Better than Central Park: Olmsted and Vaux’s Brooklyn Masterpiece

Prospect Park: Olmsted & Vaux's Brooklyn Masterpiece
Vale of Cashmere in “Prospect Park: Olmsted & Vaux’s Brooklyn Masterpiece” (all photographs by Elizabeth Keegin Colley, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press, unless indicated)

While we may not participate in miniature yacht races or have games of lawn tennis, the experience of visitors today to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park isn’t radically different from when it first opened in 1867. And that’s an experience that is embedded with the idea that an encounter with nature can be as transforming as a work of art, where the placement of a tree or the sudden archway portal into a vast meadow can be a thing of beauty, but also something that evokes a deeper emotional resonance.

Prospect Park: Olmsted & Vaux's Brooklyn Masterpiece
“Prospect Park: Olmsted & Vaux’s Brooklyn Masterpiece”

Prospect Park is arguably the masterpiece of landscape architecture team Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who despite also designing the icon that is Central Park, thought the Brooklyn refuge better reflected their ideas of connected areas of nature that seemed to ramble indefinitely and offer an enlightening escape from the dense city. Yet it’s long gotten lesser attention; while Central Park is known throughout the world, Prospect Park is more a beloved borough treasure. Finally, though, Prospect Park is getting the monograph it deserves with a new publication from Princeton Architectural Press. Prospect Park: Olmsted & Vaux’s Brooklyn Masterpiece by David P. Colley with photographs by his wife Elizabeth Keegin Colley, examines the park’s history from its origins on an uneven, glacier-carved ground, through its disrepair in 20th century, to its current status as the central meeting point for the around 2.5 million that call Brooklyn home.

Prospect Park: Olmsted & Vaux's Brooklyn Masterpiece
Lullwater in Prospect Park
Prospect Park: Olmsted & Vaux's Brooklyn Masterpiece
Beneath one of the park’s many arches

There’s a lot of history in the 585 acres, and Colley does an admirable job in putting as much detail and anecdotes into its story as possible. The photographs by Keegin Colley, alongside archival ones, are also rich and sharp, although a few more pages of full images would certainly not have hurt, and there seemed to be some missed opportunities with juxtaposing those old images with the new to show just how the original plan has been preserved or change. Yet it’s a vast improvement over the previous books that existed on Prospect Park, brief volumes with images mainly in black and white or those that focused on a certain aspect like the trees, although the Prospect Park Alliance, which collaborated on the monograph, has long been a vital resource with its archives.

Prospect Park: Olmsted & Vaux's Brooklyn Masterpiece
Olmsted & Vaux’s original design for Prospect Park (photograph by the author of the book)
Prospect Park: Olmsted & Vaux's Brooklyn Masterpiece
Overhead view of Prospect Park:

“From the beginning Prospect Park has been described in superlatives,” Colley begins, and from there launches through the intense creation of the park. Before it, the main green space in Brooklyn was actually Green-Wood Cemetery which, gorgeous as it is, is a burial ground nonetheless and not quite a place to lose your troubles about life and the world. And Brooklyn was expanding rapidly, growing from a population of 5,740 in 1800 to over 1,600,000 by the end of the century. But Olmsted and Vaux weren’t super excited to start on a new park after all the politics of Central Park, and for that James Stranahan, the Brooklyn Parks Commissioner, stepped in and basically gave them free reign.

Tree Moving Machine, Prospect Park (via New-York Historical Society)
Culyer’s Tree-Moving Machine(via New-York Historical Society)
Pruning Ladder Used in Prospect Park (via New-York Historical Society)
Pruning the trees with saws (via New-York Historical Society)

“Vaux was not only a formally trained architect with experience in landscape design, but also an accomplished artist with an eye for the subtleties of nature that he committed to canvas and later transposed onto his landscapes.” Colley writes, and the 585 acres that became Prospect Park definitely had as many alterations as a well-worked canvas (in the end, the project cost nearly $10 million, quite a bit more than the initially authorized $300,000). One clever tool was a tree-moving machine created by engineer John Y. Culyer that was essential to relocating hundreds of trees, some weighing up to a ton, around the park, in addition to the thousands of trees brought in and planted across the meadows, forests, and ravines.

There have been low points for Prospect Park, such as the concrete poured over some of the Olmsted and Vaux vistas by Robert Moses (although arguably his recreation-minded additions like an ice skating rink added to the community aspect of the park), or the high crime of the 1970s. Yet it remains an idyllic, entrancing respite. The fact you might not realize that the lake never existed until hundreds of men hand-dug it, or that the enchanting cluster of trees on the edge of the Long Meadow was relocated there especially to catch your eye, is all part of Olmsted and Vaux’s vision, where nature is an experience by people from all walks of life in the diverse borough. And as Colley writes: “What was true about the beauty and purpose of the park in the nineteenth century is still true: it is a sanctuary that also fulfills its role as melting pot.”

Prospect Park: Olmsted & Vaux's Brooklyn Masterpiece
“The Delight of the Park,” early photograph of lawn tennis (photograph by the author)
Prospect Park: Olmsted & Vaux's Brooklyn Masterpiece
The lake of Prospect Park

Prospect Park: Olmsted & Vaux’s Brooklyn Masterpiece by David P. Colley with photographs by Elizabeth Keegin Colley is available from Princeton Architectural Press.

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