Vaux & Olmsted’s “Other” Central Park
Incredible garden inspiration can be just around the corner, especially if you live in a city that is graced with a park designed by legendary landscape architects Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted.
Nestled in the heart of Newburgh, NY is Downing Park, a 35-acre landscape filled with hills, valleys, streams, a pond, and a rich variety of native wildlife and vegetation. Opened in 1897, Downing Park has been a recreational retreat for Newburgh residents throughout its 115-year history, serving as a living memorial to Newburgh native Andrew Jackson Downing, the highly charismatic writer and landscape architect known as “The Father of American Landscape Architecture.”
Related: Touring Fairsted, Frederick Law Olmsted’s Home (VIDEO)
Downing was one of the earliest proponents of creating common green spaces for all citizens to enjoy. In his role as publisher of The Horticulturist magazine, he heavily promoted the idea of New York City’s massive Central Park. After meeting Vaux and Olmsted for the first time, Downing encouraged the pair to enter the competition to design Central Park. But five years before his dream of a public park became a reality, Downing tragically died in a Hudson River steamboat explosion.
“Downing Park has serpentine paths and picturesque vistas—features very similar, though on a different scale, to those of New York City’s Central Park,” points out Christopher Tripoli, executive director of the Downing Park Planning Committee, which oversees and maintains the park. “Andrew Jackson Downing was Olmsted and Vaux’s mentor and lived in Newburgh his whole life. This was the last park that Olmsted and Vaux designed together and the only park that they collaborated on with their sons, John Olmsted and Downing Vaux.”
Vaux and Olmsted were well known for creating open spaces that promoted the well-being of the public, and they favored naturalistic, rustic, and curving landscape designs. Downing Park embodies many of these principles, as it features structures of natural stone and an astonishing variety of trees, shrubs, and flowers. Indeed, Downing Park is home to the only dedicated ornamental daylily garden in New York (donated and maintained by the Iris and Daylily Society). “There are also amazing specimen trees here in Downing Park. The most popular plantings were red oak, ginkgo, sycamore, American chestnut, a variety of maples, willow, and a rare yew tree that is well over 100 years old,” Tripoli points out.
The highest point in the park commands amazing views of the Hudson River, with local landmarks West Point and Bannerman’s Island visible to the south. This site originally housed an Observatory, but the structure was torn down in 1959.
The park also boasts a 2 ½-acre pond, known as “the Polly”, which is home to myriad local species, including a wide variety of fish, great blue herons, mute swans, mallard ducks, and Canadian geese among others. The Polly’s natural stone Shelter House was added in 1934 and designed by local architect Gordon Marvel as a place for visitors to change into skates and enjoy cups of hot chocolate during the cold winter months.
“Downing Park has played a vital role in the history of Newburgh; it has continuously been a gathering place for residents,” Tripoli notes, adding that the park is still central to Newburgh’s residents today, hosting a wide array of community events, including a farmers’ market, band concerts, theater presentations, and many other popular events.
The park relies heavily on volunteers to help maintain the existing landscape and plant new gardens, ensuring this natural treasure will survive and thrive for future generations to enjoy.
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