Calvert Vaux

Calvert Vaux

Calvert Vaux was an architect and park planner, who is most known for his work in the creation of Central Park in New York City and Prospect Park in Brooklyn in the 1800s. His chosen title, “landscape architect,” evolved from his strong emphasis on the part nature played in his designs. In his own words, he felt “Nature first and 2d and 3d – Architecture after a while” when creating a park setting. A talented architect, he was overshadowed by the outgoing associates he worked with who received more recognition than he did, although he was one of the most important contributors to the emerging American park movement of the time.1

Vaux was born on December 20, 1824, in London, England, the son of a surgeon. He attended the Merchant Taylors’ School for four years, where he received a classical education of Latin, literature, art, and history. He also studied at a private school, and by 1843 he began his architectural studies as a pupil of Lewis Nockalls Cottingham, who was one of the leaders of the English Gothic Revival. Cottingham was a well-respected architect, who had built country houses, planned new streets and urban homes in London, and designed banks, hotels, and other commercial buildings as well as published a book on Greek and Roman architecture. He had a large library and an extensive collection of medieval furniture and architectural fragments, which aided in Vaux acquiring a broad and deep knowledge of architecture, both in its practice and its history.

Vaux developed a strong friendship with fellow architect George Truefitt, who also studied with Cottingham. In the summer of 1846 the two of them went together on a walking tour of France, Germany, and Belgium to study architecture on the Continent. They made many sketches of historic buildings, architectural details, and panoramic views. Vaux was known to have a great ability in sketching, both in black and white and in color, and he also made many notes about nature’s interaction in forest and field. This experience led to the developing of his concern with the rural and urban contexts of buildings and their relationships to the land and to other buildings, which eventually influenced his role in the urban parks movement.

After the death of Cottingham in 1847, his apprenticeship was cut short. Vaux earned a living as a letterer of maps, while he sharpened his architectural skills. He was a member of the newly established Architectural Association, which was, in part, formed as an outgrowth of the frustration that many young men had felt in trying to be a part of the architectural profession. The Association sought to legitimize the architectural profession, while pushing against the tyranny of the established architects and the medieval system of apprenticeship.

In 1850 Vaux was introduced to Andrew Jackson Downing, an American who many considered as America’s foremost authority on horticulture and domestic architecture. Downing had become an articulate critic and theorist of architecture, had written several books on the subject, and was sought after for his landscaping advice. However, he lacked sufficient practical knowledge to plan and execute designs on his own. Downing traveled to England in search of an assistant, and the secretary of the Architectural Association introduced him to Vaux. After viewing his drawings in the annual exhibition the Association held each year, Downing offered him a position on the spot, which Vaux quickly accepted. He traveled with Downing to America a short time later and worked with him as an assistant in his office in Newburgh, New York, 60 miles north of New York City. His work with Downing proved successful, and within a few short months, Vaux was made his partner.2

Downing generated numerous commissions for domestic architecture in the Hudson Valley and East Coast cities, and this gave Vaux the opportunity to show his skill in residential planning in general and masonry construction in particular. In 1851 Downing was asked by President Millard Fillmore to design the public grounds in Washington between the Capitol building, the Smithsonian Institution, and the White House. Working on this project expanded Vaux’s valuable experience in landscape design on a larger scale. When Downing died in a tragic steamboat explosion and fire in 1852, Vaux completed their commissions, working with Frederick Clarke Withers, another architect employed by Downing.3

While living in the Hudson Valley, Vaux made friends with many of the American landscape painters of his day. He enjoyed the beauty of the area and often enjoyed walking and sketching trips with his artistic friends. A close relationship with landscape painter Jervis McEntee resulted in Vaux marrying McEntee’s sister, Mary, in 1856.4

The year 1856 also marked the year Vaux became an American citizen. He and Mary moved to New York City to take advantage of greater opportunities for his career. In 1857 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine featured Vaux’s work in a series of articles. This led to the publishing of his book, Villas and Cottages, which was one of the most influential domestic design model books of the Victorian era. The book contained fifty designs ranging from modest country homes, log houses, school houses, churches, and farm houses to villas on a larger scale. This book and his other writings sought to promote the importance of artistic beauty in design as well as the need for using architects to incorporate natural settings into their work.5

The New York State legislature enacted into law in 1853 the setting aside of more than 750 acres of land central to Manhattan Island to create America’s first major landscaped public park, Central Park.6 Vaux urged the commissioners of Central Park to establish a competition to determine its design. He argued that the original plan put forward by the Park’s chief engineer was “a disgrace to the memory of Mr. Downing,” who was an early advocate of the Park. He convinced Frederick Law Olmsted to join him in submitting a design plan they called Greensward. Their design was chosen in April 1858, and they were hired to implement their plan.7

Olmsted learned a great deal from the superior knowledge of architecture and landscape design that Vaux possessed while working together on the Central Park project. Olmsted acknowledged that Vaux was responsible for the numerous structures that were erected there to enhance the pastoral mood so important to Vaux. He designed over forty bridges as well as many park structures including the Bethesda Terrace, which was considered his greatest contribution to the park.

During the Civil War, Vaux continued to work on Central Park, while Olmsted left for other pursuits. After years of urging, Vaux was able to convince Olmsted to rejoin him in 1865. They immediately started working on Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.8 This was one of the most admired of their urban parks. They formed Olmsted, Vaux and Company and were nationally famous by then, which led to work on a number of large parks in major American cities.9

Beginning in 1868 their company was involved for two years on the planning of the Riverside, Illinois community, a suburb of Chicago. With the main plan to secure enough space for recreation and scenic areas available to all residents, they designed the streets to follow the curve of the land and avoided right angle intersections that created more public space.10 Also in 1868 they were commissioned to plan a comprehensive municipal park system, the first of its kind, in Buffalo, New York, that was composed of three major parks that were interconnected by a series of pathways.11

In 1872 the firm was dissolved, although Olmsted and Vaux did partner later to do a few projects, that included the General Plan for the State Reservation at Niagara and Downing Park in Newburgh in honor of Vaux’s first partner. Vaux, in partnership with Frederick Clarke Withers and George R. Radford, designed a series of major hospital asylum complexes. In 1874 he designed the first buildings for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.12 He submitted a grand design for the Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia in 1876 that proposed to enclose 20 acres under pointed iron trusses forming 120-foot-high interior arches. Although the design was the preferred design, because of cost limitations, the subsequent plans chosen were along more conventional lines drawn by local architects.13

In his later years he worked primarily in building design rather than in landscape design. In 1879 Vaux was asked to design the first of an eventual dozen shelters and schools for the Children’s Aid Society. In 1882 he designed a model for decent tenement housing for the Improved Dwellings Association of New York.14 He had originally advocated for the construction of apartment buildings in 1857, but had been met with little enthusiasm at that time.15

On November 19, 1895, while visiting his son in Brooklyn, Vaux went for a walk and was last seen near a pier. His body was found the next day and he had died of drowning at the age of 70.16

  • 1. O’Gorman, James F. “The Hidden Half of Central Park.” The New York Times. 22 March 1998. < http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/22/reviews/980322.22ogormt.html > 12 Dec. 2016.
  • 2. Kowsky, Francis R. Country, Park & City. The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux 1824-1895. New York City, NY: Oxford University Press. 1998.
  • 3. Alex, William. “Calvert Vaux: Architect and Planner.” The Hudson Valley Regional Review. September 1990, Volume 7, Number 2. < http://www.hudsonrivervalley.org/review/pdfs/hvrr_7pt2_alex.pdf > 12 Dec. 2016.
  • 4. Op. cit., Kowsky. Country, Park & City.
  • 5. Op. cit., Alex.
  • 6. “Park History.” Central Park Conservancy. < http://www.centralparknyc.org/visit/park-history.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/ > 12 Dec. 2016.
  • 7. Op. cit., Alex.
  • 8. Kowsky, Francis R. “Calvert Vaux: The Unsung Hero of Landscape Architecture.” History of Buffalo. < http://buffaloah.com/a/archs/ov/spire/index.html > 12 Dec. 2016.
  • 9. Op. cit., Alex.
  • 10. “Riverside, Illinois.” FrederickLawOmsted.com < http://www.fredericklawolmsted.com/riverside.html > 12 Dec. 2016.
  • 11. “Calvert Vaux.” FrederickLawOlmsted.com < http://www.fredericklawolmsted.com/calvert_vaux.htm > 12 Dec. 2016.
  • 12. Op. cit., Alex.
  • 13. Op. cit., O’Gorman.
  • 14. Op. cit., Alex.
  • 15. Op. cit., Kowsky. “Calvert Vaux: The Unsung Hero of Landscape Architecture.”
  • 16. “The Mysterious Death of Calvert Vaux.” The Bowery Boys: New York City History. < http://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2015/11/the-mysterious-death-of-calvert-vaux-120-years-ago-today.html > 12 Dec. 2016.