The odd death of the man who built Central Park

Central Park may be his magnum opus. But Calvert Vaux was also the architect or co-designer behind so many late 19th century New York treasures—like the original structures for the Museum of Natural History and Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So it had to have been a shock to New Yorkers to open the newspaper on November 21, 1895, and read headlines proclaiming that 70-year-old Vaux had gone missing.

Vaux, who lived in Manhattan, was staying at his son’s house “on 20th Avenue between Bath and Benson Avenues,” in Brooklyn, reported The New York Times.

“Mr. Vaux had left in his son’s house a gold watch and chain and his vest. It is believed he had about $2 in change in his pockets.”

Hotels, hospitals, even Prospect Park were all searched. But Vaux was nowhere to be found.

The next day’s paper reported grim news: Vaux’s body was found in Gravesend Bay.

It’s assumed that he “fell off the pier in an attack of dizziness or faintness,” the Times stated.

His son denied suicide and “murder was not even suggested.” But to this day, Vaux’s death is almost always characterized as “mysterious.

[Above, Bow Bridge, one of the lovely bridges, arches, and other structures Vaux incorporated in his Central Park design, in a NYPL photo]

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7 Responses to “The odd death of the man who built Central Park”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    Vaux was a talented individual. His writings reveal as much about the society he worked in as they do about design and architectural matters.

  2. After 116 Years, Vaux’s Death In Gravesend Bay Still A Mystery | Bensonhurst News Blog Says:

    [...] Ephemeral New York quotes the NY Times: “Mr. Vaux had left in his son’s house a gold watch and chain and his vest. It is believed he had about $2 in change in his pockets.” [...]

  3. Central Park Tours (@TourCentralPark) Says:

    Great post. I had no idea Vaux had such a curious death. In any case, we linked to you (Central Park News). Just posted about PBS’s new documentary on Olmsted. It always amazes me how Olmsted got the majority of the credit. In the doc it talks about how Vaux and Olmsted had a falling out over the issue. I can imagine how he might have been unhappy.

  4. fivepointsguy Says:

    This is wild. I have been an addict of New York history since the 1970s, and didn’t know that Vaux had disappeared from a house four blocks away from where I grew up–I grew up on 20th Avenue and 82nd Street. What a shame. And if memory serves me right, his partner in the designs of Central and Prospect Parks, Frederick Law Olmstead died a sad death as well: probably Alzheimer’s disease. What a tragedy that two men who brought so much beauty and happiness into this world had to die in such ugly ways.

  5. wildnewyork Says:

    Yes, but as you say, they left behind so much beauty. What a legacy!

  6. A sleepy, beachy view across Gravesend Bay | Ephemeral New York Says:

    [...] this beach might be part of Calvert Vaux Park, named for the designer of Central Park who mysteriously died off these [...]

  7. The most beautiful bridges inside Central Park | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] were part of the original vision for the park, developed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1850s. Others came in the 1860s and […]

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