On a recent visit to the Upper East Side, the benches bordering Central Park were all filled up, so I leaned against the park's stone wall while killing time before an appointment. I would have sat on the wall, but as you may have noticed the surface is not flat. Why did Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux decide upon this frustrating design feature, which effectively eliminated about five miles of seats?
I reached out to the Central Park Conservancy, where one employee declared, "I assume the top is angled rather than flat so leaves and snow fall off of it," before bringing up a more popular opinion: "and so people don’t sit or lay on it, but that is just a practical guess." These walls are likely an early example of (what we now call) hostile architecture.
I was also directed to a 1984 dissertation written by Columbia preservation student Abby Jaroslow, which offers another view—she wrote:
"Olmsted and Vaux's design intention was the blending of pastoral and picturesque landscapes, and the constant suggestion to the imagination of an unlimited range of rural conditions... adapting desired landscape elements to the natural topography led to many of the designers' decisions.
"In Olmsted and Vaux's view, accessory elements were not desired but were necessary for the accommodation of park visitors. They advised that such features be scaled to their importance and amount of use. The perimeter wall and the entranceways were considered accessories. They were designed with attention to the degree in which they interrupted the planted border."
Here's a visual of their plan—essentially they wanted to create a “screening border” around the perimeter which would block views of the city. Still, this could have been done with flat-surfaced walls.
Sure, this was better than the iron cage that was proposed as an alternative plan—"After six months of serious trial and despite the large economies an iron fence offered, Vaux finally dissuaded the commissioners from adopting an 'iron cage' in favor of a low stone wall that would allow the pedestrian's eye 'to roam at will' over the landscape inside." Still, this alternative plan hints that there were reasons beyond aesthetics going into the perimeter design.
Ultimately the duo worked with others to approve the final design, down to what stone was used—from Jaroslow's paper: "Another reason for choosing the popular sandstone may have been the Commissioners' acceptance of Olmsted and Vaux's prediction that real estate development along the park's border was inevitable. Walls of tooled, cut freestone were respectable architectural features. The Commissioners may have wanted to encourage construction of similarly respectable facades on the park's future neighbors." So perhaps the wall design went beyond fitting in to the park's landscape, and was also a way to keep future loiterers away? Here's a look at the area in 1890, you can see the wall, and also the developing area around the park (it's worth noting that the park had to be cleared of shanty towns both before and after its construction):
In 1913, there was discussion of removing the wall entirely—the NY Times wrote, "The wall serves to keep no intruders out of the park. They go in now at whatever point they choose to jump over the fence. The wall is not a part of the original plan. It has been tried many years, and found wanting; it detracts from the beauty of the park. Therefore, when the time comes, it will go." Alas!
Turns out some do enjoy the angles, however—after visiting a few years ago, artist Frank Viva included it in his piece for the cover of The New Yorker—he wrote, "I’ve always loved the wall that surrounds the park. It’s a big, thick stone wall that has stuff growing out of crevices and a pyramid-shaped top. It is a boundary between the green park and the concrete city."