No attractive public area approximating the size and natural splendor of Green-Wood, Cypress Hills, and Evergreens cemeteries existed in metropolitan New York before Central Park opened in 1859. First envisioned by Andrew Jackson Downing, the great park finally took shape in the hands of Downing’s former partner Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, who assumed the “purpose of favoring simple, tranquilizing, contemplative, rural recreation.”
The rural cemetery was based on two concepts. It was a holy ground for the burial of human remains, and it was a natural retreat for spiritual connection and recreation for the living – in other words a park. The concept and the look came from two of that era’s most noted professional architects, Andrew Jackson Downing and Alexander Jackson Davis. Downing, who was retained by the founders with the titles of Rural Architect and Landscape Gardener, was the country’s most prominent American landscaper then and perhaps for all time (the mention of his name in a gathering of architects tends to make small talk disappear). Davis, a prominent architect in his own right, served as the architect of a Norman-style gatehouse and a Gothic Revival chapel with one hundred forty seats, a towering six and a half-foot tall pulpit, and an adjoining Sunday school room. Later, a rustic wooden shelter called the Summer House was built across the street from the chapel to serve as a gathering place for mourners. As the new buildings went up, extensive landscaping was done according to Downing’s principles, including laying out eight miles of winding roads and trails that were described in a brochure as lying “over, around, and through their grounds in the most picturesque and substantial manner.”
Such a look was characteristic of Downing. During his brief, hyperactive lifetime (he died in 1852 at the age of thirty-six), as a writer and designer he was the country’s leading exponent and practitioner of landscaping in the style alternately called romantic, picturesque, garden, and rural. He aimed to counter the degradations of the crowded, dirty modern city by providing what he called “a green oasis for the refreshment of the city’s soul and body.” That oasis might be a park, an esplanade, or a cemetery. Whichever, it offered a green retreat from the urban world’s dark, bleak woes. This notion that a proper landscape offered a sacred space reached back to the origins of the profession of landscape architecture. In ancient times, land was shaped and structures were arranged to provide settings for worship, burial rites, and the commemoration of heroes. The buildings on these sites were important, but the crucial step was the arrangement of topography and plantings into what Elizabeth Barlow Rogers has called “a contemplative landscape.” She explained, “The spaces in which these ceremonies took place were theaters for religious expression within a larger landscape.”
The agent of this spiritual-architectural tradition in America in the mid-1800s was Andrew Jackson Downing, who at once was America’s national tastemaker, the father of the country’s public parks movement, and the major figure in reshaping the American landscape in a way intended to make it look unshaped. “Nature’s gardener,” as he has been called, Downing won his fame not so much by actually gardening but by writing about the land and enhancing it in his designs.
Information taken from the book Green Oasis in Brooklyn: The Evergreens Cemetery by John Rousmaniere. Learn more here.