Archive for the ‘Central Park Story – Book One’ Category:

Olmsted’s Final Commission: The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC

Biltmore Estate

Not your typical house in the country, the Biltmore featured massive gardens and a 125,000 acre backyard!

George Washington Vanderbilt, the youngest son of the railroad magnate, Cornelius Vanderbilt, fell in love with the magical mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, on a visit there with his mother, and commissioned Richard Morris Hunt to build a 175,000 square foot home on the banks of the French Broad River (yes, those are three zeros!).

Vanderbilt  envisioned a park-like setting for his new home and commissioned Olmsted to design the extensive grounds. However, Olmsted was not impressed with the condition of the 125,000 acres that surrounded the house (yes, those are three zeros, again!) and advised Vanderbilt to turn them into a park, establishing the first forestry education program in the U.S.

Of course, Olmsted made sure to incorporate 75 acres of formal gardens directly around the house, including an Italian formal garden, a walled garden, a shrub and rose garden, numerous fountains, and a conservatory with individual rooms for palms and orchids.

Biltmore Estate

‘Have a walk around the garden, but don’t be late for lunch!’

By the time it was nearing completion in 1895, thirty years after completion of his work on Central Park in New York City, Olmsted was already slipping into senility and his son, Rick, had to finish the project. But what a project, and what a fitting farewell to one of the greatest geniuses ever to grace the field of landscape architecture!

 

Central Park: A Gallery of Images

Yosemite Park

Olmsted and Vaux tried to capture the beauty of nature, so evident in the unique glory of our country…

In the original plan for Central Park (called ‘the Greensward Plan’) Olmsted and Vaux’s desire was that visitors would feel as though they were walking through a gallery of images, not unlike a series of paintings.

This was no accident. It ran in tandem to what was already going on in the art world since the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Early nineteenth century America was in desperate need of an artistic expression that was unique unto itself. This was not only due to the newness of the country but to the brewing conflict between the industrial north and the slave-based south. If such a unifying expression could be found, it was hoped that it might help assuage the ever-increasing tension between the two.

Central Park

…and bring it into an urban setting in a series of images akin to viewing a gallery of inspiring paintings…

The Hudson River School with its many talented artists, from Frederick Church to Thomas Cole, helped to fill this growing need.

They chose the natural beauty of the country as their focal point and elevated their romanticized images to realm of the Divine.

In their own landscape designs, Olmsted and Vaux picked up on this theme of Nature as our savior, and created a park to be viewed as a series of inspiring scenes or vistas.

Although the park has devoted more and still more space for recreational uses over the ensuing years, I try to underline this original intent throughout my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story.

Thomas Cole painting

…like this one, by Thomas Cole, painted in 1836

 

World Columbian Exposition of 1893: Olmsted’s Last Hurrah

250px-Court_of_Honor_and_Grand_Basin

The Exposition was like a dream arising out of sleep.

The World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492.

The iconic centerpiece of the fair, the large water pool (to the right), represented the voyage Columbus took to the New World.

The Exposition was an influential social and cultural event and had a profound effect on architecture, sanitation, the arts, Chicago’s self-image, and American industrial optimism, in general.

It was, in large part, designed by Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted, and was the prototype of what Burnham and his colleagues thought a city should be like. It was designed to follow Beaux Arts principles of design, namely French neoclassical architecture principles based on symmetry, balance, and splendor.

Jervis McEntee–One of the Not-So-Colorful Stars of the Hudson River School

Jervis McEntee Painting

One of his brighter paintings

The landscapes of Jervis McEntee are known for their melancholy and poetic mood. The sky is often cloudy, the season autumn with the leaves faded and falling from the trees.

“Some people call my landscapes gloomy and disagreeable,” McEntee wrote in his well-kept journal. “They say I paint the sorrowful side of nature…But this is a mistake…Nature is not sad to me but quiet, pensive, restful.”

I’ll let you decide for yourself what to think when you look at his paintings to the right.

Landscape-Jervis-McEntee

Perhaps a bit more typical of his paintings

So far as my main character, Christopher Middleton, in my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story, is concerned, he considers them boring, if only because he  hates museums.

 

Olmsted’s Personal Life–Not Exactly a Bowl of Cherries by any Stretch of the Imagination

Olmsted’s only brother (and closest friend) John died of tuberculosis in 1857, the same year that Olmsted won the competition to design Central Park.

Two years later, on June 13, 1859, Olmsted married Mary Cleveland (Perkins) Olmsted, the widow of his brother. Mary was a practical and simple woman and the decision to marry appeared to be one of obligation rather than passion, since she already had three sons with John, who would otherwise have gone fatherless. Hence, after several bouts of unrequited love in his own past, passion was now on the back burner in Olmsted’s life.

Olmsted adopted his brother’s three sons (his nephews) and with Mary, had two more children who survived infancy: a daughter, Marion (born October 28, 1861) who had serious mental problems, and a son Fred, Jr. (Their first child, who had been born on June 13, 1860 died in a tragic carriage accident that left Olmsted partially crippled for life.)

With the backdrop of the Civil War, Olmsted’s life was hardly a bowl of cherries.

However, in spite of the above, he dove into what was dearest to his heart–the creation of one of the most beautiful parks in the world.

What art it is to overlook life’s tragedies and view every second as an opportunity to create something beautiful, as Olmsted seemed to do time and again!

I have tried to do the same in my depiction of Christopher Middleton, in my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story, who learns to create a world of beauty in the midst of his many personal challenges.

 

Emma Stebbins and the Angel of the Waters Statue in Central Park

bethesda-fountain-angel

A fitting tribute to the healing powers of water..as well as to a dearly loved friend…

The eight-foot bronze statue that stands on top of the fountain in the Bethesda Terrace, also known as the Angel of the Waters, shows a female winged angel walking on water, after which the water cascades into an upper basin and into the surrounding pool.

It is a striking and exquisitely beautiful piece of art. It also contains some deeply personal meaning both for its designer(s) and for the city itself.

Olmsted and Vaux, the principle designers of the park, didn’t like the idea of including statues at first; however, with the Croton Reservoir having recently been opened (1842) and its holding tank a short distance away, having a statue of an angel seemed a fitting tribute to a marvel that brought fresh water to the inhabitants of the city. Hence, what was first known as the Water Terrace was renamed the Bethesda Terrace in reference to the The Gospel of John, where there is a description of an angel blessing the Pool of Bethesda and bestowing upon it mystical healing powers.

In a separate but parallel vein, the statue was created by a highly-accomplished woman artist, Emma Stebbins, and a first for this country so far as awarding public commissions for women were concerned. Up till then it was unknown for a woman to receive such a high honor.

bethesda-fountain-angel

When viewed from the Mall, the angel appears to be floating among the pedestrians, but when seen from the arcade (depicted above) it almost appears to be in a private room, perhaps demonstrating the full range of its meaning to its creator

Adding yet another layer of meaning, Ms. Stebbins was gay. Unfortunately, her partner, the then-famous actress Charlotte Cushman, contracted breast cancer and died a few years after its dedication in 1873; and it is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that the statue was made in tribute to her partner, both in likeness and in spirit.

Perhaps it was also out of sympathy for Ms. Stebbins and her partner that Vaux, who designed the base of the fountain and the terrace itself, suggested the statue be dedicated to Love.

Love, the healing quality of water, the grace of God, and high art, are all beautifully intertwined in this great masterpiece, just as its jets of water join and cascade into its pool.

In my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story, I have tried bring additional meaning to this exceptional piece of art.

 

Crime in Central Park…Enough to Make You Think Before Walking In the Park After Dark

Bethesda Fountain

The Conservancy has done wonders to reduce crime in the city by turning places like the Bethesda Terrace that were formerly wastelands, into tourist meccas

Crime in Central Park started out modestly and then spiraled out of control into the 1970s, over a century later.

With the establishment of the Conservancy in the early 1980s, however, the crime rate took a sudden and dramatic nosedive, perhaps for the first time ever.

I happened to be walking through the Mall toward the end of Mayor Bloomberg’s final term in office, in 2013, and asked a policeman what crime was like in the park. He laughed and said it was down to almost nothing. When I asked him why, he didn’t have a ready answer. However, when I looked around and saw how many men in blue were standing around the general area, I felt the answer was clear.

New York Police at Work

This scene may be less common now that the city has a new mayor who is less focused on crime reduction

Apparently this deterring presence of police officers has changed since that conversation. Under Mayor DiBlasio’s leadership, crime in the park has spiked, proving that there are undeniable political factors that contribute to the ongoing crime rate.

Nevertheless, the park is still a world away from the dangerous place I was brought up living next to in the 1960s, and for that reason, I decided not to include any crime scenes in the park in my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story, even though it might have added some excitement!

Instead, I decided to focus on whatever crimes were taking place behind the scene.

Buskers In Central Park: An Unexpected Treat

No blog on Central Park would be complete without mentioning the buskers that frequent the Promenade, the Terrace, and the Castle.

Their talent, virtuosity, and, on occasion, genius, add a new dimension to the cultural milieu of the park.

Though Olmsted and Vaux never would have imagined such performances taking place beyond the confines of the Naumberg Bandshell where formal concerts were sometimes held, it demonstrates the flexibility of their original design that it could accommodate such changes in the future.

In my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story, Christopher Middleton, the main character, happens upon an unusual performance on the Bethesda Terrace, conducted by none other than the Mad Hatter himself!

Here’s one of the many performances that take place along the Mall on a sunny afternoon:

Boss Tweed and the Unwinding of Central Park…What a Mess!

Boss Tweed

Boss Tweed in his prime

Though the majority of the construction of Central Park was completed during the time that ‘Boss’ Tweed was in control of the city government, few people did more damage to it in such a short period of time.

He handed out thousand of unnecessary jobs in park maintenance in return for political favors, resulting in the razing of trees and denuding of entire areas. He even planned to put in a race track in the fashionable south end and a massive zoo in the bucolic North Meadow.

Olmsted stood on the sidelines, watching in helpless agony, fired from his position as consulting architect, as both his and Calvert Vaux’s original design for the park was unwound.

If the New York Times didn’t run a successful campaign to uncover Tweed’s unusually corrupt regime, even more damage would have been done and Olmsted’s own reputation permanently damaged.

As time would have it, Tweed was dethroned and the damage contained and eventually reversed.

In my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story, I have tried to recreate much of this corrupt backdrop, at least in spirit, to show my readers that just because it happened in the past doesn’t mean it won’t take place in the future.

Summerstage, New York Marathon, Rock Concerts, Shakespeare–How Much More Can You Fit Into a City Park?

New York Marathon

Feeling claustrophobic? The New York Marathon will test you to the max.

How many different free cultural activities can you fit inside a city park?

If you want to know the answer, you needn’t look any further than Central Park in Manhattan.

First, you have all of the free performing arts festivals such as Central Park Summerstage and the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, which take place every summer and are free admission.

Add to that the New York Marathon, an annual event since 1970 which has ballooned to over 50,000 participants, and traditionally ends in Central Park.

Shakespeare in the Park

Shakespeare in the Park with the Castle in the background…pretty magical, no?

Then there’s Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater which features the best of Shakespeare and has been attended by over five million spectators since its opening in 1962 (also free on a ‘first come first serve’ basis).

Speaking of the  60s, let’s not forget the many free rock concerts such as Simon and Garfunkle, Carole King, America, Elton John…the list goes on and on.

Simon and Garfunkle concert

A mere 500,000 people attended a concert bu Simon and Garfunkel in 1981!

But if you think the list ends there, think again; which is why I had to be extremely selective in deciding which free cultural events to include in my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story.