Frederick Law Olmsted and James Croes, New York City Board of the Department of Public Parks, Document No. 72. December 20, 1876.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. (1822-1903) came from a prosperous merchant family of Hartford, Connecticut. Eyesight weakened by sumac poisoning caused him to refrain from entering Yale in 1837, and instead he studied engineering privately for the next two and a half years. Employment with a New York dry-goods importing firm did not satisfy him, and after attending lectures at Yale he left the country in the spring of 1843 for a year's voyage that took him to China. After returning to the U.S. he turned to farming, and he spent the next few years studying with and working on farms in Connecticut and New York. In 1847 he purchased a small farm in Guilford, Connecticut but the next year moved to a larger farm that his father purchased for him on Staten Island.

His literary career began with contributions to A. J. Downing's journal, The Horticulturist, and in 1852 with a book based on a walking tour of rural England: Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England. Accounts of travels in the south published in the New York Times led to their publication in book form. Two other travel volumes followed: A Journey Through Texas (1857) and A Journey in the Back Country (1860). Before the last volume appeared Olmsted was appointed Superintendent of Central Park, the first of the large, centrally-located planned open spaces that American cities would create during the balance of the century and many of which would be laid out according to designs prepared by Olmsted.

When a competition for the design of the park was announced, Olmsted entered a plan prepared by him and Calvert Vaux, an English architect who had come to America to study with Downing. Their design won the competition, and Olmsted became Architect-in-chief of the park whose plan was far ahead of its time in many features, most notably the separation of several kinds of thoroughfares for carriages, equestrians, and pedestrians. After serving during the Civil War as general secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission (the forerunner of the American Red Cross), Olmsted accepted a position as superintendent of the Mariposa mining estate in California. While there Olmsted drew the first plan for what became the University of California at Berkeley and for the adjoining residential village.

Back in New York in 1865, Olmsted with Vaux prepared the plan for Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the second of the large number of park plans Olmsted, Vaux & Company or Olmsted alone would produce throughout the United States. He was also involved with several city planning or large-scale suburban community projects. In 1875 his stepson, John Charles, joined the practice, followed in 1894 by Olmsted's son, Frederick, Jr. By that time the senior Olmsted was near retirement, and one of his last projects was the landscape design for the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.

The report that follows was written with J. James R. Croes, a civil engineer and presents their ideas about how the northern portion of the City of New York should be laid out. Among its other points of interest is its vigorous condemnation for the repetitive gridiron street plan that the Commissioners appointed for that purpose had branded on most of Manhattan in 1811. The statement of planning principles by Olmsted and Croes is no less valid today than it was well over a century ago when it appeared.

The Hon. William R. Martin,

President of the Board:

SIR:--The undersigned have the honor to present a report introductory to a series of plans for laying out the new wards of the city. The first of these plans can, if desired, be laid before the Board at its next meeting; a second and third are in preparation, and the whole series is in progress of study.

The great advance northward in the building of New York, since 1807, has been strictly according to the street plan which a commission of its citizens then laid down for it. The objections at first hotly urged against this plan (chiefly by property holders whose lands it would divide inconveniently, whose lawns and gardens it would destroy and whose houses it would leave in awkward positions), have long since been generally forgotten, and so far as streets have been opened and houses built upon them, the system has apparently met all popular requirements. Habits and customs accommodated to it have become fixed upon the people of the city. Property divisions have been generally adjusted to it, and innumerable transfers and pledges of real estate have been made under it with a degree of ease and simplicity probably without parallel. All the enormous changes in the modes of commerce, of means of communication, and of the styles of domestic life which the century has seen, have made but one slight local variation from it necessary.

These facts, taken by themselves, may seem to leave little room for doubt that the system was admirably contrived for its purpose, and that, as far as can be reasonably expected of any product of human skill, it remains perfect.

There are probably but few men in the community who, in the course of a busy life, have given any slight attention, and but slight attention, to the subject, who are not in the habit of taking this view of it, and in whom, consequently, a pre-judgment is not in some degree deeply rooted in favor of the system. That it should be extended, whenever practicable, over that part of the city not yet laid out, and where this is forbidden by extraordinary difficulties of topography, that no greater variation should be made from it than is necessary to bring the cost of preparing streets within reasonable limits of expense, seems, to all such persons, a matter of course.

All the work of the undersigned will, nevertheless, have been done under the influence of a quite different conviction and its results can only be fairly judged, after a candid and patient balancing of the advantages to be gained, and the advantages to be lost by the adoption of a variety of proposed arrangements always differing, and often differing widely from those with which commissioners and the community are familiar under the regular system.

They, therefore, wish to submit, in advance of any plans, a few general considerations adapted, as they think, to give a different impression of the merits of the system from that which appears to be ordinarily accepted, and by which the Commission has hitherto, to some extent, almost necessarily been influenced.

New York, when the system in question was adopted, though vaguely anticipating something of the greatness that has since been thrust upon her, viewed all questions of her own civic equipment, very nearly from the position which a small, poor, remote provincial village would now be expected to take.

The city had no gas, water or sewer system. The privies of the best houses were placed, for good reasons, as far away from them as possible, in a back yard, over a loose-bottomed cesspool. If the house stood in a closely built block, the contents of the cesspool, when necessary to be removed, were taken to the street in buckets carried through the house; the garbage of the house was often thrown, with its sweepings and soiled water into the street before the front door, to be there devoured by swine, droves of which were allowed to run at large for the purpose.

Under these circumstances, it was not to be expected that, if the utmost human wisdom had been used in the preparation of the plan, means would be aptly devised for all such ends as a commission charged with a similar duty at the present day must necessarily have before it.

So far as the plan of New York remains to be formed, it would be inexcusable that it should not be the plan of a Metropolis; adapted to serve, and serve well, every legitimate interest of the wide world; not of ordinary commerce only, but of humanity, religion, art, science and scholarship.

If a house to be used for many different purposes must have many rooms and passages of various dimensions and variously lighted and furnished, not less must such a metropolis be specially adapted at different points to different ends.

This it may chance to be if laid out by the old cow-path method, or more surely if laid out in greater or less part with carefully directed intention to the purpose, such as is now being used for instance in London, Paris, Vienna, Florence, and Rome.

There seems to be good authority for the story that the system of 1807 was hit upon by the chance occurrence of a mason's sieve near the map of the ground to be laid out. It was taken up and placed upon the map, and the question being asked "what do you want better than that?" no one was able to answer. This may not be the whole story of the plan, but the result is the same as if it were. That is to say, some two thousand blocks were provided, each theoretically 200 feet wide, no more, no less; and ever since, if a building site is wanted, whether with a view to a church or a blast furnace, an opera house or a toy shop, there is, of intention, no better a place in one of these blocks than in another.

If a proposed cathedral, military depot, great manufacturing enterprise, house of religious seclusion or seat of learning needs a space of ground more than sixty-six yards in extent from north to south; the system forbids that it shall be built in New York

On the other hand it equally forbids a museum, library, theatre, exchange, post office or hotel, unless of great breadth, to be lighted or to open upon streets from opposite sides.

There are numerous structures, both public and private, in London and Paris, and most other large towns of Europe, which could not be built in New York, for want of a site of suitable extent and proportions.

The Trustees of Columbia College sought for years to obtain the privilege of consolidating two of the uniform blocks of the system into which their own property had been divided, in order to erect sufficient buildings for their purposes in one broken group, but it was denied them.

There is no place under the system in New York where a stately building can be looked up to from base to turret, none where it can even be seen full in the face and all at once taken in by the eye; none where it can be viewed in advantageous perspective. The few tolerable sites for noble buildings; north of Grace Church and within the built part of the city remain, because Broadway, laid out curvilinearly, in free adaptation to natural circumstances, had already become too important a thoroughfare to be obliterated for the system.

Such distinctive advantage of position as Rome gives St. Peter's, Paris the Madeleine, London St. Paul's, New York, under her system, gives to nothing.

But if New York is poor in opportunities of this class, there is another of even greater importance in which she is notoriously still poorer. Decent, wholesome, tidy dwellings for people who are struggling to maintain an honorable independence are more to be desired in a city than great churches, convents or colleges. They are sadly wanting in New York, and why? It is commonly said because the situation of the city, cramped between two rivers, makes land too valuable to be occupied by small houses. This is properly a reason why land, at least in the lower part of the island, should be economized, and buildings arranged compactly. The rigid uniformity of the system of 1807 requires that no building lot shall be more than 100 feet in depth, none less. The clerk or mechanic and his young family, wishing to live modestly in a house by themselves, without servants, is provided for in this respect no otherwise than the wealthy merchant, who, with a large family and numerous servants, wishes to display works of art, to form a large library, and to enjoy the company of many guests.

In New York, lots of 100 feet in depth cannot be afforded for small, cheap houses. The ground-rent would be in too large proportion to that of the betterments. In no prosperous old city are families of moderate means found living, except temporarily in the outskirts, in separate houses on undivided blocks measuring 200 feet from thoroughfare to thoroughfare. It is hardly to be hoped that they ever will be in New York under the plan of 1807.(1)

The inflexibility of the New York plan, and the nature of the disadvantages which grow out of it, may be better recognized upon an examination of certain peculiarities with which commissioners must be familiar as distinguishing the city.

These are to be found, for instance, in the position usually occupied by the kitchen and menial offices of even the better class of houses; in the manner which supplies are conveyed to them, and dust, ashes, rubbish and garbage removed. This class of peculiarities grows out of the absence from the New York system of the alley, or court, by which in all other great towns large private dwelling houses are usually made accessible in the rear.(2)

It is true, that in other cities, as they become dense and land valuable, the alleys and courts come to be as much used as streets, that is to say, small houses and shops, as well as stables are built facing upon them, and the dwellings only of people of considerable wealth are carried through to them from the streets proper. But this practice does not do away with the general custom of a yard accessible from the alley by an independent passage, and of placing the kitchen and offices of all large houses in a semi-detached building. Out of this custom come the greater ease and economy with which streets are elsewhere kept in decent order, and the bad reputation which New York has always had in this respect; and again, the fact that New York houses of the better class, much more that those of other cities, are apt to be pervaded with kitchen odors.

Another peculiarity of New York, is to be found in the much less breadth and greater depth of most of the modern dwellings of the better sort. There are many houses not much wider than the hovels of other cities, which yet have sixty or seventy feet of depth, and fifty to sixty feet of height, with sculptured stone fronts and elaborately wrought doors. This incongruity results from the circumstance that a yard at the back of the house, when no longer needed for a privy and where there is no alley to communicate with it, has little value; consequently, to economize ground-rent, two house lots of the size originally contemplated are divided into three or four, and houses stretched out upon them so as to occupy as much of the space as the Board of Health, guarding against manifest peril of public pestilence, will allow. The same cubic space is now obtained in a lot of 1,700 feet, or even 1,300, as formerly on one of 2,500, and the depth between the front and rear windows of houses of corresponding area has been nearly doubled.

That this change has been forced also by the street system, and is not a mutter of fashion, nor the result of a caprice in popular tastes, is evident from the fact that no corresponding method has obtained in other cities, new or old, nor however situated; none, for example, in London, Liverpool, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Buffalo, Chicago, or San Francisco.

The practice is one that defies the architect to produce habitable rooms of pleasing or dignified proportions, but this is the least of its evils, for in the middle parts of all these deep, narrow cubes, there must be a large amount of ill-ventilated space, which can only be imperfectly lighted through distant skylights, or by an unwholesome combustion of gas. This space being consequently the least valuable for other purposes, is generally assigned to water-closets, for which the position is in other respects the worst that could be adopted.

Still other, and perhaps even graver, misfortunes to the city might be named which could have been avoided by a different arrangement of its streets. The main object of this report will, however, have been secured, if the conviction has been shown to be justified that an attempt to make all parts of a great city equally convenient for all uses, is far from being prescribed by any soundly economical policy.

"Equally convenient," in this case, implies equally inconvenient. "As far as practicable," means within reasonable limits of expense. But there are no reasonable limits of expense for such an undertaking. Even on a flat alluvial site, like that of Chicago, it is essentially wasteful and extravagant. In proportion as a site is rugged and rocky it is only more decidedly so; not simply because in this case it involves greater unnecessary cost, but because variety of surface offers variety of opportunity, and such an undertaking often deliberately throws away forever what might otherwise be distinctive properties of great value.

The important question in dealing with a site of greatly varied topography is, whether, and in what manner, advantage can be so taken of the different topographical conditions it offers, that all classes of legitimate enterprises can be favored, each in due proportion to the interest which all citizens have in its economical and successful prosecution.

It would be easy, of course, to attempt too much in this respect, but the range of practicability is more limited than at first thought may be supposed. The value of a particular situation for a certain purpose may be determined as far as the depth which is left available for building is concerned, by the distance apart of two adjoining streets, and as far as aspect, accessibility to the public, and the cost of transportation to and fro, are concerned, by their courses and grades; but as to the breadth of ground that shall be available for any particular purpose, as to the manner in which it shall be graded and otherwise dealt with; whether it shall be cut down or filled up, terraced, or used in a more natural form--these are questions which the street system must necessarily leave to be settled by private judgment under the stimulus of competition.

Hence, while it is held that the capability of the ground should be studied for purposes more or less distinctly to be classed apart, and that, as topographical conditions vary, it should be laid out with reference to one class or another, an extended, exact, and dogmatic classification for this purpose is not to be apprehended.

A judicious laying out of the annexed territory requires a certain effort of forecast as to what the city is to be in the future. In this respect, there is a great danger in attempting too much as in attempting too little. Before New York can have doubled its present population, new motive powers and means of transit, new methods of building, new professions and trades, and new departures in sanitary science, if not in political science, are likely to have appeared: If half its present territory should then be built up and occupied as closely as its seven more populous wards now are, the other half would need to lodge but one-seventh of its total population. Assuming that in this other half there should be but a moderate degree of urban density along the river side and near the railway stations, there would still remain several square miles of land which could only be occupied by scattered buildings. It is, then, premature, to say the least, to attempt to overcome any topographical difficulty that may be presented to a perfectly compact and urban occupation of every acre of the ground to be laid out.


FRED. LAW OLMSTED, Landscape Architect.

J. JAMES R. CROES, Civil and Topographical Engineer.

1. Various attempts have been made on a small scale to get the better of this difficulty, the most successful being the introduction of an alley by which a tier of 100 feet lots is divided into two of 42 feet each, one tier facing upon the back of the other. A philanthropic scheme is now under discussion for cutting up a whole block into short lots for poor men's houses by 16-feet alleys.

2. The Sanitarian, for January. 1877 received as this is printing, contains the following professional notes on Boston, by Doctor E. H. Janes: "The streets of Boston present quite a contrast with those of New York in point of cleanliness." "Their system of alleys, by which access is obtained to the rear yards, renders it unnecessary to disfigure the sidewalks, or defile the gutters and pavements with every variety of house refuse and filth. At the appointed time the cartman rings the bell at the rear gate, receives from the housemaid the garbage, deposits it in a water-tight cart. * * * * The garbage is taken to the country and used for feeding swine. The ashes are collected in a similar way, and, being entirely separate from garbage, or any putrescent matter, can be used for filling low ground." * * * "I wish some such system could be adopted with us, as I am confident it would reduce the rate of mortality among our tenement house population. 

Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: 
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