East Coast Shoot, Day 12, continued: loving Central Park

July 10, 2009

When you ask Sara Cedar Miller what her favorite part of Central Park is, she responds:

“OK.  Pretend I have ten children.  You’re really going to ask me which one’s my favorite?”

Her relationship with the park really is like that of a mother and child–Miller, fresh out of art school in 1984, joined the Central Park Conservancy in its infancy, as park photographer.  Since then, she’s watched the park “grow up” into the beautiful urban oasis it’s become, and she knows the place as well as she would her own children.

“Oh, they’ve gotten so big,” she croons passing a family of ducklings waddling along the banks of The Lake, as we make our way towards a quiet clearing in the Ramble across from Bethesda Fountain.

The historian talks about her park sitting on one of Vaux's rustic benches, restored by the Conservancy

The historian talks about her park sitting on one of Vaux's rustic benches, restored by the Conservancy

It was our last day of our East Coast Tour, and Miller seemed to be the perfect voice to close our long series of interviews.  Today she also acts as the Conservancy’s official historian, a position she acquired in 1989.  She has photographed and written about the park for two beautiful books:  Central Park, An American Masterpiece, and Seeing Central Park.  Poised and passionate, her face instinctively brightens when she talks about Central Park, often leaning in, treating the subject like it’s this incredible, fascinating secret she just can’t wait to let you in on.

Which isn’t to say she’s not full of incredible, fascinating secrets.  She’s an adamant Vaux supporter, and won’t hesitate to let you know that the credit Olmsted gets for Central Park, though deserved, is not entirely fair.  “The story of Central Park,” she says, “is really a story about Calvert Vaux getting Frederick Law Olmsted to join him in the design competition.  Olmsted said no at first.”

Miller's latest book, "Seeing Central Park"

Miller's latest book, "Seeing Central Park"

The Greensward Plan that Vaux eventually convinced Olmsted to complete with him is what she calls “a beautiful and very simple tapestry.”  Vaux, she says, “really had the aesthetic and practical senses that Olmsted lacked.  Vaux was very enamoured of the rough and wild Hudson River Valley,” where he had worked with his partner, Andrew Jackson Downing, designing estates for the well-to-do.  “Olmsted loved the rolling hills of England.  It was the melding of all these kinds of styles that was really a new style.”

Why does Olmsted receive all the credit, then?  “He was the writer,” she says.

She’ll also tell you about how Robert Dylan, Central Park commissioner, and August Belmont, influential businessman and avid equestrian (for whom Belmont race track in Long Island is named), made a list of 17 changes to the Greensward Plan the day after it won the design competition.  One of these proposed changes included a bridge that would allow people to transverse The Lake, walking easily from Bethesda Terrace to the Ramble.  This turned into Bow Bridge, one of the most iconic images of the park today.

Bow Bridge--Vaux designed, Dylan and Belmont inspired

Bow Bridge--Vaux designed, Dylan and Belmont inspired

What would New York be without Central Park?  We ask her.  “New York would not be New York without Central Park.”

And who would she be without it?  She smiles, her eyes moisten.  “It’s my life’s work.  It would be like not having an arm or a leg.”


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