Central Park: The Great Lawn

Lab Two: Central Park / Jennifer De Jesus

The present Central Park emerged from the “greensward plan” devised in 1857 by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. The park originally opened in 1859, but the expansion under Olmsted and Vaux was not finished until 1863. Olmsted’s vision for Central Park was “a more naturalistic ‘picturesque’ design, most obviously represented in the semiwild landscape to be found in the Ramble” (Gandy, 87). In addition to Olmsted’s ideals for a city, the ideas of health and sanitation at the time proposed that for health, one needed open air—at this time New York City was so crowded, people went to cemeteries for open air! (Platt,27).


Initially, Olmsted designed a park, which was heavily influenced by aesthetics; he wanted a park that resembled a bucolic, romantic space (Olmsted). With much cultural elitism, he did not believe that parks were recreational, but simply places for “intellectual activities” like chess.

One of the most famous lawns in the world is Central Park’s Great Lawn. The Great Lawn is used for a myriad of things like sunbathing and picnics. But the Great Lawn, like most of Central Park itself, suffered because of overuse in the 1960s and 1970s. Then in 1995, a large-scale restoration effort from the Central Park Conservancy, it was replanted and has been maintained every since (CentralPark).



Although, this 55-acre space is one of the most recognized parts of Central Park, it was not part of the original design. In fact, the site was originally the rectangular Croton Reservoir (built in 1842), which was created because of the limited supply of freshwater available in New York City. However, in 1917 the reservoir was made obsolete when a new water tunnel was built and all of its water was drained—180 million gallons—in 1931.

During the Great Depression the hallowed out reservoir served as the home of displaced residents and surplus supplies and materials leftover from the construction of a subway line and Rockefeller Center.



Holding a total of six baseball fields, which were added in the 1950s around the outer rim, the Great Lawn reflects the change in park philosophy: from aesthetic to practicality. However certain aspects of Olmsted’s and Vaux’s have been maintained. Olmstead believed that the park was a place where the poorer residents could mirror the behaviors of the wealthy. This heavy importance on culture and how it pertains to the park has been maintained. Once the Great Lawn was renovated, it became host to annual concerts such as the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. Central Park also hosts Summerstage, an organization run by the non-profit City Parks Foundation, which brings over 100 performances to parks in all five boroughs.




Platt, Rutherford H. 1994. The Ecological City. From Commons to Commons: Evolving Concepts of Open Space in North American Cities. Pp. 20 – 39.

Gandy, M. 2003. Concrete and Clay, Reworking Nature in New York City, Cambridge, MIT Press

Olmsted, Fredrick Law. 1870. Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns. (Monograph)




1. Central Park, image from New Construction Manhattan


2. Olmsted’s Plan, image from Bryn Mawr University


3. Blimp Over Central Park, image from H.A. Dunne and Co.


4. Great Lawn, image from Central Park


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