Calvert Vaux

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Image:Centralpark 20040520 121402 1.1504.jpg
An unobtrusive bridge in Central Park, designed by Calvert Vaux, separates pedestrians from the carriage drive.
Calvert Vaux (December 20, 1824November 19, 1895), was an architect and landscape designer. He is best remembered as the co-designer (with Frederick Law Olmsted), of New York's Central Park.

Little is known about Calvert Vaux’s childhood and upbringing. He was born in London in 1824, and his father was a doctor. Due to this social standing, his father was able to provide a comfortable income for his family.

Vaux (pronounced vokes) attended a private primary school until the age of nine. He then trained as an apprentice under London architect Lewis Nockalls Cottingham. Cottingham was a leader of the Gothic Revival movement. He trained Vaux until the age of 26 and as a result, Vaux became a very skilled draftsman.

In 1850, Vaux exhibited a collection of his continental landscape watercolors, and it was this gallery that captured the attention of American landscape designer and writer Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing had traveled to London in search of an architect that would compliment his vision of what a landscape should be. Downing believed that architecture should be visually integrated into the surrounding landscape, and he wanted to work with someone who had as deep an appreciation of art as he did. Vaux readily accepted the job and moved to the United States.

Downing and Vaux worked together for two years, and during those two years, he made Vaux a partner. Together they designed many significant projects. Examples include the grounds in the White House and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. Vaux’s work on the Smithsonian inspired an article he wrote for The Horticulturalist (Downing was the editor of this publication), in which he stated his view that it was time the government should recognize and support the arts. Shortly after writing this in 1852, Downing died during a fire in a steamboat accident. Vaux took over the company and his later work in Central Park was to be a fitting memorial to his late partner.

In 1854, he married Mary McEntee, the sister of Jervis McEntee, a Hudson River School painter. In 1856, he gained US citizenship and became identified with the city’s artistic community, “the guild.” He also joined the National Academy of Design, as well as the Century Club. In 1857, he became one of the founding members of the American Institute of Architects. Also in 1857, Vaux published “Villas and Cottages,” which was an influential pattern book that determined the standards for “Victorian Gothic” architecture. These particular writings revealed his acknowledgment and tribute to Ruskin and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as to his former partner Downing. These people, among others, influenced him intellectually and in his design path.

In 1858, he made a smart political move and collaborated with Olmsted designing Central Park. The plan was named “Greensward,” and they were able to obtain the commission through an excellent presentation that capitalized on Vaux’s talents in landscape drawing and the inclusion of before-and-after sketches of the site. Together, they fought many political battles to make sure their original design remained intact and was carried out.

In 1865, Vaux called upon Olmsted and they decided to create a partnership. As Olmsted, Vaux and Company, they designed one of the first suburbs of Chicago called the Riverside Improvement Society in 1868. They were also commissioned to design a major park project in Buffalo, New York, which included The Parade (now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Park), The Park ( now the Delaware Park), and The Front (which is simply Front Park now). Vaux designed many structures that were to beautify the parks, but most of these have been demolished. In 1871, they designed the grounds of the New York State Hospital for the Insane in Buffalo, New York.

In 1872, Vaux dissolved the partnership and went on to building architecture, in a partnership with George Kent Radford and Samuel Parsons, Jr. On a foggy November 19, 1895, he drowned in an accident while he was visiting his son, Downing Vaux, in Brooklyn. Throughout his lifetime, Vaux, while on his own and through various partnerships, designed and created dozens of parks across the country. He introduced new ideas about the significance of public parks in America during a hectic time of urbanization. This industrialization of the cityscape inspired him to focus on an integration of buildings, bridges and other forms of architecture into their natural surroundings. He favored naturalistic, rustic and curvilinear lines in his designs, and his design statements contributed much to today’s landscape and architecture.

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Calvert Vaux

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