Walkabout: An Old Fashioned Walk in the Park

One could say that after Olmsted and Vaux experimented in Central Park, they came to Brooklyn with a more perfect plan, and Prospect Park was born. I believe that, as do millions of others who have discovered that slice of urban joy that is Prospect Park. The park was popular even before it was technically finished, and in the years ending the 19th century, and on into the 20th century, photographers have been taking snapshots, and turning them into postcards, which in turn, were sent by Brooklynites and tourists alike, all around the world. Some of the buildings and attractions in the park are no longer there, and some have been modernized and changed. Trends in botany and landscaping evolve, as do the needs of the public. The park is always changing.

In 1860, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux created Central Park, the first landscaped park in the United States. Much of Brooklyn at this time was still quite suburban, with many neighborhoods still in the early years of their development. Spacious villas and summer cottages were the norm in neighborhoods like Clinton Hill, Bedford and Park Slope. One of Brooklyn’s most famous residents, state senator and Brooklyn alderman James Stranahan, was lobbying hard for a park in Brooklyn, which, as he stated “would become a favorite resort for all classes of our community, enabling thousands to enjoy pure air, with healthful exercise, at all seasons of the year.” Stranahan is considered to be the “Father of Prospect Park”, as he oversaw the purchase of land, raised the money needed to build, and worked to protect the park from those who wanted to change it during and after it was built.

Olmsted and Vaux were not the original architects and planners of Prospect Park. That credit goes to Egbert Viele, a civil engineer who was also the original planner for Central Park. He was later replaced by Olmsted and Vaux, and the same thing would happen to him here on this project. His original layout for the park included the area we know call Institute Hill, which includes the land where the Brooklyn Museum now stands, the Mount Prospect Reservoir , and the library site next door, as well as the Grand Army Plaza area. Viele planned to have the park bisected by Flatbush Avenue, and continue on the western side, encompassing Battle Pass Hill. Part of the reason for this was to include the Revolutionary War sites, especially Battle Pass, where the Battle of Brooklyn took place, in 1776, one of the first and bloodiest battles of the war.

But the layout was awkward, and when the Civil War interrupted all planning and construction, Stranahan and the other Brooklyn officials turned to Calvert Vaux in 1865. He suggested the present location of the park, and had the city buy land to the east and north of the original layout. The city held on to Institute Hill for later development. Vaux’s park is divided into three parts, meadow, forest and lake. The Long Meadow is the largest meadow in any park in New York City, and is over 90 acres, and a mile in length. The center of the park is largely forest, and the lake, with its pools, takes up the rest. Of course, it is not that cut and dried, and all three elements are found in different parts of the park. Although Frederick Law Olmsted tends to get more credit for the park than Vaux does, the main design of the park belongs to Calvert Vaux. Perhaps it’s the name, “Frederick Law Olmsted” rolls off the tongue, while there is always some confusion as to how Calvert Vaux is actually pronounced. (The “x” is pronounced.) Vaux was the architect, and Olmsted the writer and gentleman farmer, but their partnership was a good one, mixing practicality with a romantic understanding of the land and how to work it to a public purpose. Vaux was hired first by Stranahan. He brought Olmsted into the project later in 1865, after much of the park had already been designed.

Vaux laid out the elliptical area that would become Grand Army Plaza, but his designs here didn’t go much past an elaborate fountain in the location where the current fountain stands. The entrance to the park wouldn’t really take shape until the Arch was built, and Stanford White created his impressive Classical entryway into the park in years between 1889-1892, when Olmsted and Vaux had long ago moved on.

The partners sculpted Prospect Park like clay, creating naturally flowing acres upon acres of fields, ravines, woods, lakes and streams, all of which are 100% manufactured. Tons of earth were moved, bogs filled in, hills leveled or raised, and streams and lakes dug. All of the lakes and streams in the park were dug by hand. Huge primordial boulders were moved to where they would be best utilized. Thousands of trees, shrubs and other plant life were planted, while those features that would remain, such as the original woods now found in the Ravine, were pruned and encouraged to grow where they were needed. The famous Camperdown Elm was planted, and pathways and byways dug and paved. Millions of flowers were planted, the most popular being the Vale of Cashmere, which evoked the gardens of India, and the mysterious East.
Calvert Vaux designed some of the parks most enduring monuments, most of which we enjoy, but barely notice. The experience of entering the Long Meadow by way of the Endale or Meadowport Arches can’t be beat. You wander in the dark of the tunnels, and then the huge meadow bursts out before you in all its glory. Throughout the park, Vaux and Olmstead designed pathways, tunnels, arches and rest stations. There were pavilions and restaurants, lakes and boathouses, lagoons, woods, trails, and bridal paths. After Calvert and Vaux moved on to other projects and places, more buildings and features would be added by architects such as Stanford White, Helmle and Huberty, and others.

The old postcards give us a fine idea of what the park looked like in the late 19th and early 20th century, before urban blight and budget cuts saw the deterioration of the park. They also show us structures that didn’t survive the ideas that Parks Commissioner Robert Moses had for Prospect Park in the mid-20th century. He tore down many of the original Olmsted and Vaux structures, and replaced some of them with new and more modern buildings or features in their stead. Subsequent commissioners have also replaced some structures, and up until the last 20 30 years, the Park was allowed to go to seed, with fewer and fewer people coming in, as crime and fear of crime increased. But bit by bit, the park was returned to the people. Today the Prospect Park Alliance, along with the Parks Department and concerned citizens, work hard to keep the historic and horticultural treasures of the park, while doing necessary and vital repairs, and maintenance on this wonderfully historic and special place.

There is, of course, much more to this story, and many other important people have had a hand in the park’s survival and revival. But that’s for another day. Please check my Flickr page for a huge collection of historic postcards and photographs of Prospect Park.

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