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REVIEWS: The Rebirth of New York City's Bryant Park
Bird's Eye View of 42nd Street from 6th Avenue, New York City Copyright The American Art Publishing Co.
Bryant Park, 1921

The Rebirth of New York City's Bryant Park illustrates that successful rehabilitation, combining historic preservation and new design, can happen in a political context. Moreover, community groups and landmark status, two supposed restrictions, can and do result in enormously successful projects. However, as unintentionally illustrated in this monograph of the work of Hanna/Olin by J. William Thompson, much still needs to be done.

In the early 1980s I was employed in a landscape architecture firm located at West 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, overlooking Bryant Park. On numerous spring days I ventured into the park's thick canopy of plane trees where I witnessed what was described in 1981, in New York Affairs, as a "wasted urban resource, dominated by undesirables". On one occasion, while seated at the Lowell fountain, I can testify to a family of rats that scurried out of the park and disappeared into a sewer grate along the Avenue of the Americas.

Yet, as Bryant Park continued to feel unsafe and derelict, the city was about to enter into a renaissance for its historic designed landscapes. This era of enlightenment was jump-started with the recognition of a number of parks as historic landmarks, including Central Park as a scenic historic landmark and Bryant Park as a New York City landmark, both in 1974. Also, the position of an administrator was created for Central Park (1979); the Central Park Conservancy and the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation were founded (1980); master planning with a research and historic preservation focus was undertaken for many parks, including Central, Prospect and Morningside (1981 — present); the National Association for Olmsted Parks held an annual meeting, Olmsted in New York (1986); and several major exhibitions were mounted, including Olmsted's original drawings at the Cooper Hewitt Museum (1980), the Art of the Olmsted Landscape at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1981); and two shows dedicated to Calvert Vaux at the Museum of the City of New York (1974 and 1989). In general, the awareness by city officials and the public about its legacy of historic designed landscapes surged.

In many contemporary projects, there are two primary areas that necessitate attention and commitment: (1) a greater emphasis should be placed on a solid research foundation to guide project work and enrich interpretation; and, (2) a better understanding of the planning, treatment and management of historic designed landscapes. Although this monograph successfully captures the social and political dynamics inherent in this project, it often trivializes the landscape's history, with the landscape architect substituting romantic vision for research and authenticity (e.g. Olin's sketch notes wistfully refer to landscape features as: "Henry James territory!"; they recall "Images by Sargent and Whistler", with renderings of figures in Victorian dress.) The monograph also never clearly articulates the preservation philosophy for the work selected, often contradicting itself from one page to the next.

Border garden, Bryant Park Copyright Frank Garnier
Border garden, Bryant Park

The Role of History and Research

One is led to believe that the landscape that existed at Bryant Park in the 1980s was the sole product of the Simpson/Clark plan (1934) overlaid on the remaining fabric of the Carrere and Hastings original design (cir. 1907). It states, "One historical irony, discovered by the Hanna/Olin team in researching the history of the site: Moses invited his friend, landscape architect Gilmore Clark, to help implement the design, and Clark subsequently garnered a design award from the ASLA for what was in fact Simpson's work". Are we really sure this is Simpson's work or is it a Clark design? Does a plan survive? Further investigation challenges this casual aside.

Consider the 50th Exhibition of the Architectural League of New York that hung at the galleries of the American Fine Arts Society, February 18 — 29, 1936. The show and published catalog included an axonometric photo of the park, crediting the work to Clark. The jury for this exhibition included landscape architects Arthur F. Brinckerhoff (1880 — 1959), Robert Ludlow Fowler Jr. (1887 — 1973), and Alfred Geiffert Jr. (1890 — 1957). The accuracy of ascribing this work to Clark takes on greater credibility given that: (1) Geiffert and Clark knew each other as testified by their article in Landscape Architecture (July 1937) which featured the Skylands estate in New Jersey; (2) Clark followed Geiffert's partner, Ferrucio Vitale (1875 — 1933), as the landscape architect on the National Commission of Fine Arts; (3) After Vitale's death in 1933, Geiffert practiced with Clark for a short time; and, (4) all were involved in ASLA's New York City chapter. Therefore, in the absence of primary source material, a definite attribution is yet to be made.

Another example is the attribution of the new 300-foot long perennial beds to "premier garden designer Lynden Miller". Here, no reference is made of the surviving documentation that exists in the Central Park Collection at New York City's Municipal Archives for the early 20th century planting schemes carried out for the Fifth Avenue beds by Samuel Parsons Jr. (1844 — 1923), the linear herbaceous borders in the library park by Charles Downing Lay (1877 — 1956), and the later beds designed in the 1930s by Mary E. Sprout (1906 — 1962, a.k.a. Mrs. Gilmore Clark.) This collection also includes a drawing which details the landscape treatment around the Lowell Fountain designed by Charles Platt (1861 — 1933) and constructed under the leadership of the city's landscape architect, Parsons. This lack of awareness about these subsequent design modifications (many of which were constructed), further reflects lost opportunities for historic accuracy. Instead, these ornamental planting beds, as much character-defining features as the stone balustrades or the bosques of plane trees, have been treated as period landscapes. The degree of commitment in thoroughness of research to current park use and behavioral patterns should be extended to the analysis of the landscape's history. The consequence of this inequitable research is the muddled articulation of a preservation philosophy.

Articulating a Preservation Philosophy

The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes (1996) can provide the necessary philosophical framework for a consistent and holistic approach for a cultural landscape project. Being familiar with Bryant Park both prior to project work, and after its rebirth, I would suggest that this is a successful rehabilitation project. Rehabilitation is not a dirty word. As defined by the Secretary of the Interior, it is the act or process of making possible a compatible use for a property through repair, alterations, and additions while preserving those portions or features which convey its historical, cultural, or architectural values. Therefore, it could be easily defended that the preservation of such primary character-defining features as the overall spatial organization, changes in elevation, the great lawn, and tree bosques, coupled with the repair and restoration of the ornamental fountain, stone and metal works, statuary, and other paving materials, successfully meets the Standards for Rehabilitation. The new entrances cut into the historic walls, as well as the new cafes and restaurants are also accommodated under the rehabilitation treatment.

However, to the reader less familiar with the site, or the Standards, mixed signals are represented. Consider the following passages: "as plans for the rehabilitation of the park got underway"; "undertake the restoration of the library's backyard"; and "the park's reconstruction required painstaking attention to such details". The text also suggests, "Does Bryant Park deserve the historic restoration label? I don't think there is such a thing as landscape restoration", declares Olin. Such comments by the landscape architect Olin, and author Thompson, further illustrate the lack of understanding for the preservation planning and treatment of historic landscapes. In fact, as written, treatment decisions do not seem to be governed by the integrity and significance of surviving historic fabric, but rather by vocal community advocates (e.g . "The Friends of Cast Iron, advocates for the preservation of iron architectural details, reared their collective head at public hearings"); budget (e.g. "the effect of the budget constraints was eventually to force a final treatment that would be more faithful to the historic design"); and personal preference (e.g. "Anyway, what period would you restore it to — the 1920s or the 1940s?").

It is time for landscape architects to stop paying lip service to historic resources and to commit to comprehensive preservation planning. This monograph fuels the psychology that it is far nobler to design than preserve (e.g. "The easiest thing in the world to do would be to recreate this landscape.") and that historic preservation restricts creativity (e.g. "Because of its landmark status, he (Olin) was constrained from lowering the park to street level . . .") Why is it that as a profession when we are "Designing with Nature" we do not question the significance of natural resources, but we are quick to treat historic resources casually when we are "Designing with Culture". Contrary to Olin's statement, there is such a thing as a landscape restoration, in fact there are Guidelines to assist in such work.

These criticisms aside, I feel that this project is still enormously successful. Today, many landscape architects are quick to criticize the public review process, often suggesting that such extensive review can compromise the integrity of their design. Even recognizing the political and cultural baggage that can be inherent in such outreach to allied professionals and the public at large, one still wonders if the result would have been as successful if Olin's initial reaction went unchallenged: "The simplest thing to do to make this place work is to take down the walls and railings, eliminate shrubs, ground covers, lawns, and flowers — pave it all — have lots of stairs and ramps and curbs to sit on."

Charles A. Birnbaum, ASLA, is the coordinator of the National Park Service's Historic Landscape Initiative. Birnbaum has just spent the academic year as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University where he has incorporated the Cultural Landscape Foundation, which emphasizes stewardship through education.

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