Andrew Haswell Green Bench, Central Park

Who most influenced the shape of Central Park in its early years? There was Egbert Ludovicus Viele, whose detailed topographical study of the site helped make the park’s design a matter of engineering as well as esthetics. There were Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, of course, who created the Greensward Plan. Last and not least, there was Andrew Haswell Green, who managed the money.

Andrew Haswell Green (1820-1903), this photo ca. 1868. Image: Museum of the City of New York

Green as Central Park’s money manager

In 1857, Green, a real-estate lawyer, was appointed one of the original eleven commissioners of Central Park. He served as treasurer, then president. By 1859, he was park comptroller.

Willowdale Bridge, near the Mall and Balto. Left to right: Andrew Haswell Green, George Waring Jr. (?), Calvert Vaux, Ignaz Anton Pilat, Jacob Wrey Mould, Frederick Law Olmsted. Photo by Victor Prevost.

As comptroller, with both executive power and financial control, Green soon veered onto a crash course with Olmsted. Although Green had voted for the Olmsted and Vaux design, he didn’t envision Central Park as a pastoral escape. He successfully campaigned for the building of art and natural history museums there.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, original wing, ca. 1880. Howe, A History of the Metropolitan Museum, 1913.
Original wing of the American Museum of Natural History, opened to the public in 1869. Image: AMNH website.

Green also minutely questioned the bills submitted by Olmsted as architect-in-chief. Olmsted accused him of a “constitutional reluctance to pay.”

From the Board of Commissioners’ Annual Report for 1859.

The New York State Legislature rewarded Green’s efficient management by expanding the duties of the Board of Commissioners. The Board managed every park in Manhattan. They were in charge of surveying and then laying out the streets in northern Manhattan and the southern end of the Bronx.

The Bronx under construction, 1867. Image: Wikipedia

They were also in charge of building and maintaining the bridges that crossed the Harlem River, and defining bulkheads on the shore of the Hudson.

One of the Harlem River bridges in 1861. Image: New York Public Library Digital Collections

To accomplish all this, the Board hired thousands of employees and handled budgets running to millions of dollars.

Total income since 1857, as reported by the Board of Commissioners in 1869.
Total expenses since 1857, as reported by the Board of Commissioners in 1869.

And that put a target on their back.

The Tweed Years

In the 1860s, politicians routinely handed out jobs to their supporters. When Boss Tweed came into power in April 1870, one of his first acts was to put his cronies in control of the Board of Commissioners of Central Park – and hence all those jobs and all that money.

Andrew Haswell Green was the only member of the old Board who stubbornly held his position under Tweed’s cronies. Alas, his “constitutional reluctance to pay” had no effect on their extravagant spending. When it became obvious that he would routinely disagree with them, they simply failed to show up for scheduled meetings and met elsewhere.

Board of Commissioners annual report, 1870-1871: Green is not a quorum.
Routine authorization for withdrawal of funds under Tweed’s cronies. Annual report of the Board of Commissioners for 1870.
“Who stole the people’s money?” Cartoon by Thomas Nast. Image: Albert Bigelow Paine, Thomas Nast: HIs Period and His Pictures.

After Tweed’s arrest in late 1871, the city collapsed into financial shambles. Green, appointed comptroller of the city, borrowed half a million dollars on his own responsibility in order to pay for policemen, firemen, and other urgent services.

Greater New York and the Green Bench

By then, Green was already arguing that Manhattan and the patchwork of forty-odd cities, towns, and villages surrounding it should be combined into one grand City of New York. In 1898, when consolidation became official, Andrew Haswell Green was presented with a gold medal and was proclaimed “the Father of Greater New York.”

Greater New York, 1898. Image: David Rumsey Map Collection
Medal commemorating the consolidation of Brooklyn, Bronx, Manhattan, Queens & Staten Island into New York City.

Green was honored in 1929 – a quarter century after his death – with a simple bench backed by five trees that represent the five boroughs of Greater New York.

Green Bench in Central Park, dedicated 1929. Now by the East Drive, roughly on the line of 105th and 106th Streets. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante


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