The miracle maker of Central Park

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Celebrated preservationist Elizabeth Barlow Rogers looks to the future


  • Elizabeth Barlow Rogers. Photo: Michael Lionstar


“Don't go north of 96th Street,” quipped Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the author of the new book, “Saving Central Park: A History and a Memoir.”

Rogers recalled receiving this outdated piece of advice at a time when Central Park was a dangerous, run-down place. At her recent book talk at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble, Rogers spoke about how back in the 1970s and '80s, Central Park looked very different than it does today. Graffiti marred the walls of the Belvedere Castle. Drugs were sold behind the Naumburg Bandshell. And the Great Lawn was a “dustbowl,” a dry and desolate plot of land beneath the great skyscrapers of Manhattan.

But then Rogers came along as the driving force behind the Central Park Conservancy, founded in 1980. As the first appointed Central Park Administrator, Rogers helped restore the park to its former glory. Her team removed 50,000 square feet of graffiti, raised millions of dollars to rebuild structures like the famous Boathouse, and coordinated the installation of The Gates, a site-specific work in Central Park by the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude that took the city by storm in 2005.

Rogers also worked with some of the city's most famous power brokers, such as Mayor Ed Koch and Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis, to insure that millions of New Yorkers could enjoy a lush, beautiful space in the heart of the city. The Conservancy is the nation's first public-private park partnership, and a model for other public-private partnerships across the country.

Rogers discussed Central Park's long and fascinating history, including how the Park was modeled after the great Royal Parks in London. In the late 1800s, the Park's founders imagined a shared public space where everyone, rich or poor, could escape the chaos of urban life and enjoy the calm and quiet of nature. In 1857, the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park held a competition for the park's design, offering “four hundred to two thousand dollars for the four best proposals.”

Out of 33 proposals, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux's design was the winner. And for the next thirteen years, Olmstead and Vaux transformed the park from a “wilderness” into an elegant green space. And although the park's date of completion is widely regarded as 1873, Rogers notes that Central Park is never really finished. She says that it is like “[a] work of art,” always changing, evolving, and needing constant maintenance and upkeep.

Rogers' own history with the park, however, has not been without controversy. “People just love a fight,” said Rogers, “and they love a well-publicized fight.” The fight to which she was referring was Central Park's infamous tennis house controversy. In the 1980s, Rogers planned to replace the old tennis house with a new neo-Victorian one, which she felt would increase the park's “green openness,” and also be more aesthetically pleasing. The public at large, however, saw the construction of the new tennis house as a wasteful, elitist measure that served the most affluent people of New York instead of the average citizen. Much to Rogers' dismay, the plan for the tennis house was thwarted.

Controversy even followed Rogers at the book discussion. During the talk's Q&A session, one man asked Rogers why she completely eliminated graffiti from the park during the restoration process. He argued that preserving the city's graffiti would show the park's history, and exhibit New York's contemporary urban aesthetic. He also argued that other ancient societies had had graffiti on their walls, and Central Park could have followed suit.

Rogers said that while she was familiar with graffiti on ancient Roman structures, and the beauty they brought to that space, she felt Central Park's graffiti did not make the same contribution. She said that instead of being art, the graffiti was simply “tags,” and did not fit within her classical vision for the restoration of the park. This exchange at the discussion perfectly illustrated the constant tension that exists in a public-private partnership such as Central Park. Both parties feel that the park belongs to them, and constantly fight to have their opposing visions realized.

Controversies aside, no one can dispute the vast contribution Elizabeth Barlow Rogers has made to the restoration of Central Park. Under her leadership, the park went from a run-down wasteland to an elegant green space that everyone in the city can enjoy. When she talked about the park, with a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye, her deep love of it was evident. “All of it's a miracle,” she said. “We are living in a golden age of Central Park.” And this spring, as millions of people enjoy the park's pristine lawns and structures, Rogers' outstanding restoration will be the gift that keeps on giving.

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