Park for the People

In 1873 when the Roosevelt family moved into a new home in uptown Manhattan, it was two blocks away from Central Park.  This satisfied the head of the household’s insistence on fresh air and physical exercise while they were away from the summer seashore.


150 Years of Central Park

Sketch of Central Park soon after it opened.  ( 

The rapid growth of New York City in the Nineteenth Century and accompanying dirt from animals and industry made people realize they needed a place to go where the air was pleasant and nature was visible.  Besides, certain society members desired to match the public parks of Europe they’d seen on grand tours.  The state legislature debated it for three years but in 1857 appointed a commission which held a contest for the best design.  Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux won, and subsequently began supervising thousands of workers who would move 2,500,000 cubic yards of dirt and stones.  Swamps between 59th and 106th Streets  had to be drained, while the law of eminent domain forced 1,600 persons in shantytowns and rented houses to find somewhere else to live.



According to Lilly Fellow Priscilla Donkle, an Indiana high school math teacher who studied the geometry of Frederic Law Oldmsted’s landscape designs, until Olmsted began the project he had never done this type of work.  He was in fact a noted political author.  He believed that all people should have access to green spaces in the city, so his park afforded many open areas for people to enjoy.  The Central Park design included native plantings and natural settings that became a trademark in all of his later work.  This was Olmsted’s first, but he went on to literally create the profession of landscape architecture in this country.  He designed the Boston Emerald Necklace park system, the United States Capitol grounds, the Biltmore grounds, and many others of note in the United States.
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Central Park opened for ice skating in December of 1858, the year Theodore Roosevelt was born, but was not officially completed until 1873 when his family took up residence in their grand home.  The park covered 840 acres at a cost of $10,000,000.  Manmade buildings stood amid  270,00 trees and shrubs anchored by their nature-made roots.  Thirty-six bridges connected carriage roads and walking paths.  Since at the beginning it was a fair distance from neighborhoods of the “middling” class, it served mostly as a playground for the wealthy.  Thousands of fashionably-dressed New Yorkers attended outdoor concerts there on Saturday afternoons.
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Less elite families started to visit regularly on foot or on streetcars.  Park keepers in grey uniforms enforced the rules, because Olmsted believed the public should be trained in the use of, and restrained in the abuse of, the area.  Children played croquet on the lawn, while a fenced-in menagerie of animals, including deer, bald eagles, cockatoos, raccoons and monkeys formed the beginnings of a zoo.  Soon the city subsidized the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art nearby.  Entrepreneurs entered the scene with refreshment stands and a carousel turned by a horse and mule.
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Eventually the massive park would fall into disrepair, and the people for whom it was built had to step up in a major way.
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Additional sources:,