Calvert Vaux and Central Park’s Dairy

In the early days, Central Park had sheep, but no cows. It did, however, have a Dairy, because of a scandal that broke in the summer of 1858.

The Swill Milk Scandal

During the nineteenth century, New York’s population grew exponentially. Soon Manhattan real estate was too valuable to use for farms. But many people couldn’t afford milk shipped in from the country. For them, milk from distillery-dairies in Manhattan and Brooklyn was the only option. In such distilleries, grain was processed for alcohol, and what was left of the grain was fed to dairy cows. To make their thin, bluish milk look more appealing, it was mixed with starch, flour, molasses, Plaster of Paris, and other ingredients. This unwholesome liquid was dubbed “swill milk.”

In the summer of 1858, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine ran a major expose of the distillery-dairies. (For more, see this article on ForgottenDelights.com.)

Sick cow at a distillery dairy. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine for 5/15/1858.

The swill-milk scandal prompted the Board of Commissioners to add a restaurant to the Children’s District of Central Park. It was to serve healthy fare such as fresh milk, curds, and whey.

The Dairy in Central Park

The architect of the Dairy was Calvert Vaux. Vaux, a Londoner, was invited to New York by Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing was America’s foremost landscape gardener, and an early advocate of a great public park for Manhattan. He introduced Vaux to a rising star among writers on travel and landscape architecture: Frederick Law Olmsted.

Left: Andrew Jackson Downing, 1815-1852. Center: Calvert Vaux, 1824-1895; this image 1869. Right: Frederick Law Olmsted, 1822-1903; this image 1850.

Had Downing not died in a steamboat accident in 1852, he would certainly have played a major role in Central Park. Instead, it fell to Vaux to condemn the “manifest defects” of the 1856 plan that had been sketched by the Park’s engineer-in-chief, Egbert Ludovicus Viele. Vaux persuaded the Board of Commissioners to sponsor a competition for the park’s design. The winning “Greensward Plan” was created by Vaux in collaboration with Olmsted, who was by that time working as superintendent of Central Park under Viele.

New York Times article of 1858 announcing the Greensward Plan as winner of the Central Park competition.

Calvert Vaux became the park’s Consulting Architect. His elegant boathouse and a ladies’ restaurant called the Casino have unfortunately been demolished.

Vaux’s Casino (ladies’ restaurant) in Central Park, shown in 1876. Image: Treat’s Illustrated New York, 1876.

Vaux’s Boathouse, on the Lake in Central Park. Image: New York Public Library Digital Collections

Among the surviving structures by Vaux are Belvedere Castle and many of the bridges and arches that separated pedestrians, equestrians, and carriages. And of course he designed the grand architectural plan centerpiece of the Park, Bethesda Terrace.

Oak Bridge at the west side of the Ramble in Central Park. The image in the third annual report of the Board of Commissioners, published in 1860, credits Vaux as the architect.

Belvedere Castle in 1893. My notes on the source of this image say, cryptically, “Sprague – InternetBookArchive”.

Bethesda Terrace in 1866, before the dedication of Angel of the Waters. My notes on the source of this image say, cryptically, “Hudson – InternetBookArchive”.

In the 1870s, Vaux scored a major coup: commissions for designing two museums on park land. His original facades for the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are both now buried under later additions.

Original wing of the American Museum of Natural History. Image: Wikipedia

Original plan for the American Museum of Natural History. Image: annual report of the Board of Commissioners of Central Park for 1872.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, original wing, ca. 1880. Howe, A History of the Metropolitan Museum, 1913.

Back to the Dairy

Samuel Gustin’s plan for Central Park (which came in second in the competition for the Park’s design) included a dairy. The earliest mention of the Dairy by Olmsted or Vaux seems to be in a New York Times article of 6/2/1860 in which Olmsted discussed improvements to the Park. (Many thanks to Ron Korcak, a Central Park Conservancy Volunteer, for bringing both these facts to my attention.) Olmsted said:

In a retired spot, in the southeastern part of the park, at the head of a glen formed by two large masses of rock, and looking over the lower lake, it is proposed to erect a small house, or chalet, of a rural or rustic character, and which may be called the dairy. In front of it would be a hill of about five acres, which is nearly surrounded by water, and which can conveniently be fenced off as a pasture. Here it is proposed that several Alderney cows shall be kept, for the purpose of supplying, at certain hours in the morning and evening, milk fresh from the cow, as is done near the entrance of St. James’ Park, London. At the dairy-house, light refreshments, especially such as are composed mainly of milk and cream, would be provided, and this establishment would be intended especially to afford a quiet place to which ladies and invalids might at any time resort with satisfaction. — New York Times 6/2/1860 

A sketch of the proposed Dairy, credited to “Olmsted & Vaux, Landscape Architects,” appeared in the Board of Commissisoners’ annual report for 1869. It was situated just south of the 65th Street Transverse, near the children’s play areas.

Proposed Dairy, shown in the annual report of the Board of Commissioners for Central Park published in 1869.

When the Dairy was nearly complete, in 1870, Boss Tweed’s cronies took over the park and converted the Dairy into a restaurant. But in 1872, after Tweed & Co. had been ousted, Olmsted as Commissioner of the New York Department of Public Parks published a handbill advertising that milk was available at the dairy. (Thanks again to Ron Korcak for alerting me to this!)

Young children, when confined to the city during the summer, generally suffer in health, and are specially liable to fall into dangerous disorders of the bowels. When it is impracticable to make a visit of some length to the country with them, great advantage will be gained by spending the greater part of a day occasionally in the open air, and under conditions otherwise favorable to health. Arrangements have been made by which this can be done easily and cheaply by great numbers on the Central Park.
The attention of those interested is particularly invited to four points: The Dairy, the Ramble, the Great Hill, and Mt. St. Vincent, at each of which there are private accommodations for women and children (with the attendance of a woman), which may be used without charge. At the Dairy and the Great Hill there is turf on which young children are allowed to play, and shaded seats; fresh, pure and wholesome milk is furnished at 5 cts. a glass, and bowls of bread and milk for children at 10 cts.  — Quoted in Frederick Law Olmsted Landscape Architect 1822-1903, Frederick Law Olmsted & Theodora Kimball, eds., 1970 reissue, pp. 417-418

Here’s the Dairy in 1872.

The Dairy. Image: Appletons, 1872.

By the 1950s, the Dairy’s wooden portico had collapsed, and Robert Moses was using the building as a storage shed. The Central Park Conservancy honored Calvert Vaux by putting the Dairy’s renovation at the top of their to-do list. It opened it to the public in 1981 as the first visitors’ center for Central Park.

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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and two videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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