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.
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.”
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.
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.”
Morrison Heckscher, the Lawrence A. Fleishman chariman of The American Wing at the Metropolitain Museum of Art, can recognize American art when he sees it. Central Park, the subject of his 2008 book, and also the verdant backyard of his museum, is not just a place for New Yorkers to seek shade, he holds, but one of this country’s great works of art.
As creators of Central Park, Heckscher called Olmsted and Vaux “towering figures in the history of American cities, of American landscape.” Olmsted, he said, was “the father, the dean of American landscape, particularly as it has to do with city parks.”
But it was William Cullen Bryant and Andrew Jackson Downing, he insists, who were really responsible for sparking the original initiative to create a major park in New York City. Downing, one of the great dictators of public taste in the early 19th century (Sara Cedar Miller calls him the Martha Stewart of the time period), was founder and editor of the magazine The Horticulturist, and also a popular landscape architect with his partner, Calvert Vaux. Downing acted as a kind of mentor to Olmsted, publishing some of Olmsted’s first writing, and inspiring his interest in the young profession of landscape architecture. Bryant, poet and longtime editor of the New York Post, helped give Downing’s plea for Central Park in 1851 a voice that would be heard by the public.
In fact, it is generally assumed that had Downing not died in 1852 in a tragic steamboat accident at the age of 36, he would have been the logical choice to be designer of the park. After his death, Olmsted was approached by the newly partnerless Vaux to enter the design competition, which they of course won in 1858.
Though the circumstances of the launch of his career arguably depended on the doomed fate of another man, Olmsted, Heckscher holds, is an artist, and Central Park, “literally, a series of works of art.” In particular, Heckscher cited the views that Olmsted and Vaux carefully planned within the park, which tend to appear suddenly, framed by elements of the landscape and “set low within the landscape–one comes upon them walking through the park.” Heckscher calls this “an extroadinary but very subtle architectural satement.”
What is the difference, we asked, between the park and the great works that hang in frames from the walls of the Met? “The extensive difference is its dynamism, the fact that it’s alive,” he said. “There’s no way that one can freeze a park within a certain moment. Olmsted and Vaux envisioned mature plants and trees, but eventually that moment passes, and the trees go. The challenge, in moving ahead,” he says of the future of the park, “is recognizing that [the plants and trees of the park] are not static.”
Charles Beveridge called Prospect Park “a classic example of [Olmsted and Vaux’s] concept of a great urban park,” and “the most pleasing that they created during their collaboration.”
Olmsted himself had this to say to those involved in the construction of the park in 1865:
“We must study to secure a combination of elements which shall invite and stimulate the simplest, purest and most primeval action of the poetic element of human nature, and thus remove those who are affected by it to the greatest possible distance from the highly elaborate, sophistical and artificial conditions of their ordinary and civilized life.
Thus it must be that parks are beyond anything else recreative, recreative of that which is most apt to be lost or become diseased and debilitated among the dwellers in towns.”
Prospect Park has the unique quality of seclusion in New York City. Where the tall buildings of Manhattan which surround Central Park have come to act as artistic framing elements, Brooklyn benefits from being significantly shorter. Walking through the park today truly offers the illusion of rurality, which Olmsted and Vaux so adamantly sought to create.
Tupper Thomas, who became Administrator of Prospect Park in 1980, and has acted as President of the Prospect Park Alliance since its formation in 1987, prefers to do less talking, more showing when it’s time to convince people of the park’s value.
“I don’t talk history and preservation,” she says. “I take people to look at it, and I say, ‘Look how beautiful this is!'”
She still, though, has plenty to say on the topic:
“It’s gorgeous, multi-use, brilliant in its design, and it’s everlasting. Even today the park still replenishes your soul, does wonderful things for your psyche. It’s still what people need.
The fun thing to do is give people a tour of the park, and tell them it’s designed. The art of [Olmsted and Vaux’s] design is that it doesn’t look like design.”
There are no transverse roads that cut horizontally through Prospect Park, a fact which allows it to get away with the Long Meadow, the longest unbroken meadow in any urban park in America. Prospect Park also posesses 120 acres of woodlands, which shelter tinier meadows of their own, and a 60 acre lake.
Our interview with Tupper Thomas took place on a Saturday afternoon in the Long Meadow. We were surrounded by park users–there to picnic, scooter down paths, play soccer, and celbrate birthdays, which gave the background of our shot some colorful dynamism.
The Long Meadow in Prospect Park is arguably the happiest place in the world in the hours before 9am on Saturdays.
The off-leash initiative started in the 1980s, when Tupper Thomas, Prospect Park Administrator, and now president of the Prospect Park Alliance, needed a way to get people back in the park. Dogs are allowed to be off-leash in the park from 9pm to 1am, when the park closes, and from 5am to 9am in the morning.
Our crew was able to catch a beautifully joyous scene at around 8am on Saturday, June 27. I racked my brain to no avail to see if I had ever been in one place with so many dogs. We strolled among the throngs of dogs and their owners, many of whom also had adorable babies in tow. The cuteness factor was almost too much to handle.
Who knows if Olmsted could have forseen the popularity of this particular activity–early on, in the late 1800s, dogs did come to the park–leashless, it seems–but presumably in the interest of tending sheep. Tennis ball launchers, of course, had not yet been invented.
With no sheep to tend to on Saturday, the raucous canine party left virtually no mess behind them, and by 9am, the dogs were diligently leashed back up and led either to the shaded paths of the Ravine, or the surrounding streets. Later, when I asked Tupper about this incredible display of public respect for the park, she told me about the organization FIDO. FIDO stands for “Fellowship in the Interest of Dogs and their Owners,” and is a community organization that works with the park to educate off-leashers about park rules, while encouraging the maintenance of a safe and healthy place for dogs. Read more about FIDO here: www.fidobrooklyn.org.
Sara Cedar Miller, historian and photographer for the Central Park Conservancy, and author of the beautiful books Central Park: An American Masterpiece and Seeing Central Park once candidly called Doug Blonsky the Frederick Law Olmsted of today.
Blonsky is president of the Central Park Conservancy, as well as Chief of Operations of Central Park, which means he’s not only the leader of the organization that raises 85% of the park’s $27 million annual budget, but he manages a staff of over 250, and about 3,000 volunteers. Olmsted, in addition to creating the spectacular design for the park, was also superintendent, and later architect-in-chief of the park. A landscape architect by training, Blonsky calls Central Park “the soul of New York City,” and laughingly shrugged off Miller’s admiring comparison.
Shortly after 9/11, he said, “The park was the cathedral, it was the church, it was the temple,” going on to describe the masses of people who came out to the park.
He also did not hesitate to bring up one of Olmsted’s most convincing arguments for supporting urban parks. “A lot of people don’t stop to think about how important Central Park is for the economy,” he said, referencing the Central Park Effect, a report commissioned by the Conservancy in May, 2008, which estimated that visitors to the park generated $80 million in spending outside the park in 2007. “Real estate values,” he added, “quadruple within a 10-minute walk of the park.” Appleseed, the economic development consultants who released the report, posted an interesting article on how Central Park responded to the recession on their blog.
June 25, 2009
June 24, 2009
I met former Massachusetts Governor and Democratic presidential candidate of 1988 at the Longwood T stop in Brookline, close to his house. It was 8:00 am, and I was scouring passengers as they got on and off the busy commuter trains, until a solidly swift-footed man with silver hair and a beige trench coat passed by me, headed straight for Olmsted Park, on the other side of the tracks. When I caught up with him, he gave me a politician’s handshake, and threw some encouraging words about our project at me as we walked to meet the crew. Once there, he nonchalantly tossed his briefcase on the wet grass and got straight down to business.
One of the most striking issues Dukakis mentioned in our 40-minute interview was park maintence. You can build all the parks you want, he said, but they’re virtually useless if not properly maintained. In fact, the former governor is famous for walking every day the two miles through the park to and from Northeastern University, where he teaches, picking up trash as he goes. Olmsted believed stridently in this as well, and, especially while working as superintendant of Central Park, was notoriously rigid about the number of hours he wanted maintence crews to work.
Dukakis referenced the Emerald Necklace Maintenence Collaborative, an initiative that brings inmates from local correctional facilities into the parks four days a week to cut grass, pick up trash, and perform other maintenence duties. On the fifth day, the program then provides them with horticultural and landscape training. The program has proved enormously succesful. To learn more about it, click here: http://www.emeraldnecklace.org/maintenance-collaborative/
June 22, 2009
So, it’s not necessarily convenient that our three days in Boston are scheduled to be rain-filled with temperatures in the chilly mid 60’s (this is especially difficult for the Atlanta-based members of our crew, who came in their shorts and t-shirts, and are now saying “This is what December in Atlanta feels like!”). The rain makes filming challenging, to say the least.
It’s helpful to think of Olmsted in times like these, when the project you’re passionate about does not go entirely as you planned or as you’d like, when you run into obstacles completely out of your control, and are forced to rethink and re-strategize. Patience was one of the man’s most defining virtues.
And, looking on a brighter side, perhaps this abundance of wetness can also serve to remind us that Olmsted’s 1876 design for the Emerald Necklace, the park system that connects Boston Common to Franklin Park, began as a flood control project to improve the drainage and flow of the Back Bay Fens. Olmsted created shelved banks in the Fens, (and later along the Muddy River) sinking them below street level, providing valuable flood space for the river. He planted these banks with marsh vegetation, set paths along the river and created yet another park space that allowed visitors to separate themselves from the city.
We’re not sure that the rains here will reach flood-levels, but the water level sure is rising.
Tomorrow morning it’s an early interview with parks supporter and former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, in Olmsted Park in Brookline. Still to come, pictures and commentary on today’s interview with Alan Banks, Fairsted’s Supervisory Park Ranger.
Years later, Olmsted recalled a hike with his brother to his aunt’s house in Cheshire. “I was but nine when I once walked sixteen* miles over a strange country with my brother who was but six, to reach it. We were two days on the road, spent the night at a rural inn which I saw still standing a few years ago, and were so tired when we arrived that, after sitting before that great fireplace and being feasted, we found that our legs would not support us and were carried off to bed. It was a beautiful region of rocky glens and trout brooks.” I imagine their adventure. It is a sunny day. The dusty road outside Hartford winds its way through rolling meadows . Olmsted is in the lead, probably talking, pointing out birds and trees in the hedgerows along the verge. He is excited about the prospect of adventure. He holds his younger brother by the hand. John is less sure about the outing. He is thinking that perhaps they should go home before it gets too late. But he gets along, trusting that Frederick will find the way, as he always seems to do.
[from Witold Rybczynski’s A Clearing in the Distance]
*Olmsted, in his post-hike haze, must have miscalculated the distance he traveled. Cheshire, Connecticut, in fact, is nearly 30 miles from Hartford.
June 21, 2009
More photos from the interview with Witold Rybczynski.
June 20, 2009
Olmsted believed that every house should have a room, full of windows, partially separated from the house’s main foundation, that would allow people to sit and enjoy the beauty of outside scenery, but with the protection of walls and a roof. There is a room like this in Fairsted, his estate in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Conveniently, there was also a room like this in the Philadelphia home of Witold Rybczynski, author of the acclaimed Olmsted biography, A Clearing in the Distance, and today’s main interview. The rain made an outside interview impossible (a shame, considering the author’s Olmstedian backyard), and so we chose what we’re sure Olmsted would have considered the second best location.
Protected from the elements. Some of us were, at least.
More photos from the shoot to follow.
June 19, 2009
The commissioner, after reviewing his plans, made the following query to Olmsted in a letter:
“I don’t see, Mr. Olmsted, that the plans indicate any flower beds in the park. Now where would you recommend that these be placed?”
Olmsted wrote back, saying:
“Anywhere outside the park.”
Indeed, Olmsted was not a fan of flowers, and was notorious for excluding them in his plans for the great parks of the United States. Flowers, he upheld, were too beautiful in themselves to act as part of a coherent landscape, when that landscape’s purpose was to “unconsciously” affect those within it. His goal was to have people enter into a park and be subtly washed over with feelings of ease, without having to stop and say, “Look at that beautiful flower!”
This morning marked our first interview of the shoot, with Dr. Charles Beveridge: Olmsted scholar, editor of the Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, and author of Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape, one of the most eloquently written books on the landscape artist and his works.
And so, fittingly, there was much discussion about what would appear in the background of his interview. The team decided on the backyard of Dr. Beveridge’s DC-area home–a carefully-planned shot that included lots of lush green, but no flowers (at one point, a blue hydrangea was weighed down with a backpack to avoid sneaking on camera).
Now for behind the scenes shots.