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Central Park: the largest religious art work in New York City, Part 2. Series: God in NYC gardens

In 1858 Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux started their design of Central Park. Olmsted was particularly taken by theologian Horace Bushnell.

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Central Park is “a specimen of God’s handiwork” that its designer Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) said would heal “the hundreds of thousands of tired workers” of their “vital exhaustion,” “nervous irritation” and “constitutional depressions.”[i] As Vice President of the New York State Charities Aid Association, he circulated appeals to ministers asking that they send to the park their congregants who needed recuperation from stress and illness.

His and Calvert Vaux’s design of Central Park artfully and systematically provided vistas and paths that would make one feel like the special object of a loving God and a beautiful city. Olmsted said every path, rock, flower and tree had a functional purpose in the creation of a healing scene. The park would then revive “the poetic element of human nature” and exercise a “harmonizing and refining influence…favorable to courtesy, self-control and temperance.”[ii]


Designing a subtle display of the presence of God in Central Park

In 1858 Olmsted and Vaux were given the nod to proceed with designing Central Park. The land had already been cleared of inhabitants such as the African Americans in Seneca Village and its structures which included two churches, the African Union Methodist Church and the American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

Vaux had come from England after apprenticing on Lewis Nockalls Cottingham’s project to return Hereford Cathedral to its Romanesque appearance. Olmsted led in the

Vaux designed one house of worship, the Chapel at Beth Olom Cemetary, Brooklyn

designing of the landscape elements and supervised construction while Vaux led in the designing of structures such as bridges and archways.

Olmsted was particularly taken by theologian Horace Bushnell’s belief that one is most influenced by God through “unconscious influences” from one’s social circles and natural environment. The concept launches off the premise that Christ’s love is more influential than appeals to logic. Olmsted wrote, “When our ministers will not feel it their duty to preach Christ solely to the understanding, but let Christ come as Love and not as Logic, the world will grow better faster than if ever has done before.”

He and his friend Charles Loring Brace sat riveted in the pew on February 20, 1842 when Bushnell preached his immensely influential sermon “Unconscious Influence.”  Brace wrote a friend that the sermon “affected my whole life.”[iii]

The pastor began his sermon with a quotation from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John so brief that most of his audience probably missed it: “There went in also that other disciple.” After hearing from Mary Magdalene that Jesus had risen from the dead, John and Peter hurried to check out the cave of Jesus entombment. John arrived first but hesitated to enter. Only after Peter arrived and entered the cave without hesitation did John follow and both “see and believe.”

Bushnell then pointed out how every person hesitates to action until unconsciously influenced by the action of another. “And just so, unawares to himself, is every man the whole race through, laying hold of his fellow-man, to lead him where otherwise he would not go. We overrun the boundaries of our personality—we flow together. A Peter leads a John, a John goes after a Peter, both of them unconscious of any influence exerted or received. And thus our life and conduct are ever propagating themselves, by a low of social contagion, throughout the circles and times in which we live.”

The heart of Central Park is the message of the angel at Bethesda Fountain: "For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had." Gospel of John, 5:2-4

The “unconscious influences” like those of Peter’s action on John are so powerful because a person feels that the feeling toward action comes out of his or her natural convictions. Indeed, Bushnell preached that unconscious influence flows out of one's essential character. “The Bible calls the good man’s life a light, and it is the nature of light to flow out spontaneously in all directions…”  So, our influence may be unnoticed by ourselves and flow out to others with its source and presence unobserved much as the powerful underlying forces of nature work together to produce awe without us able to pinpoint exactly why.

In Central Park the awe of God’s creation is one way that its environment convinces the heart before the mind understands. In all of Olmsted’s designs he systematically worked to eliminate all elements that might distract the viewer from this unconscious delight of the park.

The landscaper also liked this principle of Bushnell’s because it allowed the person walking through the park the freedom to formulate his or her own response. Olmsted certainly felt that for him the Park’s panorama spoke about God’s glory, but he felt that other people should have the freedom to come to a different conclusion. What Olmsted thought would affect all people of all beliefs—in God or not in God, was an experience of a singular refreshment, a high appreciation of the city and its peoples and a growth of brotherly feeling between diverse peoples. “The most important and constant influence that people exert on each other, Bushnell believed, was not verbal, but rather a silent emanation of their real character that showed in their habitual conduct and made itself felt at a level below that of consciousness.” Olmsted recalled how he grew to appreciate nature by watching his mostly silent father enjoy nature during their walks.

Like other Christians, Bushnell emphasized service to others, an outworking of the Golden Rule. Olmsted wrote that the purpose of park design must start above all with this principle. “Service must precede art, since all turf, trees, flowers, fences, walks, water, paint, plaster, posts and pillars in or under which there is no a purpose or direct utility or service are inartistic if not barbarous.”[iv]


Central Park as a civilizing force

Olmsted summarized the hoped-for effects of the park as civilizing the populace to virtuous habits of self-control and serving one another. Olmsted recalled theologian Bushnell’s observation in his 1847 sermon “Barbarism the First Danger” that “a new settlement like the United States “involved a tendency to…a relapse toward barbarism…”[v] The immorality aboard ships of immigrants, the slum and the frontier threatened to throw the United States democracy into a war in which “the strong, the cunning, the sly and selfish rule over and spoil the sick, the simple…”[vi] Bushnell prescribed an ordering of society according the principles of Christianity so that the good are reinforced, the weak strengthened and the depraved find no favorable place to act out their wretched dramas.

Just in case the park’s ambiance was not enough to regard the moral and discourage the evil-doer, Olmsted established the Central Park Keepers to restrain the “many ignorant, selfish and willful [persons] of perverted tastes and lawless dispositions.”[vii] Their primary task was to make sure that the park design wasn’t changed even in its smallest particulars. He claimed “that every foot of the Park’s surface, every tree and bush, as well as, every arch, roadway, and walk had been fixed where it is with a purpose, and upon its being so used that it may continue to serve that purpose to the best advantage, and upon it not being otherwise, depends its value.”[viii] The Keepers arrested a couple of hundred miscreants a year. In 1860, for example, they made 228 arrests, half of which were for mere violations of park ordinances (e.g. using indecent language, throwing stones, defacing property, picking flowers or walking on the grass). Drunken and disorderly conduct made up another third.[ix]


Reviving the civic spirit of democracy

Olmsted and his contemporaries tried various ways to keep the democratic civic spirit strong. They feared that capitalism, the dominance of ruffians over poor immigrants on their way to the United States, the slum experiences and the lawless frontier undermined the sense of unity, trust and mutual concern necessary for a democracy. (This section is indebted to Roulier 2010.)

Many Europeans also wondered if a new nation in a wilderness could sustain a democracy or would be forced back into subjugation as a colony or under an authoritarianism as an imperial colony or a home-grown dictator. Even if the democracy survived, might its streets be red with the rule of tooth and claw of gangs and bossism?

A French visitor, Alexis de Tocqueville, discovered that the American democracy was raw but thriving. He argued then against the view of American space as a wild

Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America explained the role of religion in creating democratic citizens.

wilderness. Rather, he found the future of American democracy being carried onward by “the habits of the heart” (religion and character) and “the small platoons of civic, fraternal and church organizations. Much later, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner made a contrary argument. He posited that the great open spaces of the United States promoted the democratic spirit while the city and town weighed the nation toward bossism and chaos.

Olmsted’s group of friends and allies laid their hopes somewhere between de Tocqueville who minimized the spatial element in the formation of American character and Turner who maximized the importance of space in the form of the frontier.

Charles Eliot Norton, Washington Irving, and Henry Adams all decried the excesses and immorality of their day. Norton suggested that they needed cities that would mature civic virtue and fraternity. Andrew Downing, the leading landscape gardener of the mid-19th Century, urged that designers needed to plan parks that would nurture a “more fraternal spirit to our social life.” In a series of letters from 1849-1850 he argued for the “necessity of a great park” for New York City. His magazine Horticulturalist published Olmsted’s first essay in which he observed the democratic qualities of a publicly financed park in England. Later, Olmsted argued that parks should be designed so that they sparked the “gregarious” instinct of people, the need to assemble and mingle in large groups. A park feature like the Mall in Central Park or the “Concert Groves” in Prospect Park would bring people of all classes, ethnicities and beliefs together. The park created a sense of civic fraternity that went beyond neighborliness and family loyalty.

“Consider that the New York and Brooklyn Park are the only places in those associated cities where, in this eighteen hundred and seventieth year after Christ, you will find a body of Christians coming together, and with an evident glee in the prospect of coming together, all classes largely represented, with a common purpose, not at all intellectual, competitive with none, disposing to jealousy and spiritual or intellectual pride toward none, each individual adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of all others, all helping to the greater happiness of each. You may thus often see vast numbers of persons brought closely together, poor and rich, young and old, Jew and Gentile…I have looked studiously but vainly among the for a single face completely unsympathetic with the prevailing expression of good nature and light-heartedness.”[x]

Tocqueville emphasized the religious aspects of American civic fraternity, Turner not much. Here again, Olmsted struck a middling position.  He was perhaps overoptimistic about the evangelistic potential of Central Park, but it still effects a testimony of sublime beauty.

The faith element in Olmstead’s life seems to have receded with time. He came to look upon his early agonizing as a “queer” situation. Yet, his closest friend remained Brace and toward the end of his life he turned his thoughts to God and started studying the Bible again.[xi] The “unconscious influence” of Central Park reached back out to its designer.

Grand Day at Bethesda Fountain


Read, see part 1

For more on God in NYC gardens:

Gardens of Vishnu and Shiva

Back to the Garden: an a national movement to "bear fruit in every good deed"

The Biblical Gardens of NYC

The Medieval Gardens of NYC

Click here to buy Official Central Park app.

Works consulted:

Charles E. Beveridge. 2000 Fall. “Olmsted—his essential theory,” Nineteenth Century. The journal of the Victorian Society in America. 20, 2, 32-37.   pp. 1-6.

Charles Loring Brace. 1894. The life of Charles Loring Brace: chiefly told in his own letters, volume 3. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Robert Lansing Edwards. 1992. Of singular genius, of singular grace. A biography of Horace Bushnell. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.

Albert Fein. 1969. Frederick Law Olmsted: His development as a theorist and designer of the American city. Phd dissertation, Columbia University.

Daniel Walker Howe. 1983 Sept. The social science of Horace Bushnell. The Journal of American History. 70, 2, 305-325.

Francis R. Kowsky. 1998. County, Park & City. The Architecture and life of Calvert Vaux 1824-1895. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Justin Martin. 2011. Genius of Place. The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted. New York: Da Capo Press.

Robert Mugerauer. 1995. Interpreting environments: tradition, deconstruction and hermeneutics. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Robert Bruce Mullin. 2002. The Puritan as Yankee: A life of Horace Bushnell. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.

Stephen O’Connor. 2004. Orphan Trains: the story of Charles Loring Brace and the children he saved and failed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Frederick Law Olmsted. 1852. Walks and talks of an American farmer in England. New York: George P. Putnam.

Frederick Law Olmsted. 1977. The papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Vol 1. The formative Years 1822 to 1852. Charles Capen McLaughlin, editor. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Frederick Law Olmsted.1990. “Notes on the pioneer condition,” in The California Frontier. Vol 5 of The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, eds. Charles E. Beveridge and Carolyn F. Hoffman. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Frederick Law Olmsted. 1997 (1971). Civilizing American Cities. Writings on city landscapes. New York: Da Capo Press.

Frederick Law Olmsted. 1997b. “Address to the Prospect Park Scientific Association,” in Writings on Public Parks, Parkways, and Park Systems, Vol 1.  The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, eds. Charles E. Beveridge and Carolyn F. Hoffman. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Frederick Law Olmsted. 1997c. “Park,” in Writings on Public Parks, Parkways, and Park Systems, Vol 1.  The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, eds. Charles E. Beveridge and Carolyn F. Hoffman. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Frederick Law Olmsted. 1997d. “Parks and the enlargement of towns,” in Writings on Public Parks, Parkways, and Park Systems, Vol 1.  The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, eds. Charles E. Beveridge and Carolyn F. Hoffman. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Witold Rybczynski. 1999. A clearing in the distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Scribner.

Laura Wood Roper. 1973.  FLO: A biography of Frederick Law Olmsted. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Scott Roulier.  2010. “Frederick Law Olmsted. Democracy by design,” New England Journal of Political Science, Iv, 2, 311-343.

Dorceta E. Taylor. 1999. “Central Park as a model for social control: urban parks, social class and leisure behavior in Nineteenth Century America,” Journal of Leisure Research 31, 4, 420-477.

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[i] Rybzynski 2003, 177; Olmsted 1997a, 345.

[ii] Olmsted 1997c, 52; Hall 2002, 46.

[iii] O’Connor 2004.

[iv] Beveridge 2000, 2.

[v] Olmsted 1990, 691.

[vi] Olmsted 1990, 682-683.

[vii] Olmsted 1997b, 311.

[viii] Olmsted 1997c, 299.

[ix] Taylor 1999.

[x] Olmsted 1997d.

[xi] See Roper, 42-43, 59, 470-471.

  • I'm thoroughly enjoying your website.

  • Great!

  • What a treat. "Unconscious influences!"

  • Great post!

  • I like this!

  • I like this article.

  • In the past couple days, I have commented on the gardens in New York City and about a Day of Prayer sponsored by Creation Care. Here is a report that expands the scope of our need to think about the Earth as a garden in need of Creation Care.

    30 Aug 2012 ... Fen Montaigne, senior editor of Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
    "As the northern summer draws to a close, two milestones have been reached in the Arctic Ocean — record-low sea ice extent, and an even more dramatic new low in Arctic sea ice volume. This extreme melting offers dramatic evidence, many scientists say, that the region’s sea ice has passed a tipping point and that sometime in the next decade or two the North Pole will be largely ice-free in summer.....

    Thanks to Anne Rice for posting a note about this report.

    Arctic Tipping Point: A North Pole Without Ice by Fen Montaigne: Yale Environment 360

  • great article, so much to mull over when walking through the park, which is sadly limited now that i'm not in nyc. i hope this can provide inspiration to future parks elsewhere to build in such grandeur.

  • Something to reflect and converse about as my wife and I take our walks through Central Park, after a Sunday service... Thanks for the great artticles.

  • I will look at NYC's greenspaces differently now!

  • Love the Hots at Top Dog! Thanks for the comment.

  • From Top Dog in Berkeley: great piece on Central Park. Interesting comments: state power is reckless of minorities.

  • peace...thought you might find this of interest re central park.

  • Pat,

    Thanks for picking up the mention about Seneca Village that I put high up in the article. Its removal certainly raises some questions. Perhaps, the city used the power of eminent domain. I know that the inhabitants were paid for their property but I don't know all the details of the process. However, the community life can't be replaced. When the city decided to wipe out Japantown in order to build Lincoln Center, another Japanese community center did not spring up.

    Ted, I don't know what the BMW urban design for the future covered. Maybe someone can update us. Thanks for the complement and comment.

    Our concern is that city design often doesn't leave enough space for community groups. As prices go up, our community groups, which provide so much to city in the form of secular and religious services and fraternity, find it very difficult to find meeting space. Right now, we allow buildings to build higher as long as they provide some park or sunlight space. We do this so the city streets lose their sunlight. Maybe, we should also require community meeting space so we don't lose the fraternal aspects of the city. Money shouldn't wipe out community for the working classes.

    Best, tc

  • "The land had already been cleared of inhabitants such as the African Americans in Seneca Village and its structures which included two churches, the African Union Methodist Church and the American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church."

    Somehow it is difficult to fathom a religious inspiration for this park after reading articles on the bulldozing of a vibrant African-American "Christian" community called Seneca Village, formerly located on what would become park land.

    It seems even more arrogant that two churches were destroyed so that ironically:

    " of Central Park artfully and systematically provided vistas and paths that would make one feel like the special object of a loving God and a beautiful city. Olmsted said every path, rock, flower and tree had a functional purpose in the creation of a healing scene."

  • Cool article. Central Park is such a great design. It is interesting to know how religion can intersect with good design. As a design center, it will be interesting to see how NYC designers will draw inspiration from the religious resources of the city. I noticed that the BMW design project about the future design of the city that just finished running did have yoga sessions but no other interface with faith in the city. Rather unfortunate omission that tends to make their project irrelevant. (somebody correct me if I missed something! Would be glad to be updated!)

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