Frederick Law Olmsted
Preliminary sketch of Prospect Park by Olmsted
Vaux and Olmsted map of Prospect Park
James N. Pronk
Bridge in Central Park Designed by Vaux
Hillside Cemetery in Middletown
Calvert Vaux’s Forgotten Cemetery
The great Central Park of New York City is known throughout the world. The 843 acre park in the heart of Manhattan is enjoyed and loved for the variety and intricacy of its closed and open landscapes. The genius behind the landscape architecture was Calvert Vaux who was working on a much smaller project, The Hillside Cemetery in Middletown, New York, at the same time. While Central Park is shared by millions, the little cemetery is hidden in an old upstate railroad and manufacturing town, and is seldom visited, nor very well known. One would expect more visitors to the magnificent little cemetery because it was designed by the world class Vaux at the creative peak of his career, and it has its own versions of many of the same design elements that he used in Central Park.
Calvert Vaux (1824-1895) was one of the most renowned architects and landscape designers of the 19th Century. He was born in London and at a young age studied and trained as an apprentice under architect Lewis Nockalls Cottingham who was influential in the Gothic Revival movement. He trained with Cottingham till the age of twenty-six when he met his good friend and mentor Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing, a landscape designer from Newburgh, New York, was looking for someone who believed in his aesthetic philosophy that “architecture should be visually integrated into the surrounding landscape.” He found his man in Vaux who believed that “architecture can play a role in promoting refinement and taste in America” (Schuyler).
In 1850 Downing invited Vaux to come to the United States to be his partner. Because Vaux had a formal education in architecture and two years of training under A.J. Downing, his reputation as an architect and landscape designer grew rapidly. In 1856 Vaux became an American citizen and moved to New York City. At the time there was a need for urban parks, places where everyday working class people could get back to nature. City life had become industrialized, and citizens of the lower and middle classes needed a place for recreation to release the stress of everyday work. In1857, the board of the American Institute of Architecture had a competition for the design of Central Park. Vaux invited Frederick Law Olmsted, who had no formal training as a landscape architect, to enter the competition as a partner to design a plan, and together the “Greenwald” plan was conceived. Vaux and Olmsted won the competition and worked on Central Park from 1858-1878.
According to Francis Kowsky, both Vaux and Olmstead worked very well together. One possible explanation for their successful partnership was the way their two landscape styles complemented each other. Vaux preferred a landscape seen “as a series of close, sheltered spaces.” Olmsted on the other hand, “favored broad passages of nature.” Vaux and Olmsted’s idea about public parks was for people to interact with nature and to enjoy oneself outside the confinements of their everyday home and work place.
Vaux and Olmsted designed Prospect Park in 1866, for all classes to enjoy walking, skating, sailing, picnicking, playing, and listening to music while maintaining a “rural, natural, tranquilizing and poetic character in the scenery.” They claimed “ Men must come together and must be seen coming together, in carriages, or horseback and on foot…and the concourse of animated life which will thus be formed, must in itself be made, if possible, an attractive and diverting spectacle.” Vaux and Omlsted wanted the park as an open space that gave the visitor a sense of “enlarged freedom” and wanted the park to be used mostly by walkers. (Kowsky).
The same philosophy of what constituted a park, and what functions could be served by public space, drove all of the projects that engaged Vaux and Olmstead at that time. Each of the projects, from Brooklyn to Middletown, was a manifestation of the same vision. Vaux and Olmsted thought Prospect Park a “formidable rival to the Central Park" and here they had a little more freedom to work with the designs. The 526 acre Prospect Park included meadowland, mature woods, a large lake and broad highlands. Vaux and Olmsted designed a tripartite spatial plan that included the Green know as the Long Meadow, the Ravine, and the Lake. The aim was the same here as it was in Central Park and at Hillside Cemetery: to use topography, trees, bridges, and walkways to create a varied landscape with fluid passage from one space to another, opening and closing into broad then narrow landscapes to match the various moods. of the meditative walker.
According to Schuyler, Vaux and Olmsted described the pastoral landscape as a “combination of trees standing singing or in groups, and casting their shadows over broad stretches of turf, or repeating their beauty by reflection upon the calm surface of pools.” They maintained this picturesque landscape “in the highest degree tranquilizing and peaceful, as expressed by the Hebrew poet: “He maketh me to lie down in green pasture; He leadeth me besides still water” (Schuyler).
It is not a real stretch to compare a rural cemetery to a great metropolitan park. Industrialization drove both the mid- 19th century rural parks movement and the rural cemetery movement. Both institutions, parks and cemeteries, were called upon to serve the same function: provide places where people in urban communities could get back to nature. Picturesque cemeteries were used by the public as parks for recreation. People took the same kinds of strolls through one as well as the other, and other forms of exercise were encouraged and encountered in cemeteries as well.
In 1860, Vaux was approached by James N. Pronk, an attorney who was a member of The Hillside Cemetery Association from Middletown, New York. Middletown was a thriving manufacturing town in upstate New York and Pronk, who wanted to improve civic life in Middeltown, hired Vaux to design the cemetery (Kowsky). Among the rolling hills tucked away behind factories and businesses in the city of Middletown, in 1861, Calvert Vaux designed the Victorian cemetery named Hillside.
At the time Vaux was working on Hillside Cemetery, he was still working on Central Park with Olmsted. Middletown would not be incorporated as a city until 1888, but the small manufacturing center was known as a railroad town served by three different railroads including the Erie. Vaux knew that he had easy access from New York City to Middletown. While he commuted back and forth, he would meet Olmsted in Central Park for updates on the Central Park project and also consulted with his partner for his expert opinion in the landscape design of this rural cemetery (Kowsky).
Both Hillside Cemetery and Central Park were designed for the same function: the psychological and recreational needs of the community. According to Schuyler, “Olmsted’s estimation of the park should be a rural landscape within a town.” Central Park’s “Greensward” plan was a man-made design, but would appear as a natural setting. Mid 19th century Manhattan life, with its packed streets, crowded tenements, haphazard sanitary services, and treeless, cramped thoroughfares was oppressive and unremitting, It had become increasingly obvious to many that vast tracts of city land had to be reserved as green oases for the health and sanity of the city’s occupants.
The intersection of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street was considered the entrance to Central Park. The design emphasized curvilinear roads around the lake, which lead to the promenade or Mall which naturally lead its visitors into the park. The design also had many transverse roads, bridges, waterways, buildings, and many trees and shrubs that adorned the park (Schuyler). In much the same way, Middletown had its own entryway to Hillside Cemetery. “The Avenue” known today as Mulberry Street went from the civic center of the village to the cemetery. The railroad station was a ten minute walk from the cemetery. Kowsky explains, “this new thoroughfare owed its creation to Vaux and Olmsted. It can be regarded as the earliest example of their intention to link one of their designed landscapes with an existing city plan by means of a special, parklike street”
Vaux’s original 44 acre design in Middletown had several ponds, 2,000 trees and shrubs, and gravel-based roads and paths. Hillside Cemetery is exactly what its name suggests: it is built on the side of a hill. Vaux used curved roads and angled water ways to accentuate the hillside and the spectacular views. The various carriage paths and trails were named after plants and trees that were planted there, such as Arabia Path, Chestnut Path, Cypress Path, Elm Avenue, Juniper Path, Hyacinth Path, Locust Avenue, Magnolia Path, Mulberry Path, Petunia Path, and Sassafras Path (Mills). The hills of the cemetery have many carriage trails so people can take leisurely strolls, a usual custom of the time.
The cemetery is not one big open space, but instead affords one the opportunity to move around different areas. The topography and trees create the impression of moving in and out of spaces, some large and expansive, others closed in and intimate. Vaux intended to construct a 40 foot tower at the top of Observatory Hill, but the Hillside Association voted against it. Even so from the top of the hill you could still see a view of Middletown, the business district on an adjacent hill, and across town another hill upon which the former Horton Hospital sits.
Vaux was well aware of the position of the sun as he designed his landscape. At different times of the day, the light changes the dynamics of the cemetery. In the early morning, the light radiates as it reflects the huge grave markers, mausoleums, ponds and paths. The evening light has a calming effect, peaceful and tranquil. More than a dozen mausoleums adorn the grounds. There are fifty or more obelisks, some stretching almost 30 feet into the sky. Huge granite boulders used as gravestones were common at the time. Most of the granite came from Barre, Vermont. The white marble was from Carrara, Italy.
Ninety-eight of Middletown’s first settlers are buried at Hillside Cemetery, including members of Middletown’s most prominent families. Several thousand people are buried there and represent a large amount of Middletown’s local history. The cemetery is still operating and welcomes any new comers who want to spend a peaceful eternity in this cozy niche.
The Hillside Cemetery Association is not affiliated with any church ordenomination. Recently, it has been raising money to restore the cemetery. All these years they have worked to maintain the original design and vision of Calvert Vaux. The quiet, rolling cemetery is pretty much the way it was when Vaux first envisioned it, although there are more gravestones, the trees have matured, and in many cases, have fallen. But the City around it has changed dramatically. Today, many Middletown residents do not even know that the beautiful cemetery near the heart of town is even there.
In December 1994 Hillside Cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior. The little known Hillside Cemetery, designed and built at the peak of Vaux’s illustrious career, benefited from the work that Vaux was doing at the same time in New York’s Central Park. While the New York City park is much better known and utilized, the smaller rural landscape contains many of the same innovations and features that have characterized Vaux’s best work.
We are lucky to have this architectural wonder in Middletown, where 149 years after it was designed, it is still being used as a rural cemetery and a place to get away from it all: to take photographs or a stroll, to ride a bicycle, or to reflect on mortality, artistic immortality, and the passage of time.
Denise S. Isseks
Kowsky, Francis R. County Park & City: The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux. Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.
Mills, Louis Van Orden. A History of Hillside Cemetery and the Community It Serves. Revised Spring 2003.
Schuyler, David. The New Urban Landscape: The Redefinition of City Form in Nineteenth-Century America. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1988.