Bryant & the Origins of Central Park
A version of the following article by former LHC Archivist Myrna Sloam originally appeared in the July/August 2004 Bryant Library Newsletter.
To those of us in Roslyn, William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) is remembered as the founder of the Reading Room, which later became the Bryant Library. Bryant’s interests and influences were however, far broader. The following editorial, written by W. C. Bryant, appeared in the July 3, 1844 New York Evening Post. Based on this editorial, Bryant, editor- in- chief of the newspaper and America’s premier nature poet, was credited with being the first to advocate for what was to become Manhattan’s Central Park. In subsequent years, Bryant’s idea was taken up by many prominent New Yorkers and although it underwent a change in location, his concept of a park for the people remained.
In 1853 the State of New York authorized the city to use the power of eminent domain to acquire an area of more than 700 acres in the middle of Manhattan. This original parcel, bounded by 106th Street, Fifth Avenue, 59th Street and Eighth Avenue, was not without controversy, as it displaced more than 1,600 residents. In 1857 Frederick Law Olmsted submitted the winning design for the park, which opened to the public in 1859. In 1863 the northern boundary was extended to 110th Street. Today one hundred sixty years later, we honor Bryant’s vision.
A New Public Park by William C. Bryant
The heats of summer are upon us, and while some are leaving the town for shady retreats in the country, others refresh themselves with short excursions to Hoboken or New Brighton, or other places among the beautiful environs of our city. If the public authorities who expend so much of our money in laying out the city, would do what is in their power, they might give our vast population an extensive pleasure ground for shade and recreation in these sultry afternoons, which we might reach without going out of town.
On the road to Harlem, between Sixty-eighth Street on the south, and Seventy-seventh Street on the north, and extending from Third Avenue to the East River, is a tract of beautiful woodland, comprising sixty or seventy acres, thickly covered with old trees, intermingled with a variety of shrubs. The surface is varied in a very striking and picturesque manner, with craggy eminences, and hollows, and a little stream runs through the midst. The swift tides of the East river sweep its rocky shores, and the fresh breeze of the bay comes in, on every warm summer afternoon, over the restless waters. The trees are of almost every species that grows in our woods:-- the different varieties of oak, the birch, the beech, the linden, the mulberry, the tulip tree, and others: the azalea, the kalmia, and other flowering shrubs are in bloom here at their season, and the ground in spring is gay with flowers. There never was a finer situation for the public garden of a great city.
Nothing is wanted but to cut winding paths through it, leaving the woods as they now are, and introducing here and there a jet from the Croton aqueduct, the streams from which would make their own waterfalls over the rocks, and keep the brook running through the place always fresh and full. In the English Garden at Munich, a pleasure ground of immense extent, laid out by our countryman Count Rumford, into which half the population pours itself on summer evenings, the designer of the ground was obliged to content himself with artificial rocks, brought from a distance and cemented together, and eminences painfully heaped up from the sand of the plain. In the tract of which we speak, nature has done almost every thing to our hands, excepting the construction of paths.
As we are now going, we are making a belt of muddy docks all around the island. We should be glad to see one small part of the shore without them, one place at least where the tides may be allowed to flow pure, and the ancient brim of rocks which borders the waters left in its original picturesqueness and beauty. Commerce is devouring inch by inch the coast of the island, and if we would rescue any part of it for health and recreation it must be done now.
All large cities have their extensive public ground and gardens, Madrid, and Mexico their Alamedas, London its Regent’s Park, Paris its Champs Elysées, and Vienna its Prater. There are none of them, we believe, which have the same natural advantages of the picturesque and beautiful which belong to this spot. It would be of easy access to the citizens, and the public carriages which now rattle in almost every street in this city, would take them to its gates. The only objection which we can see to the place would be the difficulty of persuading the owners of the soil to part with it.
If any of our brethren of the public press should see fit to support this project, we are ready to resign in their favor any claim to the credit of originally suggesting it.