On days when the world to me is desolation; when I cannot sit in my seat, or do any productive labor; when I have a terrible desire to be free, and my responsibilities seem not worth the effort, I console myself by walking in Central Park. As I enter by the Lagoon at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue and descend the stairs into the wall-protected and tree-shaded refuge from the busy city, lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream dance in my head: “So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle / Gently entwist; the female ivy so /Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.”
These walkways, I think to myself, were once but a line on a landscaper’s plan; the trees were tiny saplings, carried here by men and set in the earth by laborers who never got to see them as I see them now, great girths grown to maturity, canopies raised in the sky.
By inclination my steps are led to where the winding paths straighten at the southern entrance to the park’s grand allée known as the Mall. I am all for the natural look in landscaping, but there is some magic in these rows of trees, where man bids the trees grow in formation and they obey him. Some years before he began his work creating Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted wrote of how magical he found an allée of oaks in South Carolina: “I stopped my horse and held my breath; I thought of old Kit North’s rhapsody on trees; and it was no rhapsody—it was all here, and real: ‘Light, shade, shelter, coolness, freshness, music, dew, and dreams dropping through their umbrageous twilight—dropping, direct, soft, sweet, soothing, and restorative from heaven.’”
Time is part of an allée’s magic, the majesty of which is the patient work of decades; it must be protected from nature, which would always want to spring up new trees and mar the design, and it must be protected from man, for in each generation there are those who wish for some new arrangement, and who would destroy the old before it can come to ripeness. Olmsted himself wished to see the Mall as we see it now: He planted twenty-year-old elm trees, large trees, in the hope of seeing them full-grown in his lifetime; but they all died. He had to replant, with smaller trees, and wait.
The Mall is framed by four arboreal columns. Stretching for a quarter mile on a studied diagonal through the heart of Central Park, they now constitute the largest grove of American elms in the world. A pathogen believed to have originated in Asia found its way to Europe and North America in the early decades of the twentieth century, killing off almost all the elms on those continents. Why these have survived is not entirely clear. Their isolation in a concrete jungle is the presumptive answer, and it may be true. All through Central Park and around it, many elms remain, which have vanished from other cities. The park’s oldest elms are also slightly different from other elms, substituting elbowed angles and whiplike crossing branches for the vaselike verticality typical of the species. They have a wooden strength that pleases my eye, like the live oak, which Olmsted so admired, “huge and gnarled, a heavy groining of strong, rough, knotty branches.”
Elms are splendid in all seasons. They are among the very first trees to bloom, and in April they are covered with wafer-like seeds of a green that is the very freshness of spring; in summer they throw a seamless carpet of welcome shade upon the ground; autumn paints them a brilliant yellow; and in winter their ten thousand bare tangled arms cut the sky into fragments and glow white with snow in winter storms.
At the Mall’s southern entrance, New York’s Literary Walk, such as it is, begins. Five finely cast bronzes, monumental in bulk, sit on granite pedestals under the elms. Their colossal human forms please the mind no less than the eye. William Cullen Bryant noted that he delighted to see the park “peopled with new memories,” which “a few years since possessed no human associations.” The money for the first—a statue of Shakespeare—was raised in part at a remarkable New York performance of Julius Caesar in 1864. The role of Mark Antony was played by John Wilkes Booth, who would become Lincoln’s assassin the following year. The second statue honors Sir Walter Scott. As the elms here have grown greater, Scott’s reputation has grown rather less. Scott wrote quickly, and swift composition can make a writer the voice of an age, as Scott was. Almost every nineteenth-century writer read Scott, and some ninety operas are known to have been inspired by his works. Now we wish he had written with more deliberation and fewer words. It is harder to find kind words for Fitz-Greene Halleck, “the American Byron.” Darling of New York’s literary set from 1819 to 1849, Halleck still commanded the respect of the elite when his statue was unveiled before a crowd of ten thousand people in 1877. His works are characterized by incessant name-dropping—a gossip column in light verse that, despite his moniker, does not recall Byron. His greatest claim to fame is probably this statue, which drives at least some people (like me) to read his poems for curiosity’s sake.
With Robert Burns, the most popular of the Romantic poets in America in the nineteenth century and occupier of the fourth pedestal, we are on firmer literary ground. Though he is read less widely today, it is hard to quibble with the author of “A Red, Red Rose.” Yet after Burns’s statue was unveiled, nothing was built on the Literary Walk for 140 years, until 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. The fifth statue on the walk represents three women, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The uniformity of the original plan is lost, like a cedar planted in a colonnade of elms.
There are many more spaces under the elms. A fine template has been established for future statues, if we can only find the will to continue the project. I will suggest that the inclusion of Halleck, who was wildly popular in his own day, suggests that perhaps we should let a hundred years of dust accumulate on a writer’s headstone before taking a vote on his literary merit. Centuries know more than critics.
The Mall is visited by many, but its open expanse leaves it feeling uncrowded. There is a beautiful privacy that suggests romance. When you are here with someone you love, the rest of the world seems to vanish. I speak from experience: I first kissed a girl just over to the right, beyond the pale of the elms, under the cherry trees. Sometimes I think that Olmsted, who knew disappointment and had in his life more conscientious labor than romance, hoped for precisely such moments when he built this park. Perhaps that sixteen-year-olds might kiss under the cherry trees avenged on his ledger-balancing Yankee forebears. It didn’t work out with the girl, by the way, but I don’t blame Olmsted for that.
An allée pleases not only because in the ordered rows and majestic trees man and nature conspire; it pleases because it goes somewhere. It aims toward a culmination, a proper resting point to mark the completion of the journey. And so, walking the quarter mile under the elms, we come to our destination, the marvelous Bethesda Terrace, the miracle that stands at the center of the park. Calvert Vaux, the architect of almost all the features of the park and of much else besides, considered it his greatest achievement.
Vaux (rhymes with “hawks”) remains one of the park’s mysteries. We would like to ascribe the remarkable design of Central Park—it has been called “the greatest artwork of the nineteenth century”—to a single genius. Yet Vaux and Olmsted claimed complete equality in their park design. Vaux came to the project first. Born in England and trained as an architect, he had come to the United States to work in the design firm of architect Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the earliest proponents of a large Manhattan park. Downing died young in a boat accident, but Vaux continued his work, starting a design for the new Central Park. Vaux decided to enlist the aid of Olmsted, who was already the park superintendent and had a superior knowledge of the terrain of the park and its hydrology. (He had made a special study of drainage, which would be crucial in the creation of Central Park’s artificial lakes.) Today Olmsted is a celebrated figure, and Vaux is far less known. But Vaux was the architect, and all the old bridges, buildings, and terraces are his work. This terrace was designed to be the culmination, the “central feature,” as described in the original proposal, of the park, occupying “the same position of relative importance in the general arrangement of the plan that a mansion should occupy in a park prepared for private habitation.” And so it is: a great outdoor residence for the citizens of New York.
At the north end of the allée two stairs descend, and we pass through a passageway of arches that opens onto a sculpted plaza on the shores of a small lake. Rising slopes to the west and east, covered with mature trees, close off the views, making it seem as though we were standing before an ancient shrine in the midst of a vast forest, but one built and peopled and cherished, where parents push strollers, friends chat and reminisce, and lovers try the waters in little rowboats. At the center of it all is a large circular pool, whence rises an elaborate fountain, of the most delicate workmanship, crowned with an angel, stepping lightly, a figure of the purest grace: the Bethesda Fountain.
The Terrace has seen its seasons and known vicissitudes. It became the “open air hall of reception” for the carriage-and-footman set as Vaux and Olmsted intended, and it remained popular for this purpose until the 1950s, when people began abandoning the cities for the suburbs. The park as a whole, and this spot in particular, suffered terribly from the neglect. It became a countercultural center in the late 1960s; in the 1970s came drugs, crime, and graffiti. The fountain broke and had no water. I remember when the whole place always stank of urine.
After order was restored in the 1990s, the brick plaza, paved in a herringbone pattern, still showcased some of the city’s oddities. It became the favorite home of an idiosyncratic violinist who dressed in nothing but a gold lamé loincloth and some chains. Going by the name Thoth, he would sing in a falsetto, with ankle bangles to beat out the time. He called his music “soloperas” and “prayformances.” I would often see him on the subway in Queens, a bathrobe thrown over his loincloth, looking every inch a flasher, and people looked askance at him, and clearly thought he was a weirdo. But I loved him and always thought he added something to the place. Later, as the crowds thickened and grew more conventional, he came less and less. Japanese couples flock here now for wedding photo tours, in incredible numbers; sometimes there might be ten couples at the Terrace at a time. Occasionally we still find some of the old New York color. Once, as the Japanese couples posed for their photos, I saw a man drop his nine-foot python into the fountain to let it have a cooling swim. Mothers all around swooped in to grab the little children who were splashing in the fountain’s waters.
The fountain’s name comes from the New Testament. I first encountered the story of the pool of Bethesda in high school—by chance or Providence, not long after my reading of Plato’s Republic. I had a most wonderful teacher for Plato, John Connelly, gloriosae memoriae, who has since gone to his eternal reward. It was his remarkable custom to say nothing during the first thirty-two minutes of class. He would let us discuss the assigned text ourselves until a little egg-timer went off, and he would, for the last five minutes, attempt to resolve our disputes and point out things we had missed. On that day, we discussed the story of the Ring of Gyges, a mythical ring of invisibility. Plato writes that any human being in possession of such a ring would begin to steal and rape and kill at will. We debated whether humans, given power that detached them from all accountability, could maintain their goodness. Connelly said to us, “I want to point out something none of you mentioned, the theological aspect of all this. Plato does not say merely that a person with this ring would steal and rape and kill; he says he would do other things too, like a god among humans. What does this tell you about Glaucon’s idea of God?”
Later that year, in church, I heard the story of the pool of Bethesda in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of John:
There is in Jerusalem a sheep-pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes; in these there used to lie a great multitude of the languishing, the blind, the halt, the withered, waiting for the motion of the water. For an angel of the Lord used to descend from time to time to the pool; and the water would be moved. And the one who first went down into the pool after the motion of the water, would be healed, whatever infirmity he might be detained by.
There was a man there thirty and eight years in his infirmity. When Jesus saw this man lying there, and he knew that he had been there long, he says to him, Do you wish to be healed?
The languishing man responded: “Lord, I have no one, that, when the water is disturbed, can put me in the water; while I make my way there, someone else gets in before me.”
Jesus says to him: Rise, take up your mat, and walk. And immediately that man was healed, and he picked up his mat, and started walking.
What does it say about a culture that this is its idea of the divine? Here we find a god who comes to visit the sick, the friendless, the people who say to him, “Lord, I have no one.” What does it say about our city, that this should be the story enshrined at its heart? What does it say about the builders of Central Park, that they made the whole park a kind of journey—enter, then Mall, then Terrace, then fountain, in carefully considered sequence—bringing us to contemplate a god who came down to earth to bring healing to the most despised and friendless of people?
Vaux commissioned the statue, though he did not, as far as the records show, decide the theme. In describing what he desired, he suggested that the fountain should express “both earnestly and playfully the idea of that central spirit of ‘Love’ that is forever active, and forever bringing nature, science and art, summer and winter, youth and age, day and night, into harmonious accord.” He may have imagined a statue of a chaste sort of Venus, a Charity, or Flora, or some other allegorical female figure.
The artist who won the commission, Emma Stebbins—one of a remarkable group of female sculptors living in Rome at the time—seems to have suggested the story of Bethesda as satisfying Vaux’s desire for a representation of “that central spirit of Love that is forever active.” Saint Augustine thought this story was about love, too. He took as evidence the man’s thirty-eight years of languishing, noting that symbolically, the man wanted two things to reach God’s perfect number of forty—and Jesus provided them, in his twofold commandment to love.
It does immense credit to Vaux and Olmsted and the other planners of the park that they recognized that Stebbins was correct, and that her work now sits here in the heart of the city, a thing wonderful to look at and beautiful to contemplate. There were perhaps personal reasons to embrace Stebbins’s vision: Olmsted had lived its message. He had been commissioned to implement his plan for Central Park in 1858. Work had only just begun when, in 1861, as the first wounded of the Civil War came back from the front, Olmsted resigned his post as superintendent of the park to take up work as the director of the Red Cross (called then the United States Sanitary Commission).
A born administrator, Olmsted arrived in Washington to discover “the greatest conceivable dearth of administrative talent.” He could not convince the Surgeon General that there would be wounded men by the thousands, and that the army needed to build hospitals and stockpile medicines. When the war broke out, the United States army had 113 surgeons. Twenty-four left to serve the Confederate army, leaving eighty-nine.
In September 1861, five months into the war, Olmsted contemplated going to the press with inside information about just how disastrously unprepared the Union government still was: “I can hardly be loyal to the Commission, and the government, while it is required of us to let our soldiers freeze and our armies be conquered for the sake of maintaining a lie.” He continued: “Let the people know that we are desperately in want of arms, desperately in want of money, desperately in want of clothing, desperately in want of medicine and food for our sick . . .” Olmsted set up performance reviews, had manuals written to help new surgical trainees, and oversaw the production and distribution of medical supplies and food. Nor did he stay at a desk. He left Washington to take up his post just behind the front lines, making it his job to meet the trains coming from the front, place the wounded on hospital boats, and manage the boats as they filled before steaming off to hospitals. In a book he helped prepare, titled Hospital Transports, he writes of what he saw on these trains and boats—scenes such as we might imagine among the crowded sick of Bethesda: “Poor, pale, emaciated, shivering wretches were lying anywhere, on cabin floors, crying with sobbing, trembling voices, ‘God bless you . . . God bless you!’”
History records that Olmsted almost broke himself for the sick and the dying, working nonstop with little sleep for two years, in constant contact with misery, watching men die under his hands every day. He was already a notable author and successful businessman, and he had a fine, important government post, directing thousands of employees in their work to build Central Park—and he resigned it all to serve in the war. Then he did exemplary work as an administrator while also tending personally to the needs of the sick and the dying, needs that vastly outstripped the material resources pledged to meet them. Christ and his healing work, so perfectly encapsulated in the story of Bethesda, are evoked in the last sentence of Hospital Transports. Christ was the man who “lived in, and for, the sufferings of others, and finally gave himself a sacrifice for them.”
We remember Olmsted merely as the great landscape architect, but this other side of his life hides here in plain sight, at the very center of the city, in one of its most famous, most visited, most photographed places. What would a god do, if he lived among men? Should not the answer to this question help answer other questions, especially questions about what we should do with our own lives? When a man becomes powerful, like a god among men, should he use his power to take whatever he wishes, to have sex with whomever he wants, to kill and set loose as he desires, as Plato wrote? Or should he go to the people who have no one, the people who are left behind when all those around them think only of themselves?
The winged angel who looks back upon the graceful arches of the Terrace judges every one of our actions. I return to the fountain again and again, and I see it as a hidden meaning of the city, a way of explaining why some of the deeds of our fellow citizens have an afterlife, a luster and grace that persists, whatever may be their other sins. Olmsted was a member of a generation who knew the story of Bethesda, who venerated it as proof of true divinity and, in many instances, imitated it here on earth. Here is the way to healing, here are the life-giving waters; and when I depart from this place refreshed, I feel that I know once more what I must do.
John Byron Kuhner is editor of In Media Res.