Andrew Haswell Green, the unsung hero of Central Park‘s creation, was born on this day October 6, 1820 in Worcester, Massachusetts. You might be thinking, “I thought Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux created Central Park.” Andrew Haswell Green was the comptroller of the Central Park Commission, and was the behind-the-scenes influencer that led to the selection of the Greensward plan created by Olmsted and Vaux. He eventually became the comptroller of all of New York City, appointed to straighten out the finances following the corrupt years of Boss Tweed. Historian Kenneth T. Jackson, editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City dubs Green “arguably the most important leader in Gotham’s long history.”
Andrew Haswell Green portrait. Photo from NYPL Digital Collections
While forgotten today for his role in Central Park, Green was still very much in the mind of New Yorkers in 1929 when a bench was dedicated to him at the top of a hill also named for him, the Andrew Haswell Green Hill. This was the site of the former Mount Saint Vincent Academy, the first institution for higher learning for women in New York. The granite bench is inscribed with the words “In honor of Andrew Haswell Green. Directing genius of Central Park in its formative period. Father of Greater New York, this eminence was named Andrew H. Green Hill. These five symbolical trees were planted and this seat was here erected.” Not mentioned is the resentment Olmsted and Vaux eventually felt under Green’s control, but the end product is the Central Park still beloved today.
In the 1980s, the bench was moved across the way on East Drive opposite 104th Street in the 1980s to make way for a composting operation and in 1998 five new trees were planted around it. Even more recently, a NYC Parks sign was erected in front of the bench.
The Central Park Commission, which existed from 1857 to 1871, took on many more public works projects beyond Central Park, and with Green at the helm, went on to create Riverside Park, Fort Washington Park, Morningside Park, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Central Park Commission was also involved in various street improvement projects, including the widening of Broadway, the laying of the street grid above 155th Street, and the creation of Columbus Circle. Green was also involved in the creation of the Bronx Zoo and the New York Public Library, with funds from the estate of Samuel J. Tilden, a one-time U.S. Presidential candidate and lawyer. Green’s career closely dovetailed with that of Tilden, whose home on Gramercy Park is now the National Arts Club.
Though trained as a lawyer, Green effectively became New York City’s first “comprehensive urban planner,” according to historian David Hammack (take that Robert Moses!). NYC Parks writes that Green also “provided the driving force behind the movement to consolidate the City into five boroughs“, the feat that gave him the nickname “Father of Greater New York.”
In the book Broadway: A History of New York City in Thirteen Miles, historian Fran Leadon writes that Green was only legally obligated to follow the original Bloomingdale Road (which became Broadway) up to 86th Street: “North of that line, they could open the new avenue anywhere they pleased and so they decided to plow straight north and abandoned the Bloomingdale Road which gradually fell into disuse.” Green had a planner’s stratagems and an architect’s vision. Leadon writes that Green, “not lacking in taste or or enterprise, imagined the Boulevard [Broadway] running through a picturesque suburban landscape.” The lush malls on Broadway north of Columbus Circle emerge from Green’s view of what a new Broadway could look like.
A look up Broadway from Columbus Circle, envisioned by Green
Green’s life came to a tragic end at the age of 83 when he was shot about to enter his townhouse at No. 91 Park Avenue (at 40th Street) to have lunch with his family. It was a case of mistaken identity. A Cornelius Williams thought Green was the man having an affair with a woman Williams was romantically involved with. Before Green was shot five times by Williams, a conversation allegedly took place between the two where Green denied knowing Williams. Williams, a Black man, was deemed psychotic and sent to a mental institution. The investigation and trial thrilled the city in 1903, like many other high-society love triangle murders. Architect Stanford White would be murdered just three years later, in a similar “crime of passion.”
A memorial ceremony for Green was attended by New York City Mayor Seth Low, who said the event was “a grateful recognition of the obligation under which [Green] laid the city by many services during his long life.” Discussion was had during the event about the creation of a permanent memorial to Green — one idea was the creation of a parkway to be called the “Andrew Haswell Green Boundary Road” that would stretch from the Hudson River to the Long Island Sound. In 2001, former Manhattan Borough Historian Michael Miscione proposed to rename the Washington Bridge, which Green first suggested, in his honor. In fact, Miscione is one of the primary reasons Green is mentioned at all in modern urban discourse.
The creation of a public library was one of Green’s initiatives
Miscione tells us about his more than two decade fascination with Andrew Haswell Green, which started when he was researching the consolidation of New York for a documentary: “That’s when I discovered Andrew H. Green. Here was this guy who was not only the visionary behind the consolidation scheme, but he was a driving force behind all these other monumental initiatives like Central Park, Riverside Park, the Met, the AMNH, the NYPL, and the Bronx Zoo. He planned the street grid above 155th Street, and redesigned the grid of the Upper West Side. He organized and formalized the city’s historic preservation movement decades before the fights for Penn Station and Grand Central.”
Miscione continues, “So here was this guy who did so much, and no one had ever heard of him! (To add insult to injury, he was shot to death at age 83! A guy like Green deserves to die in bed.) I figured, Andrew Green needs a friend, and I’ll be that friend. That’s when I decided to raise awareness for him. I’ve been at it for about 20 years, with talks, tours, articles, ceremonies, and interviews. I think I have been somewhat successful. There’s a new park named for him on the East Side. Historians and tour guides don’t look at me quizzically as much as they used to when I drop his name. And he is mentioned in history books and other writings a lot more often than he used to be.”
Today, on the 200th anniversary of his birth, Miscione is embarking on a “Bicentennial Birthday Bike Tour” of Andrew Haswell Green in New York City. He’ll be documenting the many sites “connected to Green’s life and career as a master planner, reformer, and preservationist.” Some sites affiliated with Green include Andrew Haswell Green Park, along the East River under the Queensboro Bridge which features the roller-coaster looking art installation by Alice Aycock, a cocktail bar in the Theater District called Haswell Green’s at 240 W 52nd St, and the many institutions formed under Green’s direction. Miscione will be posting photographs with information at each stop on his Instagram account, @nycquizguy
Miscione will also host his annual birthday ceremony in honor of Green this Saturday. This year, on the 200th anniversary of Green’s birthday, will the 18th year Miscione has organized this event. The ceremony will take place at the Andrew Haswell Green bench at noon, details here.
Also join us for our upcoming virtual tour of the Forts of Central Park with former Central Park Conservancy guide Beth Goffe. This event is part of our programming for Archtober. Tickets are $15 but you can also join for free as a member of Untapped New York Insiders.
Virtual Talk of the Central Park North Woods