The Beginnings of Central Park
Photograph of Fifth Avenue looking southward from the roof of the Arsenal at 64th Street].
[New York]:  [printed early 1860s].
Albumen photograph printed from a paper negative, 8-1/2 x 13-1/2 inches. The Beginnings of Central Park. Likely mounted in an album and removed, with remnants of prior mounting on verso. Very light pencil inscription in the image. Matted Julie Mellby "Victor Prevost: Painter, Lithographer, Photographer" History of Photography, 35:3 (2011), pp. 221-239. Item #353610
An extraordinary photograph taken at the very beginnings of the construction of Central Park.
Taken from the roof of the Arsenal at 64th Street looking down the dirt road of Fifth Aveue, evidence of the park construction can be seen in the fore-ground, with piles of dynamited rock from the work that had begun. Also in the foreground is the wooden shack which would become the first club house of the New York Skating Club (and roughly the site of the present day Park Plaza Hotel). The largest building in the center of the image on the west side of Fifth Avenue at 54th Street is St. Luke's Hospital, which had opened in 1858. Notably, in the distance to the right of the hospital can be seen the roof of Crystal Palace, which would be destroyed by fire in October of that year. Across Fifth Avenue from the hospital, through a thick copse of trees can be seen the grounds and buildings of Columbia University, then located at approximately 49th Street between Madison and Fifth. Also visible is the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum next to Columbia. What is most striking about the image, however, is the vast openness and undeveloped area of what would become the heart of Manhattan.
The existence of this photograph was previously unknown; however it evidently was the basis for a lithographed view published in the 1859 issue of Valentine's Manual. That lithograph, by George Hayward, was described at length by Henry Collins Brown in his 1920 Valentine's Manual of Old New York, who refers to the view as "one of the most valuable views in the entire series of New York's iconography." The lithographed view, however, gives no credit to the photographer.
However, given the early date, composition and location, the image could be the work of Victor Prevost (1820-1881). Born in France and trained as a painter and lithographer, Prevost arrived in New York in 1848 and began experimenting with paper photography as early as 1851. He returned to France shortly thereafter to work directly with Gustav Le Gray, returning the New York to open a studio in 1853. His most important images of the period includes a series of views in West Point (1853), the interior and exterior of Crystal Palace (1853), a solar eclipse (1854), as well as a number of architectural views in New York City. Interestingly, in 1862 Prevost was commissioned to photograph views in Central Park, some of which would be used to illiustrat the annual reports of the park commissioners. Among those is an image from the arsenal from nearly the same vantage point (see plate 3 of the Prevost album titled Central Park in 1862 at the New York Public Library).
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