Riverside Park and Riverside Drive in New York City were designated a Scenic Landmark in 1980 by the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission, but this designation raises some problems for historians. The Landmark designation is based primarily on the park's status as a Frederick Law Olmsted design. My research shows, however, that only a small part of the park as it stands today was actually designed by Olmsted, and that Riverside Park was rather the result of ad hoc decisions and compromises over several decades. The history of Riverside Park presented in this article is offered as an alternative to the Landmarks Commission's history in its "Designation Report." This alternative history of a "non-Olmsted park" shows that Olmsted's design, based on an aesthetic of nature, is preserved only in the layout of Riverside Drive on the high ground above the Hudson and in the parkland immediately adjacent to the Drive. The many sculptural monuments added to Riverside Park and Drive, beginning with a temporary Grant's Tomb in the 1880s and continuing through the 1920s, are the legacy of a City Beautiful conception of the park as an instrument for cultural uplift and education. In the 1930s yet another conception of parks as active recreation space led to doubling the park's size by landfill and expanding its facilities by building many sports grounds, children's playgrounds, and a tree-bordered promenade. In my conclusion, I consider what it means, to readers of history and to makers of parks policy, to choose one or the other of these histories. If Riverside is "an Olmsted park," preservation policies will take a different form than they will if it is a "non-Olmsted park." From this discussion, I also raise some general questions about the meaning and implications of constructing particular kinds of historical stories.
- Copyright 1984 The Society of Architectural Historians