This year, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park is celebrating its 150th birthday, marked by an opening bash this past weekend. The 585-acre urban oasis of winding trails through forests, a sprawling lawn, and a serene lake, is as much a work of human engineering as nature. The landscape architecture team Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux guided the placement of each boulder and tree (using a custom tree-moving machine), with 2,000 workers planting flora and hand-digging the lake with picks and shovels. Glacial ponds from New York’s ice age were gently shaped into Victorian ideals, and touches like a dairy with live sheep and cows contributed to the rustic experience.
After Olmsted and Vaux had completed Central Park, which was established in 1857, they weren’t eager to take on another New York City park project. Olmsted wrote that he was frustrated at “accommodating myself to infernal scoundrels.” Yet Brooklyn philanthropist and politician James S. T. Stranahan helped convince the duo to cross the East River for greater creative freedom. When the park opened in 1867, it represented the height of their ideas on nature’s potential to morally elevate humanity.
The park has changed over the years. The dairy is gone, as are some questionable additions like a replica of Mount Vernon constructed in 1932 under Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. In the later 20th century, Prospect Park fell into disrepair, its recent revitalization led by the Prospect Park Alliance that formed in 1987. (Happy 30th to them!) Below, you can contrast the 19th-century park through selections from the New York Public Library’s collection of stereoscopic images, to photographs of the park in the 21st century. And if you want to see the stereo cards in motion, click over to the NYPL Stereogranimator to animate the archival views.
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