Frederick Law Olmsted & Calvert Vaux: Designing Central Park

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

Considering the valuable real estate surrounding it, there is no surprise that it was a challenge to build New York's Central Park. This lesson will examine the architects that designed the parks and the challenges they encountered.

Clearing Controversy

The idea of building a great park in New York City likely originated from travelers who were returning from European travels. Having seen the wonderful parks of England and France, the idea of building a park like those began to blossom in America. The wealthy wanted a place for carriage rides and a place for the working classes to go that wasn't a saloon.

Debates began in 1850 as to where the park should be and how much it would cost. Finally, on July 21, 1853, the New York state legislature set aside 750 acres of land in Manhattan to create a park. The problem was, however, that 1,600 poor residents would be displaced by the creation of the park and the city of New York's use of eminent domain to force them out. Eminent domain meant New York could seize the land for city use and the residents were forced to leave.


Once the location of the park was decided, officials began to clear the land. A design competition was announced, with very specific rules and requirements. The park had to have a parade ground, a principal fountain, a lookout tower, a skating arena, four cross streets, and an area for exhibitions or concerts. Of the 33 entries, the design of two men was chosen. Frederick Olmstead and Calvert Vaux were awarded the $2,000 prize as well as having their design chosen.

Frederick Olmstead

Olmstead's path to Central Park was a bumpy one. Born in 1822, Olmstead took a wide variety of jobs before designing Central Park. He had been a surveyor and a clerk before going to China as an apprentice on a merchant ship in 1848. Upon his return to America, he took up scientific farming and later published books on farming. His writing career continued down a different path and he traveled to the southern states to expose the slavery situation to readers in the north. In 1857 he learned that New York City was looking for someone to be the superintendent of the Central Park development. He got the job and later met Calvert Vaux.

Calvert Vaux

Calvert Vaux was born in London in 1824. After working as an architectural apprentice, Vaux moved to New York to work under Andrew Jackson Downing, an American designer. After Downing's death in 1852, Vaux took over the firm. When the Central Park competition was announced in 1858, Vaux and Olmstead submitted their design.


Olmstead and Vaux's design was called Greensward. Some of the features in this design include the Sheep Meadow, Bethesda Fountain, Belvedere Castle, the lake, and the roads in the center of the park.

The Greensward design wasn't without its critics. Some objected to there being places to walk so close to where carriages would be driven. Some objected to the choice of Olmstead and Vaux, blaming their selection on politics. However, the Greensward design incorporated all of the elements required and incorporated the natural form of the land in the design. Walking and riding areas were included, as well as more than thirty bridges.

Greensward Design

Constructing the Park

Once everything had been decided, construction could finally begin. The rocky and swampy plot of land needed sculpting before it could house all of Central Park's features. Swamps had to be drained and granite had to be blown up. It took 16 tons of gunpowder to blast through 300,000 cubic yards of gneiss rock. This rock, once crushed, was used as paving stones for paths. Some of the granite was left in place as part of the naturalistic design. Millions of bricks, thousands of barrels of cement, and thousands of yards of gravel and sand were also brought in. Gardeners fertilized the grounds and planted thousands of shrubs and trees.

Park Planners. From right: Frederick Law Olmsted, Jacob Wrey Mould, Ignaz Anton Pilat, Calvert Vaux, George Waring, and Andrew Haswell Green.

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