Writing about an urban park and talking about New York irremediably links us to the well-known, cinematic and iconic Central Park. The great project of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, designed as a lung in the middle of the reticular maelstrom of Manhattan. Quoting Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York: “Central Park is not only Manhattan’s main recreational facility, but also the testimony of its progress: a taxidermic conservation of nature that forever exhibits the drama of how culture leaves behind the nature”.
This post is about the project that Olmsted and Vaux designed immediately after Central Park and that, to this day is, perhaps, a recreation place more frequented by New Yorkers than the emblematic park of Manhattan, highly visited by tourists. This post talks about Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and this is its story.
By the end of the 1850s Brooklyn had become the third most populous city in the United States, after New York and Philadelphia. Its proximity to New York and the demographic and urban growth of this one caused that Brooklyn welcomed great part of the workers who could not stay in Manhattan but who worked in their wharves, factories or streets. The ones known as “commuters” had just been born.
On April 18, 1859, in view of the expansion of the city of Brooklyn, the state of New York appointed a commission to study possible locations for the creation of parks. James Stranahan led the commission from the beginning, based on the conviction that urban parks were an urgent necessity in the developing of the new world, the modern cities. According to his words, a park in Brooklyn “will become the place of leisure for all classes of our community, allowing thousands of people to enjoy the fresh air, exercise, in all seasons of the year …”. He also believed – rightly – that a public park would attract wealthier residents.
Out of the seven proposals, Mount Prospect was by size the most ambitious. The initial project was designed in 1861 by Egbert Viele, placing the park on both sides of Flatbush Avenue and including the library, the botanical garden and the Brooklyn Museum. However, and despite the fact that part of the necessary land had already been purchased, the project was interrupted by the outbreak of the American Civil War.
The delay in the beginning of the works allowed Stranahan to do a deep reflection on the proposal for the park, and in 1865 asked Vaux to review the plans. After the review, Vaux presented an alternative project that immediately had the favor of Stranahan and, at the end, was carried out by tracing the landscape of the park that has come to our days: three large different areas – extensions of meadows to the north and east, a wooded ravine to the east and a large lake to the south. He also eliminated the Flatbush Avenue layout through the center of the park and outlined an oval space at the northern end that would end up becoming Grand Army Plaza.
Approaching the park by its main access – coming from Manhattan by Flatbush Avenue and crossing Grand Army Plaza – the visitor (Flaneur in Frenchified mode) is allowed to take a seemingly natural and random route, although certainly studied and modeled. A sequence of scenes invite – him or her – to enter the park in an almost imperceptible way and slowly becomes isolated from the noisy bustle of the city.
Grand Army Plaza, elliptical, axial, classic, receives the visitor by laying an imaginary rope, a rope that connects the flowerbeds, the fountain and the large access arch. Once crossed, it’s just a matter of letting go the rope and diving into the park.
A winding paved path, with a gentle favorable slope – nothing is random – leads the stroller through leafy vegetation towards a small bridge with an ogival arch. The flaneur has traveled from the clarity of the open sky of the streets of Brooklyn to the almost total darkness in the passage under the bridge, through a stepped and waning progression of space / light: the street, the plaza, the access arch, the wooded path, the ogival bridge… Stripped of other references, only the clarity coming from the opposite end marks the direction to follow. And it is then, when passing the end of the bridge, when the park reveals itself in all its splendor: a vast expanse of meadows flanked by infinite groves, domesticated by the hand of man to give place to gentle slopes where sunbathing and small plains to practice sport or lay out the tablecloth for the picnic.
Neoclassical style buildings, designed by McKim, Mead and White and their pupils and followers, are strategically distributed throughout the enclosure. Especially relevant is the Boathouse, whose façade and interiors bear similarities with the old Penn Station (McKim, Mead and White’s masterpiece) and which roo is crafted with the traditional Guastavino vaults.
It may not the most famous park in New York, nor the largest, nor the most accessible. What is then the value of Prospect Park? Perhaps the greatest achievement of Stranahan, Vaux and all the architects of Prospect Park was not to promote, design and build a beautiful park, but also to create a public space that today, 160 years after the first sketches, it continues to serve the same purpose for which it was created, with thousands of New Yorkers every weekend enjoying barbecues, long walks, baseball games with friends or simply sunbathing.