Way too early every morning, Memphis, my spotty mutt, and I walk to Prospect Park. We stroll half-awake through an entrance marked by a pair of McKim, Mead, and White columns, dripping with strange ornament that makes them look more extraterrestrial than classical, and make our way to the gloriously wide-open spaces of the park’s Long Meadow.
The morning excursion is an exercise in sanity for both of us. Memphis needs the park’s off-leash hours to burn off his bottomless supply of energy. My own payoff is psychological. There’s something so revitalizing about the ritual of being outdoors first thing in the morning, tossing a Day-Glo ball. As I once explained to my yoga teacher when I arrived at class after an hour in the park, I practice the Zen of Fetch.
This is particularly true in the winter, when Memphis and I arrive before sunrise and have the park largely to ourselves. The only sound is from the geese that congregate on the baseball diamonds, closed for the season, fenced off and inaccessible to dogs and humans. As I wander the Long Meadow, which stretches for over a mile, from the ball fields at the southern end of the park to the ceremonial entranceway of Grand Army Plaza to the north, repeatedly throwing a ball and waiting for its return, I watch the light appear in the sky. Sometimes, when the sun tops the thick line of trees along the eastern border of the meadow, a cluster of trees on the western perimeter catches the first rays and their uppermost branches glow red.
One morning, in my usual state of reverie, I notice that on the grassy slope near the park’s Picnic House, where Memphis and I often linger, there is a manhole cover, a very old one, embossed with an archaic insignia. Intellectually speaking, I understand that the park is a construct—man-made like most everything else in New York City. It was, of course, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the same duo who designed Central Park nine years earlier.
And it would be impossible, at least for a Brooklyn resident, to not know that. Pretty much the first thing you learn when you set foot in this part of Brooklyn is that Prospect Park is superior to Central Park because the second time around, Olmsted and Vaux knew what they were doing. But the seductive power of the illusion they created 150 years ago is so strong, especially when there’s no one around, that it’s startling to stumble—literally—on hard evidence of the meadow’s artificiality.
I think the manhole cover caught my attention because, months earlier, I wrote a series of articles about “engineered nature”: coastal meadows constructed atop a former garbage dump, hills built from scratch on an island in New York Harbor, and the kind of rivers that one finds in theme parks. The manhole cover—a misplaced sliver of steampunk—was a hint that Prospect Park is a more technological object than I’d ever imagined, that there were systems at work beneath the grassy veneer that I’d never even contemplated. Also, the manhole cover suggested to me that there’s a very good reason why 21st-century designers who deftly commingle the man-made and the natural are still influenced by the thinking of Olmsted.
Jamie Maslyn Larson, for example, a landscape architect who worked for the New York office of West 8 and oversaw the construction of Governors Island’s artificial hills, told me a story about walking in Central Park and coming upon “a nice little detail that took the water into a granite runnel, created drainage.” At the time, she was trying to solve one of the hills’ erosion problems: “I came back to the office and we sketched it out… and it became part of the hill.”
I asked her, “So you were literally borrowing from Olmsted?”
“Which we all do,” she responded. “He’s the master.”
Standing in the Long Meadow, pondering a manhole cover, I realize that I never look at this significant urban place with the critical eye that I routinely apply to the city around me, and that my neighborhood expanse of greenery is, as it happens, a primary example of engineered nature.
The story of Prospect Park starts with the formation in 1859 of a Brooklyn Board of Park Commissioners, led by a power broker named James Stranahan, that was given a blank check and an unusual amount of latitude by the New York State Legislature. Brooklyn, at the time, was an independent city, a boomtown, with a population of nearly 300,000 and not many parks. By 1860, the board identified and acquired a site for a major park and hired engineer Egbert L. Viele to design it.
Viele was one of the 19th century’s famous losers. He had drafted a design for Central Park that was cast aside when, in 1857, Vaux and Olmsted won that park’s design competition. This time, Viele’s plan, smaller and more formal than what was eventually built, was put on hold when the Civil War began in 1861. At the war’s end, the board staged a design competition that was won by none other than Calvert Vaux. The design Vaux submitted formed the basis for the park we know today: a three-part composition of meadows, a forested ravine, and a man-made lake surrounded by cosmopolitan amenities like a concert grove; a series of promenades, designed for seeing and being seen; and a tiny artificial island intended as a stage for musical performances.
Having secured the commission, Vaux set about luring Olmsted back from California where, in the interest of making money—he was, at that time, still a jack-of-all-trades rather than a revered landscape architect—he had taken a position managing a gold mine.
English-born Vaux (rhymes with “fox”) was a trained architect and a painter of rustic landscapes. He could conceivably have designed the park on his own. But Vaux hungered for Olmsted’s management skills and his knack, essential for designers even then, for grounding aesthetic decisions in persuasive, flowery language. Vaux was a crafter of exquisite bridges and charming buildings; Olmsted was the philosopher king. Eventually, Olmsted was persuaded. At the end of a long postscript in an 1865 letter, Olmsted acknowledged, “I should like very well to go into the Brooklyn Park, or anything else—if I really believed I could get a decent living out of it.”
He left California for New York in October of 1865. Olmsted, Vaux & Co. was officially appointed as the park’s landscape architecture firm in May of 1866, and construction began that July. Portions of the park opened to the public October 19, 1867 (which is why the park’s 150th birthday is being celebrated in an ongoing series of events this year, although the park wasn’t anywhere near complete until some six years later). One article on the park’s opening published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, read to me by Marcia Ely of the Brooklyn Historical Society, where a Prospect Park exhibition opens July 12, dryly noted: “If the park commissioners had waited until next season to open the park they might have produced a better effect on the popular mind.”
Vaux’s first draft saved Prospect Park from Viele’s most objectionable feature: its division into two parts by Flatbush Avenue, which even then was a busy thoroughfare. It would be better, Vaux argued, to reserve the “East-Side Lands” across Flatbush for other civic uses; indeed, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, and the library were later built on land that was originally proposed as part of the park.
Supposedly it was Vaux who persuaded Commissioner Stranahan to buy an additional 228 acres to the south to replace the portion of the park that would have sat east of Flatbush Avenue. (The 40-acre Parade Ground was tacked on later.) According to David P. Colley’s 2013 book, Prospect Park: Olmsted and Vaux’s Brooklyn Masterpiece, Vaux hyped the expansion by including a lake in his plans and informing Stranahan that it would be “more than twice the size of its counterpart in Central Park.” (If this anecdote is true, it means that the “better than Central Park” boast was part of Prospect Park’s culture from its inception.)
Despite the fact that Vaux had already won the argument for expansion, Olmsted pressed the point in his January 1866 “Preliminary Report to the Commissioners for Laying Out a Park in Brooklyn, NY,” writing: “There is such a pleasure, common, constant and universal to all town parks and that it results from the feeling of relief experienced by those entering them, on escaping from the cramped, confined and controlling circumstances of the streets of the town; in other words, a sense of enlarged freedom is to all, at all times, the most certain and the most valuable gratification afforded by a park. “
In pursuit of “enlarged freedom”—with their 585 acres, compared to Viele’s 320—Vaux and Olmsted began transforming a motley landscape: a mixture of farmland, woods that had grown back after being clear-cut by occupying British forces during the Revolutionary War, old country roads, the beginnings an urban street grid, plus clay and gravel pits and peat swamps. Up to a point, the approach was to simply use what was there: “No hill, not previously marred by excavations in street construction, has been leveled or its general elevation reduced,” Olmsted wrote in his 1871 progress report. “The tendency of all the changes of the surface has been to enlarge and make more distinct the original natural features. Swamps, pond-holes, and hillocks which obstructed the general flow of the surface, alone have been obliterated.”
However, in the reports to the commissioners, written annually from 1867 to 1874, Olmsted refines his central idea: that city dwellers need to immerse themselves in something resembling wilderness and that a degree of artistry was necessary to further the illusion. In his periodic reports, he describes a set of perceptual tricks, an approach that we might today refer to as “place-making.”
Olmsted informed the commissioners in 1869:
From many points of the drives, rides and walks, the eye will range over a meadow-like expanse, wherein the first definite obstruction or break in the turfy surface will be at least half a mile away, sometimes considerably more than that, and in which tree tops will be seen in rising perspective, fully a mile away. These views will not offer merely peeps, but will comprehend quite broad and well-balanced pastoral landscapes, free from any object which will suggest the vicinity of the city, from which it is the primary purpose of the Park to give the means of a ready escape.
“I always call it the ‘come hither landscape,’” says Christian Zimmerman, who is today the chief landscape architect for the Prospect Park Alliance, the private nonprofit that largely runs and maintains the public park. Zimmerman has been working at Prospect Park since 1990, and his job over the past 27 years has largely been to understand, interpret, and restore Vaux and Olmsted’s vision. Formed in 1987, the Alliance has tackled the job of rescuing the park from past neglect (caused in part by New York’s 1970s fiscal crisis) and sometimes from the best intentions of those—like former New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses—who sought to improve on the original vision.
Olmsted’s approach to landscape was seductive and manipulative. In the 20th century, Disney theme park Imagineers devised ways of controlling sightlines to deepen an illusion (for instance, you may notice the animatronic dinosaurs all around you, but not the emergency exit sign). According to former Disney executive Marty Sklar, the theme park designers used the “close-ups” to reinforce the “long shots,” creating a narrative for visitors. But Olmsted got there first. Inspired by English landscape design, he was a pre-Imagineer.
One trick he used was alternating areas of shade and light to create visual intrigue; another employs bends in the pathways to hide or unexpectedly reveal what’s ahead. “In the Ambergill,” says Zimmerman, referring to a man-made stream that runs through an area of Prospect Park called the Ravine, “when you hear the waterfall, you can’t see it—it’s not available to you. Then you walk 75 feet, take a right, and there’s your waterfall.”
Originally, the park was intended for two kinds of users: those out for pleasure drives in their horse-drawn carriages and those who wandered in on foot. The road that runs for over three miles, separating the park’s core areas from its perimeter, is continuously buffered by woodlands and views of the lake and meadow. It was conceived as one long landscape painting that would unwind as carriages circumnavigated the park (going clockwise, the opposite direction of most of today’s park traffic).
For those who walked in, Vaux designed tunnel-like archways, like Endale and Meadowport near Grand Army Plaza, with wooden ceilings “to avoid the drip which would occur from the condensation of moisture on stone.” They allowed pedestrians to cross beneath the carriage road, protecting them from traffic. Then, “once fairly in among the trees and grass stretches, they should be able to ramble over the whole extent of the property with as much apparent freedom as if the whole park had been intended solely for their enjoyment.”
Except in the Concert Grove near the east side of the lake—where it’s obvious that Olmsted carefully created a rhythmic array of London plane trees (the original plantings are still standing)—you don’t notice formal arrangements of trees in Prospect Park. It’s not like Versailles, where they tend to line up in allées. But Olmsted was, in fact, a master of tree placement. He inventoried the trees on site, scrapping the ones that didn’t fit his aesthetic vision and transplanting trees he liked but thought were badly placed.
His team even invented a “tree-moving machine”: an oversized cart capable of transporting full-grown trees, standing upright, with 15-ton root balls. The Long Meadow, in particular, is shaped by clusters of trees, thoughtfully grouped to keep visitors’ eyes from roaming beyond the pastoral scene in front of them. (Until the 1930s, when Robert Moses banished them, sheep grazed in the Long Meadow.)
Zimmerman argues that Prospect Park “has to be one of the most intact Olmsted Vaux designs.” Even Robert Moses didn’t mess with the core of the park, he says. Moses mostly built things on the edges—like the bandshell—or demolished buildings (like Vaux’s beloved Dairy). Or excommunicated sheep.
Zimmerman views the park as a “single composition” where “everything is subservient to everything.” Since the 1990s, the Alliance has been trying to restore the Olmstedian patterns of tree planting. “A lot of what we’re trying to do on the Long Meadow is recreate the original design.” Because most of the park’s original drawings have been lost—it’s rumored that Moses threw them away—Zimmerman is working from one still-extant planting diagram dating from 1871, that shows the southern edge of the Long Meadow, and then extrapolating from later plans, like one from 1888 when Olmsted and Vaux were no longer working on the park.
Walking around with Zimmerman, as I do one early summer afternoon, is an education. He takes me to a section of the park where I’ve never been, a spot on the eastern fringes that’s known as the Rose Garden, although it’s been decades since roses were cultivated there. Now, it’s lush oasis with three waterless concrete ponds (circa 1960) surrounded by benches, overgrown shrubbery and willowy trees. The only sign of life is a solitary man sleeping on a bench. “This is a place where nobody goes,” says Zimmerman. The Alliance has been working for a couple of years on finding a use for the area that will draw more people. (Until July 17, it’s the site of an art installation called the Connective Project, by Suchi Reddy, consisting of 7,000 pinwheels.)
We continue walking on a path through deep woods that looks untouched. “We’re in the east perimeter land. It’s our deepest perimeter,” Zimmerman says. He points out a willow oak that he thinks is at least 150 years old and explains that this is where the Battle of Brooklyn was fought during the Revolutionary War, so Olmsted “treated the area with respect.”
Zimmerman uses an intriguing term to explain his restoration work: “landscape archaeology.” What it means, I think, is that when he looks at the park’s meadows, waterways, or woodlands, what he’s seeing is not exactly nature, but layer upon layer of human intervention. And sometimes, he and his team literally work like archaeologists. Once, in the process of rehabilitating a section of the park’s “watercourse” that was filled with years’ worth of silt, Zimmerman and his crew uncovered a hollow rock that he believes was intentionally fashioned to work as a “little echo chamber.”
When you stand on a nearby footbridge, the Nethermead Arch, the sound produced by the water in the small stream is suddenly louder than it should be. It is one indication that the way water moves through Prospect Park—in a system known as the “watercourse”—is one of its most sophisticated and underappreciated features.
“When you talked about all those manholes in the Long Meadow,” Zimmerman tells me, “those are all collecting water. There are two feeder lines: [one] splits off and goes down East Drive, into the Lullwater. And then the other one goes down and tees off to the Lower Pool.”
In essence, what the manhole cover I noticed underscores is that whole park was designed to collect water. The entire system brings rainwater to the lake; the streams that run through the Ravine; and, in particular, the waterfall. Olmsted sketched out his grand scheme for “a constant circulation” at great length in his 1866 pitch to the commissioners. Water, he proposed, would be pumped from the lake to a spring on the west side of Friend’s Hill (now Quaker Hill) after which it flows “as a natural stream.”
The pump in question, he initially suggested, would be operated by steam supplied by the “kitchen of the Refectory,” a restaurant that Vaux designed, but that was never built. The “natural” stream he described would first manifest as a series of pools, and then would “assume more of the usual character of a small mountain stream, taking a very irregular course, with numerous small rapids, shoots and eddies, among rocks and ferns, until it emerged from the shadow of the wood upon a grassy slope….”
What actually happened is that Vaux designed a brick boiler room in which a coal-fired steam engine pumped well water to a reservoir atop Lookout Hill. The well inside the structure was a technological marvel. Designed by an engineer named C.C. Martin, who went on to become the chief engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge, the well consisted of a cast iron and wooden cylinder, 54 feet in diameter, that was lowered inch by inch to a depth of 70 feet—where the water table sat—by workers who somehow dug the soil out from beneath it. The well fed a reservoir which, in turn, fed the watercourse and created the waterfall, supplying the park with water. By the 20th century, the well’s supply proved inadequate, and tap water was substituted. This June, the Well and Boiler House—the last original Vaux building in the park—reopened as a public restroom featuring composting toilets, a first in New York City.
Aside from the well, the water system that Olmsted designed is still in use. “We’ll replace a line if it’s filled or collapsed,” says Zimmerman, but the 150-year-old plumbing still works. As he describes the way areas of the Long Meadow function as retention ponds after a storm, holding until rain water until it can be filtered down to the watercourse, I’m reminded of how today’s landscape architects have been reinventing the same strategies.
“So everyone who’s going around building bioswales today is actually imitating Olmsted?” I ask.
“I kind of think so,” Zimmerman replies.
There’s a passage in Olmsted’s 1871 report to the commissioners in which he tries to explain the difference between an urban park and a rural place: “But the question will be asked if the scenery of the Park is, after all, only of a common-place, natural, rural character, why has its preparation needed so much more labor than a farmer ordinarily bestows upon his woodlands and pastures?” Clearly, the question had been asked, since the overall cost of the park, including land acquisition and construction, skyrocketed from an initial estimate of $300,000 dollars to just under $10 million, a stunning amount of money at the time (and roughly $150 million in today’s dollars).
Olmsted’s answer, in short, is that it’s a “special type of rural landscape,” one made specifically to be used by an unusually large number of people—in 2017, about 10 million a year. As Olmsted argued, “to permanently secure a high degree of rural charm in the public ground of a large city, special preparations are required.” Indeed they are.
Remarkably, despite all that’s happened to Brooklyn over the past 150 years, the park’s convincingly rural charm persists. Yes, heedless barbecuers often discard their charcoal, their chicken bones, and even their grills right on the grass. And, yes, the other day I had to remove a used condom from my dog’s mouth. It is, after all, New York City. But the illusion of being in the countryside, someplace far away, is still remarkably potent, and the escape remains ready.