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1800-1858

At the beginning of the 19th century, there were 60,000 people living in New York City, mostly congregated in lower Manhattan. A wave of immigration that began in the 1830s caused the population to grow to more than 300,000 in the 1840s and swell to over 500,000 by 1850. By mid-century, however, most New Yorkers still lived below 38th Street in crowded, chaotic quarters. The volume of street noise from carriage wheels alone challenged the sanity, much less serenity, of these early residents. To escape the press of bodies and the din of city life, people sought refuge in pastoral spaces such as Green-Wood Cemetery in

19th c. Bethesda Terrace

Bethesda Terrace, 19th c.
NYC/Parks and Recreation
Photo Archive

Brooklyn. Cemeteries were among the few rural settings that were accessible to city dwellers, but practically speaking, they had their limitations. As one visitor noted, "Before long, white tombstones and dark lines of hearses took the cheer out of the landscape."

The first public figure to champion the need for open green space within the city was "Evening Post" editor William Cullen Bryant. In 1844 he called for the creation of a large public park. Bryant was joined in his pleas by the country's first landscape architect, Andrew Jackson Downing, and together they pressed city planners to set aside land before it could be swallowed up by the fast-developing city. In a moment of rare political consensus, both political parties at that time endorsed the idea of a large, central public park. Between 1853 and 1856 the city commissioners paid more than $5 million for undeveloped land from 59th Street to 106th Street, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues.

The city commissioners then sponsored in 1857 a public competition to design the new Central Park. Out of 33 anonymous entries they chose the "Greensward Plan" by Frederick Law Olmsted, then the superintendent of the undeveloped Park, and Calvert Vaux, a partner of Andrew Jackson Downing (who had died earlier in a tragic boating accident.) Olmsted exulted that Central Park "is of great importance as the first real Park made in this century – a democratic development of the highest significance …"  In 1850, Olmsted had spent time in Europe and was impressed by the public parks he saw there.  He was particularly influenced by Birkenhead Park, near Liverpool, which opened in 1847 and was the first publicly funded park in Britain.

Andrew Haswell Green served on Central Park’s Board of commissioners as president and comptroller during its existence from 1857 to 1871, when the Park was under construction.  He saw the brilliance of the plan when other commissioners were ready to dismiss it.  Indeed, it is because of Green’s support and protection of the Greensward Plan that so much of Central Park is true to its original design.  In addition, Green was the first commissioner to offer a resolution to extend the Park from 106th Street, its original northern boundary, to 110th Street.

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