Journal

America’s Greatest Example of Land Art

The two previous postings in this journal are focused on Central Park’s Manhattan schist bedrock outcrops and their significance in the park’s design. Beyond this we have not mentioned the fact that these bedrock subterranean foundations and outcrops are not unique to the park’s 843-acre landscape and that the park’s geology and resulting topography are all of a piece with the rest of northern Manhattan Island’s natural schist underpinnings. The fact that this substratum does not exist anywhere close to the ground’s surface elsewhere except in Lower Manhattan accounts the absence of natural footings for skyscrapers in the area in between the Empire State Street on West 33rd Street and Wall Street, an anomaly being the so-called super-talls, the midtown buildings that reach heights well above such iconic skyscrapers as the Chrysler and Empire State buildings due to developers’ ambitions and the skills of engineers to stabilize such tall weight-bearing buildings in a friable underground rather than solid rock.

The fact that there is no discernible differential in ground level is because of the regularity of the layout above Houston Street and below 155th Street is due to their consequent platting in accordance with the 1811 rectangular grid plan.

Within this uniform street plan, geometrically defined boundaries enclose the green rectangle that is Central Park, the dimensions of which run between Fifth and Eighth (Central Park West) Avenues for a north-south distance as measured by the termini of the quadrilateral blocks from 59th to 110th Streets. Sixth and Seventh Avenues penetrate the park to briefly join the park’s interior East and West Dives for the purpose of the entry and exit of traffic at specific points in the street grid adjacent to the park. In a similar fashion 72nd becomes a cross-drive through the park and the construction of four transverse roads carrying east-west city traffic below the adjacent surface grade of the park at 65th, 79th, 86th, and 96th streets are also part of Olmsted and Vaux’s ingenious circulation system whereby vehicular, pedestrian, and equestrian movement through the park defy collision by their separation either by overhead cast-iron bridges or ground-level stone arches.

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Sometimes when I am on one of my walks to the lookout at the top of Summit Rock, I gaze below at the asphalt-paved streets lined with row houses and apartment buildings like the one that I live in. Recently, it came over me that Central Park is not a geological capsule with a unique array of rock outcrops, including the one I which am standing. The truth is that the streets and avenues bordering the park originally had the same bedrock substructure and glacially polished outcrops and randomly deposited erratics that were part of the burden of debris the glacier carried in its ponderous melting mass as it moved further south across the landscape of Manhattan toward New York Harbor, Staten Island, and Long Island. I like to think of this when I am walking on the sidewalks in the neighborhood. Those straight streets and their intersections defining the blocks that compose the grid were, in the same way as Central Park, leveled by the blasting of numerous large rock outcrops and the removal of the residue of fractured stones off-site, probably as landfill in some of New York’s once-abundant wetlands or positioned in places along Manhattan’s shoreline to enlarge the boundaries of the island’s buildable land.

From Summit Rock I also look back at the park landscape, including the slopes of Summit Rock itself, and think about the massive amounts of topsoil that were ferried in from New Jersey and Long Island to model the entire landscape around the randomly protruding bedrock formations to create a pastoral landscape for the enjoyment of city dwellers – a landscape framed by the grid of straight flat uniformly graded streets – a work of land art indeed. And it was thus that once he had submitted with Calvert Vaux the winning entry in the design competition for Central Park and the Commissioners had installed Olmsted as the principal overseer of the fulfillment of their Greensward Plan, he confidently wrote to his father, “I have got the park into a capital discipline, a machine 1,000 men now at work.” His every free moment on evenings and Sundays was spent discussing the park design with Vaux. During the days he made his rounds, he was constantly analyzing the park’s terrain, regarding it as a sculptor would his marble or a painter his canvas, and at night he and Vaux would pace over its acres in the moonlight, arguing out each feature of their plan.

Reading these words written a century-and-a-half ago, I am reminded of the fact that the current meaning of the expression “land art” refers to a movement that began in the 1970s with the ardent championship of Robert Smithson (1938-1973), creator of Spiral Jetty on the northeastern shore of Salt Lake in Utah. What is remarkable to me is the fact that Smithson considered Olmsted, rather than himself as the father of land art. In this regard, I think that his essay titled Fredrick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape, which he wrote for the magazine Art Forum is worth quoting in its entirety.

Imagine yourself in Central Park one million years ago. You would be standing on a vast ice sheet, a 4,000-mile glacial wall, as much as 2,000 feet thick. Alone on the vast glacier, you would not sense its slow crushing, scraping, ripping movement as it advanced south, leaving great masses of rock debris in its wake. Under the frozen depths, where the carousel now stands, you would not notice the effect on the bedrock as the glacier dragged itself along.

Back in the 1850s, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux considered that glacial aftermath along its geological profiles. The building of New York City had interrupted the ponderous results of those Pleistocene ice sheets. Olmsted and Vaux studied the site topography for their proposed park called “Greensward.” In Greensward Presentation Sketch No. 5 we see a “before” photograph of the site they would remake in terms of earth sculpture. It reminds me of the strip-mining regions I saw last year in southeastern Ohio. This faded photograph reveals that Manhattan Island once had a desert on it – a man-made wasteland. Treeless and barren, it evokes the observations of “the valley of ashes” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), “where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens. . . .”

Olmsted, “the sylvan artist,” who wanted the asymmetrical landscapes in the middle of urban flux. Into Brooklyn he would bring “the luxuriance of tropical scenery . . . gay with flowers and intricate with vines and creepers, ferns, rushes, and broad leaved plants.” This is like having an orchid garden in a steel mill, or a factory where palm trees would be lit by the fire of blast furnaces. In comparison to Thoreau’s mental contrasts (“Walden Pond became a small ocean”), Olmsted’s physical contrasts brought a Jeffersonian rural reality into the metropolis. Olmsted made ponds, he didn’t just conceptualize about them.

– Robert Smithson, 1973

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In future postings of this journal I will again climb to the top of Summit Rock and survey the park in the fashion of a palimpsest composed of historically transformed layers. To explain what is written on its topmost sheaf, I will begin with the Central Park Conservancy’s rebuilding Central Park. In this regard, I am proud to have initiated what I like to think of as an in-house landscape architectural firm with the park as a single client and the corresponding establishment of a tree crew, turf crew, woodlands management crew, and a cadre of day-to-day zone gardeners for necessary horticultural work including pulling weeds, pruning overgrown shrubs, and planting bulbs in fifty interlocking areas of the park. In this work they are assisted on a regular basis by volunteers working under their supervision.

As an aside, readers will be interested to know that the combination of landscape restoration and integrated park-wide section-by-section management was initiated by the Conservancy with a million-dollar gift from Yoko Ono for the hiring of the Conservancy’s first zone gardener to maintain a recently restored landscape. His responsibility of year-round care of Strawberry Fields and its memorial mosaic with the single tribute IMAGINE in the center of a circle of tiles. More than any bronze stature honoring a historic figure with a bronze statue, such as the life-size portrait of Daniel Webster sited in a traffic island next to the intersection of the West Drive and the72nd Street cross-park drive, the Lennon mosaic memorial installed in the park’s entrance path opposite the Central Park West sidewalk where Yoko’s husband and famous songwriter John Lennon, was assassinated in front of his apartment in the Dakota (so named because when it was built in 1884 as the city’s first luxury apartment, it was so far north of the line demarcating the northward march of the grid that it was referred to by a moniker representing it to be one of the nation’s most northerly states to the west) is the most famous memorial in Central Park.

Other writers besides me have written books of park history beginning with its design and initial building by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. The heavy hand of Robert Moses during his tenure as park commissioner from 1934 until 1961, which unfortunately succeeded in erasing parts of the park’s Olmstedian naturalistic landscape in order to dedicate as much of its acreage as possible to the insertion of active recreation facilities such as playgrounds, ball fields, and basketball courts is covered by Robert Caro in The Power Broker. Sara Cedar Miller, the Central Park Conservancy’s historian emerita, has written about the pre-park landscape in her highly acclaimed recently published book, Before Central Park, an in-depth account of the pre-park landscape. If you haven’t already, read these books as background for the story of rebuilding of Central Park according to a the Central Park Conservancy’s own landscape design office’s plan prepared between 1982 and 1985, an enterprise that continues to this day to fuse past and present, including the primordial rock outcrops that form the park’s subterranean basement as well as some of its surface building blocks and several prominent scenic features that are remnants of its once glaciated topography – a park that can, if you like, continue to be considered a seminal work of the land-art movement. For a continuation of this story of Central Park as a people’s park for visiting tourists and New Yorkers alike because of its artful fusion of natural beauty and recreational amenity, you will find in future postings of this journal more on this subject about the place that never fails to nourish my soul.


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JOURNAL ARCHIVE

DIARY

Venice Revisited

Wainscott: Cherishing Memories of my Former Home in a Non-Hampton Hamlet in the Hamptons

Hill Country Journal

Budding Poets in the Park

Central Park Conservancy 40th Anniversary

Nine-Eleven Remembered

ESSAY

An Analysis of the Sonnet as a Form of Poetic Expression

OBSERVATIONS

Part Three: Central Park as An Outdoor Museum

Part Two: Central Park as An Outdoor Museum

Part One: Central Park as An Outdoor Museum

Designing the Central Park Luminaire: Nature as Ornament

“The Gates” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 2005

Jacob Wrey Mould: Central Park’s Third Designer

America’s Greatest Example of Land Art

Summit Rock, the Tallest Point in Central Park as a Palimpsest of Multi-generational History

Discovering Central Park’s Above-ground Bedrock Foundations

POETRY

The Life and Times of Garth Fergusson, Poet

NEWS

Writing the City

REVIEWS

Lee County: The Setting of Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead and Land of my Pioneer Ancestors

The Wind in the Willows