Olmsted & Vaux
In the mid-nineteenth century, as the nation’s landscape underwent increasing urbanization, new ideas about the need for public parks in America were gaining popularity. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, in a partnership that would amount to the first landscape architecture firm in the country, pioneered and propelled this movement, creating dozens of parks, parkways, and planned neighborhoods across the country.
Born to a well-to-do family in Connecticut, Olmsted (1822 – 1903) had little formal schooling and held a variety of jobs including farmer, clerk, and newspaper reporter. In 1850 he and his brother toured rural England and on his return Olmsted published his observations in the book Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England. He traveled the southern United States as a newspaper correspondent and what he saw there would form the basis for his abolitionist views. The failure of a publishing venture in the mid 1850s left Olmsted with debts, but through personal connections he was able to be appointed superintendent for the proposed “central park” in New York City.
The London-born Calvert Vaux (1824 – 1895) was apprenticed to a British architectural firm at the age of 19. He moved to Newburgh, New York in 1850 to work with Andrew Jackson Downing, the landscape gardener and horticulturist who was among the first to advocate for a New York City public park. When a design competition was announced by the board of park commissioners in 1857, Vaux collaborated with Olmsted to submit the winning entry, the “Greensward” plan.
The successful planning and construction of Central Park solidified Olmsted’s views on the importance of properly designed urban parks. When the city of Brooklyn sought to create its own major park, Olmsted again joined with Vaux as co-designer, and the resulting Prospect Park is considered to be their crowning achievement. Their partnership would be responsible for many of the nation’s finest public spaces and established landscape architecture as a valid new discipline. Each man made distinctive contributions to the park-making process. Olmsted was able to describe in words and in park plans his vision of a varied landscape that would provoke sensations of relaxation. Along with open meadows, splashing waterfalls and wooded walks, his design included other things park visitors might want: refreshments, bridle paths, and places for people-watching. Vaux designed the park’s structures such as bridges, arches, concession areas, and shelters. His signature rustic style ensured that architectural features were situated within, rather than dominant to, the landscape.
Other Contributors to Prospect Park
The architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White was the most prominent design team in the nation during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Best known for their grand public structures such as the original Pennsylvania Station and Washington Square Arch, they also designed hundreds of luxurious Gilded Age-era residences throughout the Northeast. In 1888 they were commissioned by the City of Brooklyn to transform Prospect Park’s major entrances into dramatic public spaces in the style of Renaissance-inspired European plazas. The Park’s entrances acquired classical pedestals (at Park Circle), immense pillars (at Bartel Pritchard Circle) and pergolas (at Parkside & Ocean Avenues). Meanwhile the Park’s main entrance was being given a particularly thorough overhaul. Stanford White designed eagle-topped columns and pillared pavilions. Unveiled in 1892, John H. Duncan’s massive memorial arch, combined with heroic statuary celebrating the Union victory by sculptor Frederick MacMonnies, created a striking portal to the Park, now known as Grand Army Plaza.
Helmle, Huberty and Hudswell, another renowned firm of architects, was responsible for the designs of two of Prospect Park’s most impressive structures: the Boathouse and the Tennis House. Frank J. Helmle and Ulrich Huberty designed many notable buildings in Brooklyn during the early 1900s and their work included a range of architectural styles, influenced primarily by neo-classicism. The terra cotta Boathouse was built in 1905, with a design inspired by a Beaux Arts-style 16th century Venetian library. The limestone Tennis House, built in 1910, is a colonnaded pavilion that overlooks the Long Meadow.
Robert Moses, New York City Parks Commissioner from 1934 to 1960, initiated an era of dramatic change in Prospect Park. In the 1930s, federal aid through the Works Progress Administration enabled Commissioner Moses to add many recreational amenities to the Park. The additions of Wollman Rink, the Zoo, and multiple playgrounds provided Brooklyn, particularly its children, with the kinds of activities that were becoming more popular in this period.