet winter Saturday in January 1865, Vaux identified two changes he wanted to make. He proposed both shifting the site to the west and adding considerable acreage to the south. That would leave well-trafficked Flatbush Avenue outside the park boundaries, add more than two hundred acres to the total area, and produce a self-contained park.
Vaux made a crude sketch that he shared with Olmsted. Rough as it was, it indicated a “Hilly Region,” a “Proposed Pond of say 40 Acres,” and the “Principal natural Entrance from Brooklyn.” As a sometime Brooklyn resident, Olmsted himself had witnessed much of Brooklyn’s transformation, and he understood that the city needed its own set of lungs. In the proposed park, he saw an opportunity to create a version of the countryside that he had grown up with, in Connecticut, and to replicate bucolic landscapes of forest and field, streams and lakes. A man of deeply held democratic principles, he recognized that Brooklyn’s people, half of whom were recent immigrants, many living in evident poverty, needed to be exposed to the health-enhancing powers of what he liked to call “the scenic.”
Over a period of months, Olmsted and Vaux, together and alone, repeatedly explored the acreage. Olmsted walked with an uneven gait, the result of a carriage accident years before, and he often carried a walking stick for stability. As 1865 gave way to 1866, their task was to justify the expanded borders and to describe the varied park spaces they proposed to create. The Brooklyn commissioners also needed cost estimates before construction could begin.
Olmsted had no difficulty making the case for Vaux’s larger alternative. Even in strictly geometric terms, the angular footprint appealed to his taste for the irregular. Unlike Central Park’s rigid rectangle, the bounds of the proposed Brooklyn park looked like a half-full burlap bag, with lumpy corners and asymmetries. Olmsted disliked straight roads and the squared-off grid of the city; he favored graceful curves, with meandering footpaths, bridle trails, and carriage roads. And by banishing all city streets from the interior, the parkland would have unbroken scenic views.
The area, which was roughly a mile wide and a mile and a half north-to-south, remained undeveloped. Some rugged terrain on the eastern edge had been the site of Revolutionary War skirmishes, where American colonists had fought British regulars at Redoubt Hill and Battle Pass during the Battle of Brooklyn. Olmsted walked country roads that ambled through farmland, past harvested fields and cattle grazing on nearby slopes. At the north end, Vaux showed him an expanse of level ground he imagined could become the Green, a great lawn whose crescent shape meant expanding vistas for those walking its paths. To the south, they looked at low-lying land where Olmsted envisioned a skating pond even larger than the one they had made in Central Park. “A gymnasium,” Vaux called it, “for the healthy development of the young citizens of Brooklyn in winter.”
Olmsted took in all that he saw and imagined the site becoming an antidote to the city around it, a place that would offer its visitors the healthy illusion that they were truly in the country. And he put his well-practiced writing skills to use in order to educate the Brooklynites, both the commissioners and the general population, while Vaux prepared an elegant and precise scale drawing to complement the text. The document would bear a weighty title: “Preliminary Report to the Commissioners for Laying Out a Park in Brooklyn, New York: Being a Consideration of Circumstances of Site and Other Conditions Affecting the Design of Public Pleasure Grounds.”
A purity of purpose informed Olmsted as he rendered a description of Prospect Park, and he wrote furiously. His mind never ceased milling the grist of the landscapes he had seen on repeated trips to Europe and during a two-year sojourn in California, where he had been awed by the Yosemite Valley. The report—in its final printed form almost 10,000 words long—would speak in terms far beyond the task at hand.
He began with broad strokes. The pleasure of parks, he wrote, is “the feeling of relief experienced by those entering them, on escaping the cramped, confined and controlling circumstances of the streets of the town; in other words, a sense of enlarged freedom is to all, at all times, the most certain and the most valuable gratification afforded by a park.”
To leaven the lesson, he resorted to an anecdote credited to the fabulist Aesop. One day a fellow Athenian upbraided Aesop for engaging in childish games with a group of boys. In response, Aesop laid an unstrung bow before his critic. “Tell us what the unstrained bow implies,” he asked. After a pause, the man admitted he had no idea.
With a smile, Aesop explained. “If you keep a bow always bent, it will lose its elasticity presently; but it if you let it go slack, it will be fitter for use when you want it.” Olmsted thought Aesop’s moral applied to his work, that the amusements and scenery in a city park would offer its citizens a place of release for the “unbending of the faculties.”
The essential ingredients for Prospect Park remained the same as Central Park’s, primarily meadows (“greensward”), woods (“groves”), lakes (“waters”), and “corridors of well-mannered woods.” The partners proposed an embankment at the perimeter, much of which would be 20 feet high, a ridge of earth half-camouflaged by bushes and vegetation, punctuated at intervals by arched entrances to the park. Although overlooks within the park from such heights as Vanderbilt Hill would offer vistas of New York Harbor and a sweep of ocean, the “boundary arrangements” would, for the most part, “shut out of view that which would be inharmonious and counteractive to our design.”
The designers planned a scheme of traffic separation like that in Central Park, with five miles of carriage roads, largely at the perimeter; four miles of bridle paths; and almost 20 miles of pedestrian walks. They anticipated all seasons. Since their park in Manhattan had made ice-skating a popular pastime, their lake would accommodate large Brooklyn crowds in winter. The earth beneath park carriageways would be properly prepared so the snowmelt and spring rains wouldn’t render them impassable. A steam-powered pump would circulate water through an elaborate system of pools, streams, and the lake.
They proposed an open-air concert area. Performances would take place on an island, and the sound carrying over the waters would be heard by perhaps 10,000 people in a shady glade to the south and by those on horseback and in carriages listening from an oval concourse to the north.
Olmsted acknowledged, “we cannot have wild mountain gorges,” but he proposed a ravine and waterfalls. Even if the highest point in the park was a mere 168 feet above sea level, Olmsted saw no reason not to incorporate a sense of drama.
When it was finally done, the report was a tour de force. It offered philosophical arguments: “Experience shows,” the document argued, “that the great advance which a town finds in a park, lies in the addition to the health, strength and morality which come to its people.” But it was also a practical plan tailored to realizing a public park at the Brooklyn site, complete with rustic shelters, ornate bridges, arbors, and pavilions.
Finished copies were delivered in mid-February 1866, and the partners celebrated with valued friends. At Vaux’s house, they raised glasses of orange-juice punch and claret in toasts to a job well done. Months would pass before the commissioners acted, but on May 29, 1866, Vaux and Olmsted learned their design had been approved, and on July 1 they assumed management of park construction.
The task of completing the 526-acre park, including the Green, the Ravine, and the Lake, required seven years, though the first section of the Prospect Park grounds—some of the East Drive at the north end of the park—officially opened to the public on Oct. 21, 1867. Millions of yards of soil and stone had to be moved, and hundreds of thousands of trees and bushes planted. During construction, elements would come and go. The planned Zoological Ground disappeared and an Upper Pool was incorporated into the plan. Olmsted, Vaux & Company provided a series of elaborate topographical maps to guide construction. A crew of some 1,800 men worked as laborers, carpenters, gardeners, stonemasons, and blacksmiths. A new-fangled rock crusher and a steamroller imported from Liverpool helped shape the park’s paths. A well was dug and a boiler house built to power the waterworks that fed the park’s streams and ponds. Vaux designed bridges and rustic shelters.
Today, more than a century and a half later, Prospect Park is largely as its designers envisioned it. As Olmsted predicted, it is a place where people come together, all sorts of people, whether from neighboring streets or distant states and continents. Yet parks are not static places: Trees and plantings must be replaced, and over the decades many of Prospect Park’s buildings and hardscapes have required extensive and costly restoration, some of them more than once, particularly after New York’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s, when visitation to the dilapidated parkland dropped under 2 million. But through the efforts of the City of New York and, in particular, the Prospect Park Alliance, a non-profit that functions as the park’s caretaker, Brooklyn’s largest green space is now very much an oasis, one that welcomes more than 10 million people a year.
Parks have their partisans, of course, and more than a few Manhattanites maintain that Central Park is the finest of them all. But in the eyes of its creators, Messieurs Olmsted and Vaux, Prospect Park was their masterpiece. It remains a superb place for far-flung vacationers and locals alike, just as Olmsted promised, to unbend their faculties. Just ask any Brooklynite.
Excerpted from Architects of an American Landscape: Henry Hobson Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, and the Reimagining of America’s Public and Private Spaces © 2022 by Hugh Howard. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.