Poor Calvert Vaux, even the title of his own biography gives him second billing. The story of his life. “To F.L. Olmsted, everything; to C. Vaux, the cut direct,” he once complained. F.L. Olmsted was Frederick Law Olmsted, with whom Vaux designed and built some of the best-known—and best—urban parks in the country, perhaps in the world. Vaux had cause to complain, for it was he who was responsible for Olmsted’s becoming a landscape architect in the first place. Vaux invited Olmsted to take part with him in the competition to design Central Park. They worked together and won. Yet, from the very beginning, it was Olmsted who received public recognition as “the man who made Central Park.”
Vaux’s architectural oeuvre has also been neglected. He designed many appealing Hudson Valley houses; the original wings of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History; and, of course, a multitude of charming park buildings, including beloved Central Park structures such as the Bethesda Terrace, the Belvedere Castle, and Bow Bridge. Recently, however, interest in Vaux has revived. An illustrated monograph of his work appeared in 1994. Now, Francis R. Kowsky, a professor of art history at Buffalo State College, has published the first full-length account of the architect’s life and work. This scholarly study will hardly make the name of Calvert Vaux (pronounced “vox”) into a byword. Vaux did not leave a diary or a significant collection of personal papers, and Kowsky, a careful researcher but not an imaginative writer, resists reading between the lines. The result is that Vaux, who was a shy man, remains a curiously distant figure in his own biography. Yet I think he would have liked Kowsky’s book. It treats him seriously, not only as a landscape designer but also as an architect, which is all he ever really wanted.
Vaux was born in London in 1824. The son of a surgeon, he was only eight when his father died. His widowed mother with three other children must have had difficulty making ends meet, for according to Kowsky there is scant evidence that Vaux received much formal education after the age of fourteen. What is known is that at nineteen he became an articled pupil of Lewis N. Cottingham, an architect who was a minor figure in the English Gothic Revival movement and specialized in restoring medieval churches, including the Chapel of Magdalene College, Oxford. For reasons unknown, Vaux did not complete his apprenticeship, and left Cottingham after only three years. For the next four years, he knocked around the London architectural scene, joined the Architectural Association, a club for young architects, attended sketching classes, and supported himself by lettering maps for lithographers.
In the summer of 1850, the Architectural Association was visited by Andrew Jackson Downing, who, at thirty-four, was already well known in the US as a horticulturist, gardener, editor, and writer of books on domestic architecture and gardening, the best …