Silent Partner: Calvert Vaux
On Wednesday July 28, 1852, the red-hot boilers of the steamer Henry Clay exploded just short of Yonkers, flinging passengers and crew into the Hudson. Two days later The New York Times continued its coverage of the catastrophe, in which to that point 47 bodies had been located. “The workmen who are engaged in grappling for the dead assert their belief, that there are yet many more bodies lying under the wreck, which bears upon them, and fearing they would mutilate the remains they deferred extricating them, until such times as the timbers can be raised. While scouring the bottom of the river, pieces of clothing were hooked up with the grapples, but the bodies could not be pulled out, unless tearing the limbs and flesh.”
On the very afternoon of the catastrophe, the Westchester County Coroner impaneled a jury to commence taking testimony from the survivors, even as bodies were being piled along the beach, “covered over with green branches from the woods adjacent” to resist decomposition in the summer heat. Caroline Downing had been rescued and was taken home to await news about her celebrated husband, Andrew Jackson Downing (the subject of last week’s column), who had last been seen on the top deck, throwing wooden chairs to those already in the water.
As corpses continued to be brought on shore through the night of the 28th, Calvert Vaux stood watch. The 27-year old Englishman had come to America not even two years before, to be Downing’s architectural assistant and soon business partner. By mid-Thursday, he would address the coroner’s inquest, as The New York Times reported:
“As to the body of ANDREW JACKSON DOWNING, Calvert Vaux was called and sworn: I reside at Newburg; I am the partner of deceased in business; I was not on board of the Clay; I have seen the body of Mr. DOWNING, and recognized it [the Albany Argus further quoted Vaux as saying, ‘it was taken Out from near the wreck’]; deceased was thirty-six years of age; I have no doubt of the identity; deceased was drowned from the Henry Clay; he was accompanied by the following persons: Mrs. DOWNING, (saved;) Mrs. DE WINT, (lost.) wife of JOHN PETER DE WINT, Fishkill; FRANK DE WINT, MARY C. DE WINT, (saved;) and Mrs. MATILDA WADSWORTH, lost.)” [sic as to spelling and punctuation]
One week after the wreck of the Henry Clay, the death toll had risen to 70, and the heart-rending testimony of confusion, despair, and heroism riveted the nation. But now Calvert Vaux, stranger in a strange land, bereft of his mentor and friend, feared that his career might well become casualty No. 71. He had been the architectural partner in Downing & Vaux, the backroom wizard who executed the commissions that the flamboyant Downing drew to the firm through his transcendentalist literary musings. On August 5, Vaux placed this whistling-in-the graveyard notice in the classified section of The New York Times:
“DOWNING & VAUX ARCHITECTS, Newburg—In consequence of the death of Mr. DOWNING, the business of the firm is now carried on by his surviving partner, Mr. CALVERT VAUX, and all communications addressed to him at Newburg will be immediately attended to. Mr. VAUX has been in close professional connection with Mr. DOWNING from the time that he commenced the practice of Architecture, and trusts for a continuance of the confidence that has been extended to the firm.”
And somehow it worked. Clients flocked to Vaux & Withers (Frederick Clarke Withers, whom Downing had imported from England the year after Vaux) as they had to Downing & Vaux. The duo set up shop in Crawford House, today the home of Newburgh’s historical society, and they worked together fruitfully. The Tuscan and Elizabethan villas that Downing had favored soon became the pointy, ecclesiastical Gothic Revival style in which both young Englishman had apprenticed in London. Now the firm’s designs were being executed in stone as well as in the wood that Downing and his mentor, Alexander Jackson Davis, had favored in the 1840s. By 1857 Vaux would publish a well-received pattern book of his own, Villas and Cottages; a year later he would win the most important commission of his life, for Central Park in New York; and for the next thirty-five years or so he would remain a vital force in American architecture—landscape, domestic, and institutional.
But none of this came easily to Calvert Vaux, who after he left Newburgh in 1857 seemed always to need the sheltering arm of a business partner to win the job, to navigate the political thickets, to be the public face while he worked in relative privacy. He had been content to play Lou Gehrig to Downing’s Babe Ruth, even while holding a highly skeptical view of his mentor’s technical competence. In the years to come he would seek the partnership of Frederick Law Olmsted yet grumble more openly about laboring in his formidable shadow.
Calvert Bowyer Vaux had been born at the house of his father’s practice as “surgeon and apothecary” at 36 Pudding Lane, London on December 20, 1824. When the senior Vaux suffered a stroke in 1831 and died soon afterward, the gifted boy’s chance for an education was threatened. Yet he was accepted as a “worthy lad” (without tuition charges) at the Merchant Taylors’ School, where he continued until age 14. He left without graduating to apprentice with architect Lewis Nockalls Cottingham, whose specialty was in Gothic churches and the occasional commission for Gothicated homes. Vaux made some money on the side by lettering railroad maps, enough so that he could tour Europe a bit, but he recognized that his prospects in England were not rosy, so when Downing offered him a passage to America and a job, he leapt at it.
In the year that Downing fetched Vaux he also proposed a new location for a vast public park in New York City — a Central Park that would be located between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, running north from 59th Street. Poet William Cullen Bryant had proposed a public park six years earlier, but his idea was to place it along the yet rustic eastern shore of Manhattan Island, on the site then known as Jones’ Wood. “The heats of summer are upon us,” Bryant wrote, “and while some are leaving the town for shady retreats in the country, others refresh themselves with short excursions to Hoboken or New Brighton, or other places among the beautiful environs of our city. If the public authorities who expend so much of our money in laying out the city, would do what is in their power, they might give our vast population an extensive pleasure ground for shade and recreation in these sultry afternoons, which we might reach without going out of town…. All large cities have their extensive public grounds and gardens, Madrid and Mexico their Alamedas, London its Regent’s Park, Paris its Champs Elysées, and Vienna its Prater. There are none of them, we believe, which have the same natural advantages of the picturesque and beautiful which belong to this spot.”
By 1851 Downing’s vision won out over Bryant’s, as New York State passed enabling legislation so that a large parcel could be purchased by the city in mid-Manhattan. After amendment in 1853, by which time Downing was out of the picture, purchases commenced and continued until 1856, elongating the park’s territory from 59th Street to 106th Street (and in 1863 up to 110th Street). In 1857, at the urging of one of the installed commissioners, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) applied for the position of superintendent of the park’s development … and somehow won it. The commissioners then announced a competition for design of the entire park grounds. Of the 33 anonymously submitted entries, the one named “Greensward” was adjudged the winner — and was then revealed to have been submitted by Olmsted and Vaux in collaboration.
How did these two come to put their heads together? Surely Vaux realized that he had no political cachet; being the artistic successor to the nation’s leading landscape architect may have been an honor, but it was not enough to prevail with the Tammany crew. Olmsted was neither an engineer nor an architect, but he came from a notable Hartford family and his newspaper and political connections were solid. Also, he had come to Newburgh to sit at the feet of Downing in 1851, at which time he and Vaux may have met. Olmsted called himself a “practical farmer” — that is, one who was convinced, like Downing, that planned landscape, agriculture, and horticulture should serve a social and democratic purpose — yet at this time he was principally a journalist. Soon after meeting with Downing, he would be off to England for a stroll through the southern countryside that would become, in book form, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, published by his father’s friend George Putnam. Vaux certainly read this book, and was impressed.
In Liverpool Olmsted paused to admire Joseph Paxton’s 120-acre Birkenhead Park, which he described in Walks and Talks. This park, which because it was paid for with tax dollars was dedicated to public use, had also made quite an impression on Vaux. As Richard Amero observed, “Following the example of Regent’s Park in London, Birkenhead Commissioners amortized the costs of developing the park by selling home-building lots surrounding the site. One of the chief reasons for developing public parks from that time onward was that they would enhance property values and increase city revenues.” This point, with its vast potential for money-making, was not lost on New York’s political set.
Once the Greensward plan was anointed, Olmsted miraculously moved up from superintendent to architect-in-charge and chief engineer — no matter that he had been been trained for neither position. Vaux, to his chagrin, was named assistant to Olmsted though later he was elevated to “consulting architect.” As Amero notes, “Possessed with many well-placed friends and an easy fluency in speaking and writing, Olmsted so overshadowed Vaux that commentators referred to Olmsted as the designer of the parks that he and Vaux created together.” This held true not only for Central Park but also for Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the Riverside suburban development outside Chicago, the interconnected park system of Buffalo, and the State Reservation at Niagara Falls … to name just a handful of the Olmsted-Vaux collaborations to follow. The great landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr., who was Vaux’s last partner, noted: “Mr. Olmsted was a leader of men, a man of magnetism and charm, a literary genius, but hardly the creative artist that Mr. Vaux was.”
Vaux and Olmsted worked together for all but one year in the period 1858 to 1878, forming the firm Olmsted, Vaux and Company in 1865. Other notable architects to work with Vaux in subsequent years included Jacob Wrey Mould, with whom he designed the original buildings of the Metropolitan Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, as well as George Kent Radford, Samuel Parsons, Jr. and of course Fred Withers, with whom he created the fabulously polychromatic Jefferson Market Courthouse, now used as a library, in Greenwich Village.
Vaux served as Landscape Architect for New York City from 1881 until his death, often with stormy outbursts, threatened resignations, and ultimate acceptance of political featherbedding where professional architectural work was called for. The Tweed Ring had been run out of town, but they were replaced by new frock-coated racketeers. He no longer had Olmsted to run interference for him, and observers noted that his mood and demeanor suffered.
As New York affairs increasingly ground him down. Vaux began to spend more time in Kingston (Rondout, actually). He had married a Rondout girl, Mary Swan McEntee, sister of Hudson River School landscapist Jervis McEntee, in 1854; they had two sons and two daughters. The family liked to put on theatrical programs at the Sampson House (also known as The Opera House, later as the Kingston Freeman building, and today as the site of the restaurant Mariners’ Harbor). Vaux designed a number of residences in Rondout or Ponckhockie, all now vanished.
Vaux is buried in Kingston’s Montrepose Cemetery, in the same row as Jervis McEntee and other members of their families, even though he died in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, while visiting his son Bowyer. He walked off the end of a pier into Gravesend Bay, and while the family maintained he was confused and had left the house on a foggy day to take a walk without bringing along his eyeglasses, the newspapers reported the death as a suicide. From The Brooklyn Eagle of November 21, 1895, the day of the drowning:
“A workman on Fry’s coal dock first saw the body being tossed about in the rough water, but when he rushed to the shore to secure the corpse it disappeared. It was some minutes later before Mr. Fry himself saw it drifting alongside the bulkhead out to sea again. With a boat hook he succeeded in bringing it close to shore…. It was finally necessary for someone to go right in after it…. The son was much affected. He made the identification certain by examining the marks on the clothing, not daring to trust himself to look at the features.”
In a final, touching collaboration with Olmsted, the pair had reunited in 1889 to design Newburgh’s Downing Park, in tribute to the man who had inspired both of them and who had made Central Park possible. Vaux would not live to see it completed in 1896, and by that time Olmsted was confined to an insane asylum, so the project was completed by their sons, Downing Vaux and John C. Olmsted.
SOME EXTANT VAUX SITES IN THE HUDSON VALLEY
W.E. Warren House, Montgomery Street, Newburgh
Crawford House, Montgomery Street, Newburgh (Vaux offices in mid-1850s)
Rev. E.J. O’Reilly House, 55 Grand Street, Newburgh (with Withers)
Halsey R. Stevens House, 182 Grand Street (with Withers)
(Former) Design Studio for Jervis McEntee, Rondout NY (site: Dietz Court)
(Former) Samuel D. Coykendall House, Rondout 1890-92 (with Radford)
Olana (Vaux initial design, later changed by the owner, painter Frederic Church)
Idlewild at Cornwall, commissioned as home of poet N.P. Willis, now drastically altered
Hoyt House, Staatsburg (in spectacular ruin on grounds of Ogden & Ruth Mills State Park)
Hall-Rice Building, Troy (featured in Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence)
National Arts Club, Gramercy Park, NYC (former Samuel J. Tilden residence)
Hudson River State Hospital and Grounds, Poughkeepsie (with Olmsted and Withers)
Wildertstein (Vaux landscape design)
Montrepose (Vaux burial site)
Downing Park, Newburgh (two Vauxes, two Olmsteds)