Calvert Vaux - Table of Contents

Calvert Vaux: The Unsung Hero of Landscape Architecture

By Francis R. Kowsky
Distinguished Professor of Art History, Buffalo State College

Reprinted with permission from the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy

TEXT Beneath Illustrations

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Calvert Vaux
("Vaux" rhymes with 'talks")

Frederick Law Olmsted

Delaware Park boat house

Delaware Park boat house

Delaware Park boat house

Delaware Park boat house

Delaware Park boat house

Delaware Park Spire Head House

The Refectory, the Parade, 1875

Original Vaux Parade House which burned in 1876

Original Vaux Parade House which burned in 1876

Original Vaux Parade House which burned in 1876

One of the least appreciated pioneers of the American park movement is Calvert Vaux (1824-1895), a man who collaborated with both Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted.

Born in England, Vaux trained there to be an architect under Lewis N. Cottingham, a champion of the Gothic Revival and the owner of an architectural museum.

In 1850, Vaux accepted Downing's invitation to work with him at his newly formed architectural office in Newburgh, New York. During the year and a half that the two men spent together before Downing's death in the summer of 1852, Vaux assisted Downing in the preparation of plans for many houses and properties, as well as contributed to the design for the public park that Millard Fillmore had convinced congress to create between the Capitol and the White House. Much of the record of Vaux's association is contained in Vaux's book "Villas and Cottages" which came out in 1857, shortly after Vaux had moved to New York City where he spent the rest of his life.

Vaux, however, never forgot the beauty of the Hudson Valley and its picturesque river. Like the Hudson River School painters, several of whom were his friends, Vaux always maintained a deep love of nature. To Vaux, landscape architecture was a branch of art akin to painting. And like a painter before his easel struggling to transform nature into art, Vaux the landscape architect, related his assistant Samuel Parsons, Jr., "endeavored to divine the secret of a particular bit of nature's design and use the idea in his own composition so that one would feel the scene to be thoroughly natural, familiar even, and yet transfigured and elevated by higher emotion.".

Olmsted & Vaux: In 1857, Vaux asked Olmsted to join him in the preparation of a plan for the Central Park competition. Vaux appreciated Olmsted's administrative abilities, but he must also have recognized in him a kindred spirit as far as artistic feeling was concerned. This historic collaboration, which resulted in the winning "Greensward" plan, was to be the first of many that took the two men to the forefront of their new profession.

At Central Park, Olmsted must have learned a great deal from the superior knowledge of architecture and landscape design that Vaux possessed. By Olmsted's own admission, Vaux was responsible for the numerous structures that were erected there to enhance the pastoral mood and encourage the public's use of the park. For Central Park, Vaux designed over 40 bridges as well as many park structures, such as the Casino, Dairy, Boathouse, Belvedere, and Terrace.

Bethesda Terrace: The Bethesda Terrace, as it is commonly called, was Vaux's greatest contribution to the American park landscape. Forming the transition between the formal Mall and the picturesque Ramble, the recently restored Terrace is a series of open air staircases by which the park visitor descends to the lake side. The pillars and balusters of the stone stairs are decorated with reliefs drawn by Vaux's fellow countryman Jacob Wrey Mould and reveal many charming scenes of nature and country life.

During the early 1860's, when Olmsted became Secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission and later moved West to head the Mariposa gold mining operations, Vaux continued to work on Central Park. He also kept in touch with 01msted and repeatedly asked him to resume his landscape architecture career. Vaux, who generally preferred to work in association with others rather than alone, must have
found in Olmsted characteristics of personality that balanced his more private and temperamental nature.

Finally, in 1865, Vaux's urgings had their effect, for in that year Olmsted returned East and took up once again the profession for which Vaux knew his friend was best suited. The two men immediately started working together on Brooklyn's Prospect Park, where Vaux designed several important park structures, including a thatched summer house and stone dairy (both of which have been destroyed).


Three years after his return to New York, Olmsted came to Buffalo to begin advising William Dorsheimer and his associates on the plan for a comprehensive municipal park system, the first of its type in the country. During the next few years, Olmsted and Vaux guided the construction of three major parks here, The Front, The Park (present Delaware Park), and The Parade (present Martin Luther King, Jr. Park). Vaux planned buildings for each of these parks.

The Front: At The Front he proposed to construct a "very highly ornamental Music Stand," but, as William MacMillian, the first parks superintendent lamented, "fear of being charged with extravagance...prohibited its erection." (The Front House restaurant built in the 1880's was by another architect.)

Delaware Park: For Delaware Park, Vaux designed a handsome wooden boathouse (PHOTO ABOVE) that once stood near the location of the present Casino. But unlike the later structure, Vaux's building was so placed as to be inconspicuous. "The deep elbow of the shoreline at the foot of the Beechbanks in which it is situated," wrote MacMillian, "prevents any prominent intrusion of its artificial features to arrest the attention or withdraw the eye from the natural scenery of the grounds. It is from every side either partially screened as well as backed up by the wooded bank, so that its ornate architecture and exterior decoration are by this unobtrusive location kept entirely subordinate to the surrounding rural associations of the Park, and quietly merge the natural features of the landscape." That architecture should be subordinate to nature was Vaux's first principle of park design.

Near the boathouse on the south shore of the lake, the Spire Head House (PHOTO ABOVE), completed in 1874, provided a sheltered spot for viewing the water. The scenery then was very different from the lake as it appears today. From this long demolished gazebo, one would have gazed at an enchanting waterscape of wooded islands, thickly planted banks and decorated boats (for which Olmsted himself provided the names and color schemes). The Moorish style wooden structure, which recalled similar construction in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, was one of the most fanciful pieces of park architecture Vaux was to design.

Martin Luther King Park: In addition to Spire Head House, Vaux designed the Parade House (1874; PHOTO ABOVE), a restaurant and dance hall that formerly stood on the site of the existing greenhouses in Martin Luther King Park. The Parade House, which was especially popular with the German community that lived nearby, was a brightly painted and elaborately detailed two story wooden building. With marvelous inventiveness, Vaux and his assistant Thomas Wisedell (who was later to design the ornamental stone gates and walls on the grounds of the Capitol in Washington) displayed the material incised, punched, bracketed, turned and braced.

On the exterior, double decker galleries provided visitors covered space from which to view events performed on the park green. Demolition around the turn of the century of this festive pavilion deprived Buffalo of its most striking High Victorian building.

Vaux's partnership with Olmsted lasted until 1872. After that, Vaux (who in the same year also dissolved his architectural partnership with F.C. Withers) designed a number of important buildings in New York and elsewhere.

The break up of Olmsted and Vaux's partnership and Olmsted's eventual move to Brookline did not spell the end of their collaboration. In later years the two men worked on a number of important projects together, including Downing Park in Newburgh and Morningside Park in Manhattan.

At Niagara Falls, Vaux helped Olmsted prepare the 1887 master plan for the reservation and designed (with his son) the first Three Sisters Island Bridge, a structure of rough hewn boulders that recalls the rustic stone arches Vaux had built twenty-five years earlier in Central Park.

Olmsted, who had no formal training in either architecture or landscape architecture -- nor, apparently possessed any artistic abilities -- must have learned much along these lines from his association with Vaux. And while one might not subscribe to the opinion of Vaux's friend Parsons, who believed that the contributions of Vaux to the American park movement outweighed those of Olmsted. there is
much evidence to support his contention that "Mr. Olmsted was a leader of men, a man of magnetism and charm, a literary genius. but hardly the creative artist that Vaux was."

Text © 2002 Francis R. Kowsky
Photos and their arrangement © 2002
Chuck LaChiusa. Your comments are appreciated.