Calvert Vaux and Olmsted Sr.


Pioneers of the American Park Movement

In 1857, Calvert Vaux, a rising young architect from London, asked Frederick Law Olmsted to join him in preparing an entry for the Central Park competition. While the park was being constructed according to their winning "Greensward" plan, Olmsted left New York, first for Washington and then for California. It took several years for Vaux to convince his friend to return East and join him in leading the nascent urban park movement that Central Park had spawned. In 1865, the reunited partners took up the design of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, their most fully evolved example of pastorallandscape as urban park. Five years later, they prepared the initial proposal for parks and parkways in Buffalo. It was the first plan for an interconnected park system to be implemented by an American city. Other places that sought the partners' advice during the post-Civil War years were Albany, NY, Newark, NJ, and Chicago and Riverside, IL. The latter is regarded as the country's first major suburban residential community.

Along with landscape projects he undertook with Olmsted, Vaux had a parallel career as an architect. He designed many country and suburban houses that displayed sensitive rapport with nature. Most of his early works of this type appeared in his book Villas and Cottages, which came out in 1857. Especially notable were his designs for bridges and other structures that embellished the parks that he and Olmsted laid out. The Bow Bridge and Bethesda Terrace in Central Park are most well known. He was also responsible for imaginative architectural features in Prospect Park and the Buffalo parks.

Dissolution of the Olmsted-Vaux Partnership

In 1872, Olmsted and Vaux dissolved their partnership of seven years. Over the next two decades, Olmsted occupied the position of America's foremost landscape architect. Vaux, however, did not let the hurt and anger he felt at being forgotten as the co-designer of Central Park sever the connection with Olmsted. The two men stayed in touch even when, in the early 1880s, Olmsted left New York for Brookline, where his office and home-Fairsted-became the vital center of the landscape architecture profession in America. Vaux remained in New York and, with diminishing success, continued to practice architecture. In the 1880s and 1890s, he also served as landscape architect to the New York Department of Parks. During this period he fought-often with Olmsted's aid--many difficult battles to preserve Central Park from changes and intrusions incompatible with the ideals of the Greensward plan.

Later Collaborations

In their later years, Olmsted and Vaux worked together from time to time on special projects. In 1889, they agreed to donate their services to the city of Newburgh, NY, to lay out a park there in memory of Andrew Jackson Downing. (Downing had been Vaux's mentor and a significant influence on Olmsted.) Their final collaboration involved the Niagara Reservation. In 1885, the State of New York purchased the area around the Falls to prevent it from being inundated by industrial and commercial development. Two years later, Olmsted and Vaux prepared a masterful plan that restored and preserved Niagara's magnificent scenery while making it accessible to thousands of tourists.

When in 1895 Olmsted retired from active practice in Brookline and Vaux died in New York, a significant chapter in American art came to an end. Vaux had once admonished his new friend that God had destined him to be a landscape architect: "He cannot have anything nobler in store for you," he said. Indeed, Olmsted, who believed that Vaux was unsurpassed in solving "problems of planning for convenience," admitted that had it not been for Vaux, "I should have not been a landscape architect. I should have been a farmer." Together these two men of genius had helped change the face of America's cities and elevated the practice of landscape architecture to the status of a true profession.

For further information

Charles Beveridge and Paul Rocheleau, Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape (New York: Rizzoli, 1995), and Francis R. Kowsky, Country, Park and City: The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).