Central Park, New York

Appearing in the RIBA's Periodicals Collection is an article from 1862, which reveals some of the early hopes and ambitions for what is now the green heart of Manhattan.



Bow Bridge, Central Park, New York, 1860s. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection


When the journal  Building News  in September 1862 was describing the New York commissioners’ report on the progress being made on the construction of Central Park, it seemed to be in awe of the statistics and ambition of their efforts. Some of the statistics it gives are impressive. At the start of 1862, four years after construction began,  Building News  stated that the following quantities of materials had been excavated from the site:

  • 1,992,00 cubic yards of earth-works and other materials
  • 300,000 cubic yards of rock
  • 70,000 cubic yards of masonry

The amount of masonry removed is a reminder of the fact that the land upon which Central Park stands was not a pristine wilderness. It was mostly rough but inhabited ground and its occupants were removed to allow Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s vision to be implemented. Some of the plans were never realised, such as the creation of 20 gates, each manned by a keeper, and the move of the New York Historical Society and New York Lyceum Society to permanent bases in the park. The greater aim of creating a public amenity “ for the benefit of the people ” was achieved.

the noblest public park in the world

This journal article was published over 150 years ago during the early years of the project which, by its completion, created a mixed landscape of pastoral, picturesque and formal elements covering 843 acres. In the RIBA’s collections are contemporary photoprints of key man-made landmarks of the new park such as the bridges which were mostly designed by Vaux. From these images we can see Bow Bridge is shown as it was in the 1860s amongst young trees while grass lawns surround the Trefoil Arch. Today, mature trees and abundant vegetation (at least in the summer) are the settings for those same features.

The park’s decline in the early 20th century – and recent rejuvination – was far into the future when Building News was at pains to describe its civilising atmosphere. It was a place for those with “purity in morals and manners, and who appreciate the beautiful in art and nature.”  There were only 93 arrests made in the previous year when 2.5 million visits were made.

A century and a half separates us from the publication of this article which ends with the hope that the extensive alterations and improvements proposed by the commissioners, if implemented, will result in: “ the noblest public park in the world ”. 

Trefoil Arch, Central Park, New York, 1860s. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection Ramble Arch, Central Park, New York, 1863. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection Bow Bridge, Central Park, New York, 1860s. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Reference  (available from the British Architectural Library, RIBA)

  • Building News, 5 September 1862, vol. 9, pp.172-3

Article by Wilson Yau, British Architectural Library, RIBA