If Vaux could talk

Calvert Vaux’s grave at Montrepose Cemetery in Kingston. (Photo by Julie O’Connor)

No one dies without leaving a story for us to discover and savor. The Dead Beat intends to search out, find and report those stories. The story may reside in a survivor’s heart or a victim’s last words. It may be legend or it may be fact. It may be recorded in stone or on yellowing newsprint. It may warm the heart or break it. It may explain a lifetime or illuminate a single moment in that lifetime. It may tell us more about the living than the dead, more about ourselves and the way we live than the way that others have died.

He was a farmer working 125 acres on the south shore of Staten Island. It wasn’t his strong suit. He’d worked several other farms unsuccessfully, after having been an apprentice merchant seaman. He was best-known as a travel writer and horticultural expert. But there wasn’t much money in writing, so he’d turned once again to farming. And if it hadn’t been for a fortuitous meeting in 1857 with an ambitious young British architect at a party in Newburgh, he always said that he’d have remained a farmer all his life. The Staten Island farmer’s name was Frederick Law Olmsted, the visionary landscape architect whose name is forever associated in the popular imagination with New York’s Central Park.

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But Olmsted had a partner in creating Central Park: the Newburgh partygoer who rescued him from anonymity. His name was Calvert Vaux – a name largely and unjustly forgotten both then and now, though many argue that his genius was at least the equal of his friend Olmsted’s. Vaux lies buried in Kingston’s Montrepose Cemetery beneath a stone marker as modest as was the man.

If Vaux (rhymes with “hawks”) did nothing more than rescue Olmsted from obscurity and into a career as America’s best-known landscape architect, he would deserve the world’s appreciation. But he did much more than that.

Calvert Vaux

Vaux was an up-and-coming architect and landscape designer, the friend, student and ultimately the business partner of Andrew Jackson Downing, mid-19th-century America’s preeminent landscape architect and horticulturalist. Downing, who lived and worked in Newburgh, was also a mentor of Olmsted’s, whose book on horticulture he admired. Vaux met Olmsted at Downing’s Newburgh home, and the two men got on smashingly. (This was also where Vaux met his wife, Mary McEntee of Kingston, sister of Hudson River School painter Jervis McEntee.)

Vaux had been impressed with Olmsted’s horticultural studies and writings about English landscaping traditions. Both men favored a “naturalistic” approach to the nascent practice of landscape architecture. Vaux became convinced that, though his new friend had no training in design or architecture, his charismatic presence and political and social connections would perfectly match his own talents and abilities – especially when it came to convincing the city fathers of the need for such a park.

Though at first dubious, Olmsted agreed. The men’s “Greensward Plan” for a grand English-style park in a 778-acre no-man’s-land of pig farms, quarries and swamps between the ever-growing city of New York and the tiny village of Harlem was launched in 1858.

Together, the two young men would make Vaux’s – and Downing’s – dream come true. It was a dream that faced enormous obstacles, some natural and some man-made. Several hundred thousand trees were planted and more than three million cubic yards of soil moved, according to the park’s website. Pedestrian and carriage roads wound through large meadows, past several lakes and a large reservoir. The project employed 20,000 laborers over the course of 15 years.

Vaux, who had moved from Newburgh to New York with his wife and four children, was Central Park’s anchor. He had constant battles with petty bureaucrats and the City’s gentry, who wanted to make the park their private domain.

According to an essay by Suzanne Spellen in Brownstoner, Olmsted’s deep Yankee roots and talent for public speaking made him the project’s frontman. Though Vaux had become an American citizen, Spellen contends that he was still “a Brit,” the subject of much Yankee suspicion. As a result, Olmsted became the face of the project: a fact that likely explains at least in part why Vaux’s name and contribution may have been lost to the popular imagination.

The two men founded the partnership of Olmsted, Vaux and Company in 1865. It lasted seven years, during which time they created an astonishing number of city parks, all following the same architectural and horticultural principles on which they drew for Central Park. They designed Prospect Park and Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. They designed three parks in Buffalo, including Delaware, Front and what is now Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. And in 1871, near the end of their official partnership, they returned to the Hudson River region to design the grounds for Poughkeepsie’s Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane.

Vaux dissolved the partnership in 1872, but the two remained friends for the rest of their lives. If Vaux resented the glowing reputation that his partner enjoyed over the years, he never made it public.

Vaux remained in New York, where he continued to practice architecture, designing buildings throughout the 1880 and ’90s. Though many of those buildings were admired in their day, none could ever hope to match his vast, sweeping work with Olmsted. Though the dream of Central Park had long been a reality, Vaux – sometimes joined by Olmsted – had to wage many difficult battles with city politicians and bureaucrats eager to “improve” on that dream.

In 1889, the two men agreed to donate their services to the City of Newburgh to create a 35-acre park on a single condition: that the park be named after their friend and mentor, Andrew Jackson Downing. It was their final project together. In 1895, Vaux drowned in Brooklyn’s Gravesend Bay, the same year that Olmsted was forced to retire from his practice due to “senility.” He died at a psychiatric hospital outside of Boston in 1903.

It might have seemed laughable at the beginning of their partnership that an unsuccessful farmer would one day eclipse the accomplishments of the dazzling young Brit who had convinced him to put down the plow. Stranger legends have been born of lesser men, but few have ever produced such glories as the works of Olmsted and Vaux and Company.

To learn more about Calvert Vaux and his work in the Hudson Valley, which includes Olana, Wilderstein and the Hoyt House, check out the Calvert Vaux Preservation Alliance at https://www.calvertvaux.org.

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