Central Park was the first landscaped public park in America. Although Manhattan's wealthiest laid claim to the park by building luxurious homes along its eastern border, New Yorkers from all walks of life flocked to it. But its history reflects the ongoing class struggle that was as much a part of New York life as the steamy humidity of summer and the brittle chill of winter.
THEY SAID …
“Advocates of creating the park — primarily wealthy merchants and landowners — admired the public grounds of London and Paris and urged that New York needed a comparable facility to establish its international reputation. A public park … would offer their own families an attractive setting for carriage rides and provide working-class New Yorkers with a healthy alternative to the saloon.”
— Elizabeth Blackmar and Roy Rosenzweig, The Park and the People
One of the first obstacles in building the park was deciding who should control a public park. Initially, state politicians appointed the Central Park commissioner. Later, the city balked and passed a charter that gave the mayor control over park appointments. Politics was only one issue; where to locate the park was debated by business owners and residents who were anxious to improve the value of their neighborhoods, as long as it didn't infringe on their lifestyle.
The city eventually chose to purchase more than 800 acres of swampy, rocky land between Fifth and Eighth Avenues and 59th and 110th Streets. A contest was held and in 1857 the Central Park Commission selected a design submitted by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted. It took more than 20,000 workers to smoothe, reshape, and landscape the original topography into a breathtaking urban sanctuary. Lakes, bridges, sprawling meadows, dense woods, scenic paths, and 270,000 newly planted trees created a magical escape from the noise, bustle, and dirt of city life.
After it opened in 1859, the park became a popular place for wealthy socialites to go for carriage rides in the late afternoon. By the 1930s, the richest New Yorkers lived all along the eastern side of the park, using it as if it were their personal front yard. Jackie would often go for strolls in the park with her father, who would borrow dogs from local pet stores to accompany them. It was the beginning of Jackie's life-long love affair with Central Park.
Central Park covers 6 percent of Manhattan. After the state legislature approved the city's use of eminent domain in 1853 to purchase land for the park, more than 1,600 of New York's poorest were left homeless. Among those displaced were Irish pig farmers, New York's first important settlement of African Americans, and an assortment of German gardeners.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened on February 20, 1872, in a building located at 681 Fifth Avenue. Its first president was railroad executive John Taylor Johnston, whose personal art collection was a large part of the museum's initial holdings that included 174 paintings and a Roman stone sarcophagus. Publisher George Palmer Putnam was its founding superintendent.
After outgrowing its location, the Met temporarily moved to West Fourteenth Street. In 1880, the city of New York agreed to let the museum relocate to Central Park along upper Fifth Avenue, which became its permanent home. Calvert Vaux, who had also designed the park, designed the original building. Over the following fifty years, many wings and façades were added.