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Calvert Vaux


Calvert Vaux, Architect, Landscape Designer [1824-1895]

Text below was adapted from the 1902 Cyclopedia of American Horticulture. [1] Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.

Calvert Vaux was an American landscape gardener. Together with Frederick Law Olmsted he planned Central Park, New York, the prototype of large, accessible, nature-like city parks. The following account of his life-work is taken with slight changes from an obituary notice by Wm. A. Stiles in Garden and Forest 8:480: Calvert Vaux was born in London in 1824. He had achieved success in architecture before the age of twenty-four, when he came to America as business associate of Andrew Jackson Downing. At the time of Downing's untimely death in 1854 the two men were designing and constructing the grounds about the capitol and Smithsonian Institution, the most important work of the kind that had yet been attempted in America. Meanwhile, the gathering sentiment in favor of spacious and accessible city parks which had found expression in the eloquent letters of Downing at last secured, through legislative action, the purchase for a public pleasure-ground of the rectangular piece of ground now known as Central Park, New York. In 1858 the city authorities selected, out of thirty-three designs offered in competition for the new park, the one signed "Greensward," which was the joint work of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, and Central Park as we know it to-day is the realization of this design in its essential features. This was the earliest example in this country of a public park conceived and treated as a consistent work of landscape art, and the first attempt in any country to plan a spacious pleasure-ground which should have the charm of simple natural scenery while it met the requirements of complete enclosure by a compactly built city. No one can read the original plan as presented for competition without feeling how thoroughly an experience of nearly half a century has justified the forethought of the young artists, or without a sense of gratitude to them that our first great park, which has to such an extent furnished a stimulus and a standard to other American cities for similar undertakings, was a work of such simplicity, dignity, refinement and strength. It may be added that this "Greensward" plan, together with other reports on Central Park, on Morningside and Riverside Parks, in New York, on parks in Brooklyn, Albany, Chicago, San Francisco and other cities, both in this country and the Dominion of Canada, by the same authors, contain a consistent body of doctrine relating to public pleasure-grounds which is unique and invaluable. Calvert Vaux was a member of many important commissions, and he acted as landscape gardener for the Niagara Falls Reservation, but for more than thirty years his best work and thought were steadily given to the parks of New York City. He had the genuine creative faculty which gave the stamp of originality to all his work, and a severity of taste which preserved it from anything like eccentricity or extravagance. As a city official he was a model of intelligent zeal and sturdy integrity. Several times he resigned his lucrative position rather than see his art degraded, but he was always quickly reinstated by a demand of the people. To Calvert Vaux, more than to any other one man, New York owes a debt of gratitude for the fact that Central Park, in spite of attacks on every side, has been held so secure against harmful invasion and has been developed so strictly on the lines of its original conception.

In private life Calvert Vaux was a man of singular modesty, gentleness and sincerity. He lacked the graces of manner and magnetism of social intercourse which carry many men in various walks of life to a brilliant position that much exceeds their real merits. Nevertheless, he had many accomplishments and culture of the best type. It is a sad and singular coincidence that both Downing and Vaux met their death by accidental drowning. The career of Calvert Vaux is an inspiring one for all struggling young artists and for all public-spirited citizens in America who are laboring in the work of civic and village improvement. Amid the changing policies of municipal governments, the life-work of Calvert Vaux is a shining example.

  1. Bailey, L. H., Professor of Horticulture in Cornell University (with Miller, Wilhelm, PhD), Cyclopedia of American Horticulture, [vol 4, R-Z], 1902, The MacMillan Company, London.


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