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Event Transcript
September 30, 2003


A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century

[START TAPE 1, SIDE A]

DR. JULIA VITULLO-MARTIN: Hello. We would like to start our program. Hello, can we begin our program? Today we are very honored to have as our guest, Witold Rybczynski, Professor of Urbanism, Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania.

Prof. Rybczynski has written widely on subjects of interest just today. He writes regularly for the New York Review of Books, The Atlantic Monthly and he has written nine books altogether. One is Home: A Short History Of An Idea and another is City Life: Urban Expectations In The New World. But the book thatís probably of most interest to many people today, is this wonderful biography of Frederick Law Olmstead, A Clearing In The Distance.

Now as it happens today, we have quite a few of New Yorkís most tenacious daily guardians of the Olmstead heritage. Lynden Miller, who really saved the conservatory garden in Central Park and Sara Cedar Miller, who has written this marvelous new book, a photographer who also can write, which is a wonderful thing on Central Park and Pam Tice the former Executive Director of the Central Park Conservancy and former parks commission Henry Stern and we have just lost our current parks commission Adrian Benopy to the Mayor who had scheduled a big event in Washington Heights.

Now Prof. Rybczynskiís underline for his biography of Olmstead is, Frederick Law Olmstead an America in the 19th Century. The 19th Century was a wonderful context for Olmstead because it was a time when giants walked the earth and as it happens, the giants of 19th Century America thought big thoughts and built big projects and planned for the future and they worried about relationship to democracy to the institutions they were building.

So for example, Olmsteadís colleague Louie Sullivan who was often called the father of architectural modernism, worried about how buildings affected people and how people affected, the relationship between how people shaped their buildings and buildings shaped people, long before Winston Churchill.

He worried about the Ė he developed an idea called the Peopleís Architecture. Olmstead developed an idea called the Peopleís Parks, which is what our wonderful Central Park is.

They though about how they were going to build urban institutions to make the quality of life in cities much better and to improve democratic processes. Now today, Prof. Rybczynski is not talking about Olmstead so much Ė a certain amount on Olmstead Ė Olmstead so much as the great series of problems facing New York with the reconstruction of lower Manhattan.

Itís very worthwhile for us at this time when we are rather short of big ideas in American society to look back at the 19th Century and wonder about how these men built the great institutions that are still with us today. Prof. Rybczynski.

[Applause]

PROF. WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI: Julia said the subtitle of my book was Frederick Olmstead America in the 19th Century. If there was a title for this talk, which there isn't, I just thought of it. It would Fredrick Olmstead an America the 21st Century.

[Laughter]

Because I wanted to and I was asked to make some connections between Central Park, this great urban project of the mid 19th Century and the project that New York City is undertaking right now, which is the reconstruction of the World trade center site, so there is not an original thought that there is some connection between these two things that people have speculated about before and I thought it would be interesting to pursue that as a topic.

Since I am a professor, I have to give you on the one hand this on the one hand that and so there are similarities and there are also differences and finally, some lessons that I think we might draw from the comparison.

This being New York, politics is always an issue in any urban project and that was certainly the case in Central Park. The reason itís called Central Park is because itís in the center of the island and there were two sites considered at the time.

There was a site on the East River which belonged to somebody and I can't remember their name anymore, who obviously wanted to see the park there. Then there was the other part which was in the center. There was a very long political debate which ended up as all American political debates do in the courts and the central part won.

It was certainly not a given that the park was going to be there and there was great Ė two different camps and we do have this 150th Anniversary which in fact was the anniversary of the political decision in Albany, to give New York City the mandate to build this park and there were actually two decisions because they passed two bills, one for the one site, one for the other and then they finally all got worked out.

So it was not a smooth process. Also lest we give too much credit to our ancestors, one of the driving forces behind the construction of Central Park, it was seen as a make work project. The city economy was in bad shape at that time and this was of course, a way to employ thousand and thousands of people. All the work was done largely by hand and a bit of horse power but essentially done by hand.

So it was a very attractive project from the political point of view and as Olmstead discovered and I wrote about this a little bit in the book, part of his job of course was to give jobs to the friends of the politicians. Not so different from today and he struggled with this and being a kind of efficiency expert and an efficiency nut, he was very displeased with the notion that he would hire incompetent people simply because they were friends of somebody.

One of the words thatís used a great deal in Lower Manhattan, is infrastructure and there is a lot of discussion about infrastructure and itís worth recalling and itís a curious incidental similarity, is that Central Park was also very much about infrastructure.

One of the reasons the central site was attractive to the proponents, was there was a city reservoir on it. Not only was there a city reservoir, the strong rationale for building Central Park, one was that you would give a lot of political patronage jobs, the other one was that New York City needed a new reservoir and it had to be put somewhere. So right from the beginning the Ė in fact when the competition was held, part of the competition was to integrate a reservoir into the center of Central Park.

So in fact, when Central Park was built, there was going to be two reservoirs. There was the old reservoir and the new reservoir. The old reservoir eventually got demolished by Moses and 1930s I think. So it was around for a long time.

Itís worth remembering about this infrastructure issue and I think itís important is that if you wanted to pick a really bad site for a park, you would pick Central Park. Itís an impossible size. Itís very skinny and very long and narrow and then it has these two reservoirs dumped in the middle of it.

We of course, most of us I think, in this room have never seen the first reservoir. But for a long time it had these two reservoirs and even with one reservoir itís like a kind of cork and you kind of have to kind of get around it. So itís in a very, very difficult design challenge for Olmstead and Fox to plan a park where you are basically very close to an avenue on each side with the noise and so on and the impact, the visual impact of the city, the future city because the city wasnít there yet.

You have this odd shape. You have the reservoir in the middle which is a kind of eye sore. You can't swim in it. Itís a water reservoir so you can't integrate it really into the park. Itís a piece of engineering. You have the old reservoir which has walls that are Ė itís a big square kind of structure just sitting there.

Finally, you have, because the park is long and narrow, and people are concerned about interrupting traffic, they had to integrate four streets crossing the park. So it would be a kind of impossible problem to design a park you would think.

So the fact that the park is so beautiful is really an incredible I think, testament mainly to great luck. Because these two beginners, both Fox and Olmstead, really had Fox had a little bit of park experience, Olmstead had none at all and that they could take these challenges and work it all out and sort of overcome the challenge of the reservoir and the narrow site and the criss crossing roads, is really astonishing.

The most interesting parallel between the two projects is the way that they were designed. Because in a curious way, Central Park started off just like the World Trade Center. It was an in house project. The in house project in the case of Central Park was designed by Egbert Vielle [phonetic] who was the engineer for the park and like all engineers, fancied himself a designer. Sorry if there are any engineers here.

He made a design and they didnít have a public meeting but the reaction to the design was very similar to the reaction of the first World Trade Center design which was we must be able to do better than this. So there was a great outcry led, probably as the other outcry was led, journalists and eventually the decision was made to hold a competition.

So exactly as happened with the World Trade Center and in fact to hold an international competition. There were 33 entries. It wasnít a national because one Frenchman sent in an entry. Otherwise it was strictly American. But not strictly New York. There were I think probably half a dozen or more entries from people who worked for the city on the park. Vielle himself entered. Olmstead who was an employee of the city and park entered.

But there were architects, landscape Ė I should say landscape gardeners from Chicago and other cities who also entered. There was a $2000 prize. So the city was much more munificent in those days than it is today. That was a lot of money in the mid 19th Century, the equivalent of Olmsteadís annual salary.

So there are some similarities. They are both big projects. They are both challenging projects. There are also significant differences. The biggest difference about Central Park, was that Central Park was in fact a suburban park. Thatís how we would describe it, because there was nothing there, expect a few suburban houses and country houses. The city was much further south.

So when you went to the park, it was like going to Four Flags or something and there was this thing out there that you had to get to. It wasnít a city park that you walk to. It was this big, huge, wonderful place that was pretty far from the city, which of course had enormous importance, because in designing the park, you didnít have to worry about the city, except for those four awkward roads crossing the park, because the city grew up around and the city formed itself to the park and the avenues became special because they were on the park and so that become more expensive real estate, so it was higher than the streets in the back.

So thatís an enormous difference from the World Trade Center of course, which is about repair and the city is already there. Much as I think many people would like it, they would like to sort of see something totally different, totally new. It seems to me thatís a very reckless way to approach it. Itís attractive. Itís splashy, but itís the wrong thing to do. Itís about repairing and knitting back into the city. Olmstead didnít have to knit back because there was nothing there.

As the plans Ė I was going to say whoever designs it and I still think itís up in the air, as those plans mature, itís going to be about fitting it into whatís there. Itís not really about creating anything new.

Another major difference was the reason that they were able to build Central Park in the first place, was that New York City was incredibly rich, booming, growing, bustling place and so nobody, certainly that I came across, ever had the slightest doubt that the city would grow to the end of the island and that the Central Park would be in the center of the city. That was a given.

There was no skepticism. There was no doubt and the city at that point, was down around 10th Street or 15th Street, the absolute edge of the city. But everything knew because it was obvious, New York was going to become bigger and just keep going.

So thatís a very different situation than Lower Manhattan where people have been leaving Lower Manhattan. Itís been losing population and the whole economic future is not so clear and the notion of how many people, are people really going to live there? Are people going to work there? There are a lot of questions.

So the atmosphere, the economic atmosphere is very different between the two projects. So thatís important to keep in mind when we are making this comparison.

The other thing thatís easy to forget about Central Park is it had a very, very long lead time. Obviously World Trade Center sadly had no lead time at all, it just happened.

But people in New York were talking about Central Park for many years. William Cohen Bryant wrote an editorial in 1844, which is about 23 years before the competition. Andrew Jackson Downing wrote essays about the need for Central Park in New York City.

So it was something that people had been talking about, debating pros and cons. They certainly didnít agree where it should be but everybody agreed that New York should have a park and there was a lot of leg work and sort of ground laying going on. For obvious reasons, thatís not the case at all with the World Trade Center, because itís something that caught us all unawares.

But it seems to me that in some ways, we are rushing into it. In some ways we have to. In other ways I am not so sure we will have to but Iíll come back to that. But thatís a very big difference. We don't have in a sense, we certainly don't have the luxury of debating this for 23 years. Thatís not Ė we do need to do things immediately and things have to happen and Iíve written about this. Especially underground, things have to happen almost immediately. You have the start connecting things together. You can't just have a hole in the ground.

The third big difference between the two it seems to me, was that the public was absolutely not involved in the design or decisions except indirectly through elected representatives in Central Park. It was certainly the elite who made the decisions.

I don't think that necessarily means we would have done a better park. When I was thinking about it, it occurred to me, we could have gotten a lot worse park if the public had been involved. For example, the Frenchman and we have descriptions, we don't have the drawings. The French entry for Central Park, was a real axial, formal, dramatic French Bozar plan for Central Park with a great big kind of mall down the center and buildings and kind of a grande parley [phonetic] type of project.

I think the New York public would have loved that and I wonder if what the New York public would have thought of Olmstead and Foxís plan, which is like a whole bunch of trees and there are kind of squiggles and a lot of trees and no grand buildings and there is the mall but itís not all lined up on the city streets. There is no triumphal arch where you come into the park. There is none of the stuff which the public probably would have liked.

I have never understood the miracle of how such a low keyed design got chosen, because except perhaps that the politicians were worried about the cost of the elaborate alternatives, because there were many alternatives which had buildings in the park, where there would be a great exhibition hall in the middle of Central Park or some kind of band sort of amphitheater. There were all sorts of proposals like that.

Olmstead and Voxís plan in fact had no buildings at all and they grudgingly added buildings as the park as being built. But Olmstead wrote in his document that had accompanied the plan that this was going to be a park and there shouldnít be any buildings at all. The buildings were in the city and the park was going to be different.

But thatís a big difference, the involvement of the public and I am not suggesting that we go back to those days, not because I don't think itís a good idea, but itís much too late. I mean we need, this is how things are done. But thatís a very big difference.

So when we look back at that time, there were a lot of things much, much worse about it. But from a designerís point of view, if you had a good idea and if you could get the backing as Olmstead and Vox did, and stick to it, you could get it done.

Some of the lessons it seems to me, we could learn from the comparisons. The construction of Central Park either took a long time or a short time, depending on how you look at it. But it was about a 16 year project. There was this long, before it actually started there was all this debate, all this political debate about where the site should be. Then there was the competition.

Construction started right away in the first half of the park, the southern half, closest to the city, in some ways the most elaborate part with the mall and the lakes and so on, was built in about five years, five or six years and people were using the park very quickly.

On the other hand, the northern part and the completion of the park took quite a Ė really slowed down so it was another sort of dozen years, close to, before it was all finished in 1874. In some ways, in the modern sense, 16 years is a long time and what is troubling about that to me at least, is that we are not a very steadfast kind of culture. We are very fickle.

The idea that we could do something for 16 years and sort of keep our nose to the grindstone and not get distracted by something else is frankly troubling because it will require a lot of sort of stick-to-it-ness to do a project like the World Trade Center and to keep going, because it also will take a long time, probably not 16 years, but certainly a long time.

In the Central Park story, when we look at Central Park today, by and large it seems like such a wonderful place. It could have been really quite less wonderful if all the well-intentioned suggestions had been taken that were passed along both from citizens, from politicians, from mayors and so on, during that construction period.

There was a gentleman who wanted a race course built on Central Park to sort of be more interesting than just walking around looking at birds. The monuments, the original park didnít have any monuments and there was always debates about every time there was a monument, would it be put up, wouldnít it, how big should it be.

Some of the debates all Olmstead and Vox lost and some of them they won. There was never a grand entry to the park, which I think is one of its charms, that you kind of drift into it from wherever you are and nobody is telling you this is the right way to enter the park. Itís a very democratic park in that sense.

But particularly during the construction, because thatís when itís easiest to make changes, Olmstead and Vox had this constant barrage of improvements which they had to struggle against and resist. I think very much the same thing is going to happen with the World Trade Center site and again we need somebody who is able to kind of resist the various forces that are going to pull the project one way or another and which won't necessarily improve it.

I mean the idea that if you get a lot of people in a room, you always come out with the best solution, I certainly as a designer can't accept. When I look at Central Park itís clear too that the fact that they stuck to a certain vision was important.

The vision of Central Park also, itís very easy now to look back and say, well of course we wanted to created this green oasis surrounded by so much city, by this very dense vertical city, which of course neither of them really knew would happen. They knew it would be a big city but not that it would be vertical.

But I think the fact that we got Central Park was because Olmstead and Vox had a very clear idea, particularly Olmstead, of the sort of a social vision of the park, that this wasnít about beautifying the city. It wasnít about making New York more beautiful, more famous, admired around the world.

There were a lot of New Yorkers who built the park for that reason and wanted a park because London had a park and Paris had a park and the rich New Yorkers who had traveled, had seen those parks. They said well you can't have a world city like without one of these grand parks and we want one of those. I don't think that was ever Olmstead and Voxís ideal.

They kept their sort of eye on this ideal of what the park really was. It seems to me that thatís also very important in repairing that site in Lower Manhattan. Itís not about a memorial in my opinion. There is a memorial. But itís about repairing the city in the same way as the park was about creating a place for the citizens of New York to go to. It wasnít about beautifying New York or making a splendid sort of decoration for the city, although it is those things.

So I think a lesson of the park is the importance of having this very clear vision of what it is and what it isn't and sticking to it over the inevitably long period that the construction will actually take.

Finally, Iíll just close, it seems to me that the repairing of a city can't wait. It is something you have to rush and it will be better to wait and the results would be better if we had more time but we don't have more time and cities repair themselves the day after, whether itís a bombing or whatever the calamity, you just start immediately. Thatís why most cities repair themselves more or less in imitation of what was there, because there is not even time to think of anything else. You just start clearing out the rubble and I am thinking now of Europe after the second World War.

Memorials on the other hand, it seems to me, are not like that. Berlin is just building a holocaust memorial, a Lincoln memorial was built in 1923, quite a long time after Lincolnís death and it does take a long time to figure out precisely what it is you are memorializing and only time will actually tell you that. You just don't know initially.

Is it about the people who were killed? Is it about the event? Is it about the buildings or is it not about the buildings? You can't really answer those questions, except with that sense of perspective that only time can give and probably with the space of generations as well, not the people who were involved.

It sounds odd but when we look at memorials, that tends to be what happens. So I feel that we need to put that really on the back burner and I am concerned about this sort of rush that we have to memorialize. Although, the rush we have to rebuild, is absolutely the right thing to do. Thank you.

[Applause]

I have been told to open the floor up for questions until by two oíclock. There is a gentleman in the back. Oh, I should ask you, there is a microphone. Itís only purpose is to help in recording your questions. So itís not actually an amplifier and you will need to speak up.

MR. MICHAEL MEYERS: I am Michael Meyers, I am the Executive Director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. At my table today are the parents of the Speaker of the City Counsel of New York. So my question relates to the question of government and parks.

Parks have been known to be public spaces, particularly in New York City which is a 24/7 town. Before the parks were beautified, and redecorated, with their help and the governmentís help and the private sectorís help, there used to be a place for the homeless and for people to sleep in and things like that.

So my question to you is, what in terms of park design and maintenance does one need to do to make sure that the parks are available to the public 24/7. Because the most beautiful parks, the ones we need, they close at dusk and certainly by 9:00 p.m. and they are not available to the people after a certain hour even in the summertime.

PROF. WITOLD RYBEZYNSKI: I am not a park designer or administrator, so I can't answer that question in sort of a direct way. But I can say that certainly when Central Park was first built, it was only open from 9:00 to 5:00. It had no street lights for one thing and it was about I think 40 or 50 years in, when Olmstead finally realized, partly from visiting parks in Europe, that lights would not actually be a bad thing in the park and the park started to be opened up at night and be used in longer periods.

There were also very strict rules about behavior in parks so, all I can say is, one of the interesting things about looking at parks historically, is that they are always a battleground. Itís where the ideas get sorted out and essentially there isn't a right way to use a park or a wrong way. Each generation has to decide do we have cars in the park, we don't have cars in the park, what activities do we allow in the park or not allow in the park? 

I think itís a kind of endless process. Every generation revisits. You know, you have dogs in the park, you don't and how do you handle that? As I said, I don't think there is a right and wrong and it is and I don't think we should feel that because there is a big fight, that something has gone wrong. I think in a funny way, those parks which are so calming and sort of attractive, are also these kind of battlegrounds and that seems to be in their character. Yes, Henry.

MR. HENRY STERN: Henry Stern, former park [interposing]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Henry, speak up.

MR. HENRY STERN: Okay. Thank you. Okay Henry Stern, former parks person. I agree with Ė it was quite an insight on dogs and cars that you go back and forth over the years and there is no right way. But as far as the question of the homeless, the last four mayors have felt the park should not be an overnight have for people who are mentally ill. [interposing]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: We can't hear you.

MR. HENRY STERN: Okay, the last four mayors have felt that the parks should not be overnight havens for people who are mentally ill, who use the park as a bathroom, who commit crimes, who are vulnerable to crimes and thatís been pretty standard. So I would hope that the next mayor, whoever he is, would not return the parks their position as psychiatric outstations.

But the question which I have is, itís also fascinating that you are sort of an Olmstead defending the park against buildings and encroachments. I don't know if you are aware that the last parks commissioners were about to do the same thing.

Nobody knows about the awful things you fought off and continue to and probably the greatest Ė the hardest things to fight off are inappropriate projects proposed by the mayor.

[Laughter]

Because he appoints you and you serve at his pleasure. There is no tenure. My question is, what do you see as the future for Central Park? It has a unique funding model with a Central Park Conservancy being enormously helpful. Do you think the experience of the Central Park Conservancy is reparable in other parks? Do you think that Ė what do you think is in the future of say the next 150 years for Central Park, what will happen?

PROF. WITOLD RYBEZYNSKI: When I was writing the book, I visited a number, as many as I could of Olmsteadís parks around the country and I would dare say that almost everyone of them has a conservancy. So the model has been very much followed and they all post date the New York example.

On the other hand, none of them has conservancies as remotely as effective i.e., wealthy. So the conservancies are doing small things, trying to rebuild the parks but in a very small way. One of the things that surprise me, maybe it shouldnít have but it did, is one of the reasons New York Central Park is so well known, is because itís in New York City and itís a big city and a lot of people come here.

But the other reason is that itís so well know, is that itís really the best preserved of all the Olmstead parks, except for Prospect Park in some ways. But all the other parks around the country have much, I mean a really degraded. I mean with golf courses cutting through them and buildings and you sort of have to really squint and kind of imagine what they were like, but there is nothing that comes as close as Central Park and Prospect Park in terms of fullness.

So I guess the trouble with the conservancy model is that no cities have the sort of monied individuals that New York does and other cities who have established conservancies have had to do it in a much more modest way. Yes.

MS. LYNDEN MILLER: My name is Lynden Miller and I have now been working in the park for 21 years. I think one of the big differences between Central Park and the Ground Zero which you alluded to, is that Central Park is green, has a connection with nature for people and that it was built to bring people together and to enhance the quality of life. That was as you know, was his vision that he stuck to.

What disturbs me, is that down in Ground Zero, there is very little mention of anything green, very little mention of even the word park and I was wondering what you these we can do to Ė we all I am sure feel that there should be some connection or a park down there, but when you read these articles that very seldom ever even mention the word.

PROF. WITOLD RYBEZYNSKI: I wouldnít jump to the conclusion that there should be a park there. I mean I don't know enough about what the park needs of that part of the city are and maybe they do need a park. But do they need it there? I don't know.

So I wouldnít sort of assume that there should be a park or that itís kind of an obvious thing. It might be a place for a park but maybe not [interposing]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: What about part of the site? I mean Iím not talking about the entire site.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: [unintelligible]

PROF. WITOLD RYBEZYNSKI: The question was, whether part of the site. But thatís the kind of negotiations that I wouldnít want to get into. I mean why assume that there should be a park and now we negotiate whether itís 50% or 25%.

From what I know of cities, there are parks in cities and there are parts of cities that don't have parks and I am not, I wouldnít assume that a park is somehow obvious there, at least to me itís not obvious that it needs a park. Yes.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Is that mike working?

MR. ARTHUR ROSENBLATT: Hi, Iím Arthur Rosenblatt.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Arthur you need to speak up.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Your speaker doesnít amplify.

MR. ARTHUR ROSENBLATT: It doesnít amplify?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: No.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: It just records.

MR. AURTHUR ROSENBLATT: It just records. Oh, Iím sorry. Arthur Rosenblatt. Henry and I served in the Parks Department together many years ago in the first Lindsey Administration. In first, I was the first Deputy Commissioner of Parks in the first Lindsey Administration.

I think there is a footnote to our sponsorship and a salute to the Manhattan Institute and itís mentioned in your book and many books about Olmstead, but itís important for friends of Manhattan Institute to know that Mr. Olmstead was also a correspondent on the conditions of slavery in the south for the New York Times.

His book, the Cotton Kingdom, is still in print. In addition, in 1865 and it may surprise some of you. It won't surprise Henry Stern. He was one of the founders of the Nation Magazine.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes.

MR. ARTHUR ROSENBLATT: Which is an interesting aspect. More important and the point I am bringing up and I am certain that half the audience know about these things, is that conditions that exist today may not exist some time later. Attitudes, impressions and one of the miracles of Central Park and the design and I think Lynden alluded to it, is the flexibility of that park and its ability to meet conditions as the century moved on.

Thatís something that I think is an important aspect of the design of Ground Zero, that it should be flexible in its composition and design so that it can accommodate change. In fact Mr. Olmstead was a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1870, after he had already said he didnít want any buildings in the park.

So the matrix for Central Park, has accommodated so much change, and I think this is an important aspect that hasnít been addressed in the design of Ground Zero, that there are many aspects of design that should be made flexible. I would like to hear your comments on that.

PROF. WITOLD RYBEZYNSKI: Itís an interesting point and itís certainly true that Central Park has somehow been able to molded to different situations and I think partly thatís the design and partly itís simply that New Yorkers have taken care of it and havenít done irrevocable harm.

I mean they have done harm but you can back pedal later and those cars in there will come out one day and you know, the harm won't have been done. The roads will become much more like they were intended to be.

Itís interesting, I was just thinking as you were speaking that Olmsteadís design can't really be called -his idea of landscape gardening isn't really new in 1850. He was most influenced by what he had seen in England and most influenced not by the current things he saw in England, but by very old things which were about 200 years old by the time he saw them, these landscapes from the 17th Century.

So perhaps being very conservative, which Olmstead certainly was, in his design ideas, helped that. He did things that he had seen, that he knew worked. He knew the kind of visual impact of those landscapes. So he wasnít sort of wildly trying something that nobody had ever done before.

He did Ė the one thing that he did that nobody had done before, was make it so rough and leave those rocks exposed and give it the sense of a kind of forest rather than a garden. That was an experiment. That was not something he had seen in Europe and that was new.

But otherwise, you could say that there was a great deal of conservatism in his design which maybe has helped it survive, because itís based on a very old tradition of landscape gardening. Yes.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: If I might follow up on the questions asked by Mr. Stern and Mr. Rosenblatt, specifically about change. I remember during the Dinkins Administration, there was an idea floated which struck me as a very bad idea, to fill in the reservoir so that people could play softball which would give more people access to a greater area of the park.

Can you just kind of speak a little bit as to how Ė I mean I grew up on Central Park West and I used to love to run around the track and I loved that vista. So I thought this was a very bad idea. But how crucial is the reservoir to the water supply of New York? Is that likely to change?

PROF. WITOLD RYBEZYNSKI: I don't know. Maybe somebody here does. I really can't answer your question. Do you know?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes. Actually the reservoir is not necessary. In fact, the old reservoir immediately to the west of the museum, was filled in, in the mid Ď30s by Moses. That reservoir led to the old reservoir in Bryant Park that was dismantled when the library was built. In fact, the tunnel that lies immediately below the Metropolitan Museum is a 32 foot diameter tunnel.

Itís now a store room and it runs 1000 feet in length as a flat floor now, was the feeder to the reservoir on 42nd Street. So there is a lot thatís taken place. I remember and Henry may remember, in the Lindsey white paper on parks, drafted by myself and Thomas Helving [phonetic] if you recall, there was a proposal that since the reservoir at that time was perceived not to be necessary to maintain water pressure, because they were building the new water tunnel, that that reservoir be considered as a bathing beach with a sand beach.

These may have seemed lunatic at the time and in fact they were rejected. Nevertheless, there are many, many thoughts that have come up over the years regarding the use of the reservoir. I hate to see the water disappear. But it is indeed not necessary to maintain the water pressure in the city of New York.

MS. LYNDEN MILLER: But the Central Park is a national landmark, so I don't think you could ever get rid of [interposing]

PROF. WITOLD RYBEZYNSKI: I am not even raising those questions Lynden.

MS. LYNDEN MILLER: No. In answer to this gentleman.

PROF. WITOLD RYBEZYNSKI: It is a national landmark. You can't tough a stone.

[Laughter]

MS. LYNDEN MILLER: Not a pebble.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: You can tough a national landmark as far as I know, [unintelligible] the change. With a New York City landmark, thatís the beauty you have to [unintelligible] since 73% of the earthís surface is water, there is nothing wrong with having 15% of the Central Park surface being water too.

MS. LYNDEN MILLER: Iím interested in this issue of memorializing. You may be familiar with a book recently by W. Zebalt [phonetic] the German writer. It was published past your mausoleum, which he was talking about the area bombardment of Germany, of German cities of World War II and criticizing German writers because none of them had written about this subject, you know, that there needed to be some kind of thought and so forth.

I like the you know, the idea that a memorial really needs time to filter down. But what do you think Ė you know lately Iíve noticed lots of memorial springing up all over the place. We see lots of yellow ribbons. You know, we see flowers by the sides of roads where people have been you know, murdered or whatever, accidents even.

Just general and perhaps you would comment a bit more on memorializing and perhaps also a bit, I am curious about your thoughts on say, one of the more prominent memorials of recent time is the Vietnam memorial in Washington. Itís a lot.

PROF. WITOLD RYBEZYNSKI: I wouldnít say I want to wade into a list. But I am doing a seminar with students now about memorials and one of the things that came and I asked them just to go into the city of Philadelphia and bring back sort of records of memorials.

One of the things that occurred to me looking at those and itís raised by what you talked about, these sort of spontaneous memorials, is that I think today one has to recognize that there are degrees of authenticity in memorials.

I think when a city builds a memorial to an event that happened centuries away in some other country, itís really doubtful to me that thatís an authentic memorial.

[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A]

[START TAPE 2, SIDE A]

Whereas, when you memorialize a member of the family who is killed in an accident, that is what memorials have always done. So I think that we build, we and I mean cities groups, institutions, do build memorials which have not much authenticity.

I hate to say they were just tourist attractions but thatís how it looks to me.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: What about [unintelligible]?

PROF. WITOLD RYBEZYNSKI: That I would say borderline. Thatís in a group showing off and I would question that, lest itís slightly more authentic because he was a Polish king. But he has real Ė like he never visited New York. He never visited America.

Itís like Ė itís really about, itís like the many Columbus memorials around the country.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: What about [unintelligible]?

PROF. WITOLD RYBEZYNSKI: I think that was an authentic memorial. I think at the time it was definitely Ė

AUDIENCE MEMBER: [unintelligible]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Wait, you have to have a [unintelligible]

PROF. WITOLD RYBEZYNSKI: I think, just to finish off, I think whatís interesting about the really authentic memorials, the personal ones, the ones where, whether itís Lady Di or somebodyís family member, is they do show that we need memorials and that all the kind of academic discussions about your post mortem man is an even more Ė obviously we need memorials and people need to memorialize and they do.

I think thatís what so in a sense, encouraging about those spontaneous memorials.

MALE VOICE: Okay, two more short questions.

MR. HAL BROMM: Hal Brom, Historic Districts Counsel and I am also a resident of Tribecka. One of the things that happened after 9/11 was that New York New Visions and a number of other groups, sprung up very quickly to be part of the process of looking at what should happen with the site.

One of the things that my organization pushed very strongly for, was a reintegration of the World Trade Center 16 acre site with the Lower Manhattan Historic Street grid which had been obliterated when the Trade Center was built, creating a windswept plaza that very few people made any actual use of.

I wonder how you feel about the fact that Greenwich Street has now become an integrated part of the new plan and some of the cross streets.

PROF. WITOLD RYBEZYNSKI: Well I am very much of the same mind. Repairing in that case meant restoring something that had been there and [interposing]

MR. HAL BRUMM: Reweaving.

PROF. WITOLD RYBEZYNSKI: Yes. So I would very much support that and I think thatís a good aspect of the current plans. The last one.

MR. JOSEPH ROSENBLATT: Could I just add a [unintelligible] I am Joseph Rosenblatt, when the committee that was appointed or elected or selected, to interview architects and select the winner and so forth, that committee was appointed up in Albany by a governor or that committee was appointed in New York City by the Mayor or who? How did that committee come together and how many were on it and how did Albany and New York City work together to get this plan moving?

PROF. WITOLD RYBEZYNSKI: I don't know the answer to that at all. I do know and your implication is true, that it was a kind of secret committee because they certainly didnít publicize who was on it and I don't like the short list they came up with.

But I don't know who appointed and I don't know if thereís somebody here maybe who does. I don't know what that process was Iím afraid.

MALE VOICE: Okay. Thank you very much for coming.

PROF. WITOLD RYBEZYNSKI: Thank you.

[Applause]

[END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]

[END OF RECORDING]

 


Manhattan Institute.

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MANHATTAN INSTITUTE FORUM

Speaker:

Witold Rybczynski, Martin & Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism, Architecture Faculty, University of Pennsylvania; and Author, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century (Simon & Schuster, 1999)

Introductory Remarks:

Julia Vitullo-Martin, Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute

THIS TRANSCRIPT HAS NOT BEEN EDITED, AND MAY CONTAIN TYPOGRAPHICAL OR PHONETIC ERRORS.


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