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Partner in the Park

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 1994.1 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 known of which was A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. Downing had broad influence in matters of public taste. Through books such as Cottage Residences and The Architecture of Country Houses, he popularized the so-called “Hudson River bracketed” style of architecture, which got its name from projecting wooden brackets that supported the overhanging roof, and was characterized by scrolled wood, turned columns, and ornamental lattice work. He was not an architect but his books were popular and brought him clients, not only for gardens but also for houses. When his usual collaborator—A.J. Davis—declined to form a partnership, Downing decided to go to England to find himself an architectural assistant.

He was introduced to Vaux by chance, at an Architectural Association exhibition, where Vaux pointed out his contributions. Downing was impressed—Vaux was a skilled draftsman. Vaux was charmed by the energetic American, and Downing liked the little Englishman (Vaux was only four feet ten inches tall), who made up for in enthusiasm what he lacked in experience. A week later, when Downing sailed to New York, Vaux went with him.

For the next two years, Vaux worked for Downing in Newburgh, New York. This was his real apprenticeship. Downing, who had early entered his family’s nursery business, had a rudimentary education but he was widely read and had been influenced by John Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture. He had absorbed Ruskin’s teaching that the purpose of the fine arts was to give objects not merely aesthetic qualities but moral significance. Downing loosely interpreted this to mean that domestic architecture should be appropriate to its function: simple styles for rural cottages, more complicated styles for mansions. He was nothing if not eclectic. He and Vaux designed a large country house for Matthew Vassar in Poughkeepsie that combined Elizabethan gables and American porches. Another house was Italianate, with arched windows and shallow tiled roofs. A doctor’s house in Newburgh was distinctly French, with a mansard roof, brick walls, and brownstone pilasters; for Newport they designed a huge Gothic mansion with steep roofs topped by a tower.

Downing’s aim was neither historical nor stylistic accuracy, but to make a “picturesque” impression comparable to the effect of a romantic historical painting: chimneys, towers, bay windows, and verandahs all added to this. His own architecture was not remarkable—it seems to me rather fusty and overwrought—but for the young Vaux working with Downing was an invaluable experience. He developed his taste, became familiar with American construction techniques, and, most important for a young architect, saw his designs built. Equally important, Vaux assisted Downing with landscaping projects such as gardens and country estates, and the first large urban park in the United States, the public grounds in Washington, D.C., precursor to the Mall.

In 1852, Downing tragically drowned during a steamboat accident on the Hudson. For four years Vaux remained in Newburgh, successfully continuing the practice, at first alone and then in partnership with Frederick C. Withers, another young English architect who had joined Downing. Eventually, they received a commission in New York City: a residence for a banker. The client was so pleased with the result that he asked them to design the headquarters of his bank. Vaux soon moved to New York, where he would spend the rest of his life. By now he was an American citizen, married, with children.

As he had in London, Vaux became active in the architectural scene. Together with Richard Upjohn, Richard Morris Hunt, A.J. Davis, and Withers, he founded the American Institute of Architects. He tried to make the most of having been Downing’s protégé and published a catalog of their house plans, titled Villas and Cottages. This piece of self-promotion was not successful:he was criticized for including a schedule of his own design fees. He also became embroiled in the public debate about the proposed Central Park. Downing had been one of the early proponents of a large park for New York, and Vaux naturally took an interest in the subject. Egbert Viele, the park surveyor, had proposed a plan which many, including Vaux, criticized as pedestrian. Vaux successfully lobbied the park commissioners (one of whom was his banker client) to hold a design competition, which was announced in October 1857. Vaux entered, but not on his own. He approached Frederick Law Olmsted, whom he had once met at Downing’s house, and asked him to join in preparing a project. Olmsted had no training or experience in landscape design (although he had been a farmer) but he was then serving as the superintendent of Central Park, and Vaux thought that his knowledge of the terrain would be an asset. It was, and their entry—which they called Greensward—won.

Kowsky writes that “Vaux must have gone to Olmsted bearing in his mind the fundamental artistic outlines of the Greensward plan, as well as the philosophical foundation on which it rested.” This is a far-fetched claim for which there is no factual evidence. Although Downing did write about the need for a large park in New York, his own design for Washington, D.C., was not a precursor to Central Park, either aesthetically or philosophically. The truth is that the conception of Greensward showed a remarkable leap of the imagination. Many of the entrants to the competition made buildings—concert halls, exhibition pavilions—central to their designs; others made botanical and zoological gardens the chief attraction. Vaux and Olmsted’s park was a naturalistic landscape of meadows, forests, and lakes. Olmsted later wrote that they wanted to give ordinary New Yorkers a chance to experience the White Mountains and the Adirondacks without leaving the city.

Vaux and Olmsted worked on the park for the next three years. Since Olmsted was superintendent, he was appointed architect-in-chief; Vaux was officially his assistant. This slight irritated him, but he swallowed his pride. Olmsted was the better known of the two, having published articles and books about slavery and the South, and having edited and managed Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, a leading literary journal. Moreover, Olmsted was willing to take on the management of the daily construction (something that did not interest Vaux) and dealt with the commissioners and the public. Vaux, with the assistance of another British architect, Jacob Wrey Mould, concerned himself with the design of the many park structures: forty-six bridges, a number of buildings and pavilions, rustic shelters, and the Bethesda Terrace. The last, with its covered arcade, its staircases and ornamental carvings, and its broad esplanade overlooking the lake, was his masterpiece.

Vaux and Olmsted’s partnership was interrupted by the Civil War. When they resumed working together, they designed and built within six years not only Central Park, but Prospect Park, Tompkins Park, several Brooklyn parkways, the Buffalo park system, and, outside Chicago, the first large American planned suburban community. They also prepared “reports”—combining surveys of terrain with comments on possible designs—on ways to construct parks in Chicago, Philadelphia, Newark, and Albany. Olmsted, Vaux & Company became the country’s leading landscape architecture firm.

The partnership lasted until 1872, and broke up amicably. Olmsted, who was now Landscape Architect of New York’s Department of Public Parks, wanted to devote more time to park management. His interest in city planning had grown, and he felt himself to be carrying more than his share of the load in the firm’s consulting projects. Vaux, for his part, was expanding his architectural practice. Frederic E. Church, whose monumental landscapes had made him one of the most celebrated painters of the day, commissioned him to design a country house in Hudson, New York. The result—Olana—is surely one of the most unusual private houses of the nineteenth century. It is a colorful confection of Moorish arches, polychrome brickwork, and a slate roof of gray, red, and pale green. This architectural exuberance was chiefly owing to Church. Vaux was usually more restrained. He built three large hospitals, in Baltimore, Hartford, and Poughkeepsie. Like many of his houses, these were picturesque compositions in a practical Gothic style that made up in sober solidity and functional planning what they lacked in architectural innovation.

Vaux was now at the crucial point in the career of many architects—he was about to undertake his first important civic building. Or, rather, two of them. Thanks to the intervention of his friend Andrew Haswell Green, the comptroller and a longtime commissioner of Central Park, he was appointed architect for both the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Such an unprecedented opportunity led Vaux to believe, as Kowsky writes, “that architecture rather than landscape architecture would be his source of future success.”

Vaux designed the two museums with Jacob Mould, a talented colorist and decorator. The buildings were huge. The American Museum of Natural History was to have twelve wings enclosing four courtyards; it would have been the largest building in the country if completed as planned. The Metropolitan Museum of Art consisted of gallery wings surrounding six courtyards. The exteriors of both buildings were red brick and gray granite. The natural history museum was more sober, as befitted a building devoted to the systematic display of a variety of small objects. The art museum consisted of a great hall covered by a glass roof and a central clerestory. The exterior had Venetian Gothic arched windows.

The first section of the American Museum of Natural History opened in 1877, and that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art two years later. The buildings were generally well received, but when it came time to continue the construction Vaux’s design was set aside and the job went to a different architect. (In the case of the Metropolitan, Vaux’s museum building was subsumed in Richard Morris Hunt’s neoclassical expansion.) There were other setbacks. In 1873, he entered an architectural competition for the main building of the upcoming Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Vaux and George Radford, a British engineer, designed a vast pavilion—1,500 feet long and 700 feet wide. The impressive structure was a curious combination of cast-iron engineering and Victorian bric-a-brac. For a time it appeared likely that it would be built. Then Philadelphia politics intervened and a local engineer was awarded the contract; Vaux and Radford were given the lowly job of preparing the construction drawings.

The same year Vaux was invited by the governor general of Canada to lay out the grounds of the recently completed Parliament buildings in Ot-tawa. His plan was rejected, but he later learned that his design had been built without his knowledge (he sought legal redress and was eventually compensated). Then, in 1874, thanks once more to Andrew Green, Vaux was commissioned to build a new courthouse and prison for New York on a full city block near the site of the present-day Criminal Courts Building. Vaux claimed that his elaborate Gothic design could be built cheaply, but the public outcry against spending money for “a palace such as Vaux has designed” scuttled the project. (A simpler design, by Withers, was finally built in Greenwich Village and is today the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public Library.) In 1881, Vaux and Radford tried their hand again on a large exhibition building, this time for the New York World’s Fair of 1883, an idea then being promoted by a citizens’ committee. Their utilitarian design of repetitive iron and glass sheds resembled a large factory. Public support for a fair fizzled out and that design, too, remained unbuilt. A final setback occurred when Vaux’s ambitious proposal for Grant’s Tomb was rejected in favor of the design of John H. Duncan.

There were two reasons for Vaux’s lack of success. Kowsky alludes to one: the High Victorian architecture that he specialized in had become old-fashioned. Although few architects care to admit it, fashion is always an undercurrent in the profession. To be fashionable is to be in demand, taken up by the press and admired by the critics; to be unfashionable is to be ignored. Fashion can be fickle but it generally mirrors popular taste. By 1880, wealthy Americans had lost their taste for polychrome decoration and Gothic patterns and wanted buildings that were more explicitly monumental. Two of the most successful architects at this time were Richard Morris Hunt, who favored a grand French Renaissance style, and Henry Hobson Richardson, who developed his own muscular Romanesque style. The members of the next generation of architects—Charles McKim, Stanford White, John Carrère, Thomas Hastings—were strong exponents of neoclassicism and were starting to get attention and commissions.

A taste for Roman monumentality was not in Vaux’s makeup,” Kowsky writes. “He remained true to the ideals of naturalism in landscape design and to picturesque expression in building.” But did Vaux really have a choice? Hunt, Richardson, McKim, and Carrère were all trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Vaux, for all practical purposes, was self-taught; he had no formal training on which to ground his talent. Neither did Frank Lloyd Wright, but Wright was a genius and he reinvented himself—several times. So did that other great self-taught architect, Le Corbusier. Vaux was no genius, at least not as an architect. His commitment to Downing’s architectural ideals with their emphasis on eye-catching details was genuine. It was also his limitation, for it was all he knew. This shortcoming became particularly evident in his large public buildings—they are naively, often crudely planned, and lack the subtlety of his smaller works, especially his park structures. His picturesque brand of architecture seems most at home in a naturalistic setting of the sort that he and Olmsted created in their public parks.

Vaux’s ambition to become the architect of celebrated public buildings was thwarted, and there were not many private clients who appreciated his skills as a domestic architect. In 1881, Samuel J. Tilden, the former governor of New York, engaged Vaux to combine two row houses on Gramercy Park into a large mansion (now the National Arts Club, a building that has recently been renovated); the famous actor Edwin Booth commissioned a summer house in Newport. Tilden was a close friend of Green’s, and Booth’s daughter was engaged to Vaux’s son Downing; Vaux’s list of clients was dwindling. Charles Loring Brace, a friend of Olmsted’s, and the founder and head of the Children’s Aid Society, commissioned Vaux to design lodging houses and industrial schools for destitute boys and girls. Unheralded by the contemporary architectural press, these modest but thoughtfully planned and designed buildings are among his most successful works.2 Dutch-inspired stepped gables and bay windows afforded these “poor houses” architectural dignity, and their interiors were pleasant, not punitive, in tone.

Vaux was now sixty-three; his career had not flourished. He finally rejoined the New York Department of Public Parks as Landscape Architect, planning many small parks in the city and laying out the Harlem River Speedway. On November 21, 1895, he mysteriously disappeared while walking on the waterfront. His drowned body was found the next day. C. Bowyer Vaux rejected the suggestion that his father committed suicide.

The front page of The New York Times described the circumstances of Vaux’s death and stated that he was “regarded as eminent in his profession.” The writer meant the profession of landscape architecture. There is no doubt that this was where his principal talents lay. Vaux was a dedicated architect of more than average ability, but his greatest accomplishments were the parks that he and Olmsted designed together. The question of who did exactly what in this fruitful collaboration is hard to answer. Undoubtedly, at the beginning it was Vaux who had the greater experience, although it is an exaggeration to say, as Kowsky does, that he had “a command of the Romantic tradition of design that in the early 1850s surpassed that of any of his contemporaries on this side of the Atlantic.” Still, Central Park strikes me as more Vauxian than Olmstedian. Like Downing’s plan for Washington, D.C., it is made up of discrete parts, “a series of close, sheltered spaces,” as Kowsky puts it. Despite the Sheep Meadow and the Ball Ground (the Great Lawn is a later addition), Greensward can be described as a collage of cozy, subtle, romantic effects. The structures, which include rustic shelters, elegant yet also rough bridges, and buildings of every description, clearly owe their variety to Downing’s teaching.

But Olmsted proved a fast learner. Nine years later, when he and Vaux designed Prospect Park (which owes its overall shape to Vaux’s masterful redrawing of the site’s boundaries), Olmsted took more initiative. In the meantime, he had visited Capability Brown’s parks in England and had experienced the grandeur of the Yosemite Valley. He also had worked independently on several landscaping projects in California. Prospect Park is distinguished from Central Park by its expansive sweep and its sense of unity. Except for the Concert Grove beside the lake (now disfigured by the dreadful Wollman Rink), and Vaux’s fussy, orientalized pavilion, Prospect Park is marked by a sweet simplicity. This simplicity is further evident in Olmsted’s later park designs, such as Mount Royal in Montreal, Belle Isle in Detroit, and Franklin Park in Boston.

Kowsky is sympathetic to Vaux, yet in his evenhanded fashion he writes: “It is not, however, my intention to lift Vaux at the expense of Olmsted.” He has not uncovered any new evidence about their collaboration. Olmsted—an experienced journalist—probably wrote the long reports that accompanied the plans for their projects, Vaux designed the buildings, and both men oversaw the preparation of the plans. But Vaux surely contributed to the texts, just as Olmsted would have had a say about the designs. Theirs was that rare thing, a creative collaboration. During its productive years they needed each other. When they won the Central Park competition, Olmsted convinced Vaux to work with him on the construction. When Vaux was given the opportunity to design Prospect Park on his own, he turned to Olmsted (who was then in California) and cajoled and hectored him into returning to New York. Late in life, Olmsted told his biographer, the architectural critic Mariana Van Rensselaer: “But for his invitation, I should have not been a landscape architect. I should have been a farmer.”

Olmsted and Vaux worked together on one more large park project. In 1887, they prepared a plan, with an accompanying report, for a nature reserve at Niagara Falls. Recalling this collaboration, Olmsted told Van Rensselaer: “In the Niagara report he helped me and I helped him and at some points each of us crowded the other out a little.” This is as good a description of this remarkable partnership as we are ever likely to get.

  1. 1

    William Alex, Calvert Vaux: Architect and Planner (New York: Ink, Inc., 1994).

  2. 2

    Only a few buildings have survived: a boys school (now residences) just east of Tompkins Square at East Eighth Street; a school on East Sixth Street between Avenues B and C; another school (now a youth center) on East 88th Street between First and Second Avenues; and a school (now residences) on Mott Street near Houston.

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