Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Viele Map

"In connection with this brief account of the origin of the Central Park, it seems appropriate here to notice the topographical atlas of the city of New York, prepared under the direction of General Egbert L. Viele, exhibiting the elevations and depressions of the island and the old water-courses. This map was first exhibited and described in a paper read by Mr. Viele before the Sanitary Association of the city in 1859. He gave a rapid account of many small streams which formerly existed in the lower part of Manhattan Island, but which had been filled up as the city grew. Many of these streams had produced swampy places, and he declared that five of the little parks in the city—St. John's, Washington, Tomp- kins, Madison, and Gramercy—were located entirely or in part in swamps created by these streams. Some of the streams which ran through Central Park have been utilized or smothered."

I'm always interested in things just off the center....small towns outside of big ones, second-place entries, moons, also-rans. In the story of Central Park, the also-ran was Egbert Ludovicus Viele (1825-1902), whose entry in the design contest lost out to that of Olmsted and Vaux. Such a rosey-blowsy name sits uncomfortably on an old Civil War general who was close to Abraham Lincoln (read his remembrances of Lincoln here); an engineer who created the "Sanitary & Topographical Map of the City and Island of New York", now known simply as the Viele map. As in "I've got water on my site, get me a copy of the Viele map!" which according to the New York Times has been heard at the Central Library. From a patron wearing hip waders.

Viele's map is a beautiful document, highly detailed, fancifully colored, 'long as a Buick' according to one admirer, and still consulted in engineer's offices across Manhattan. According to a document by a colleague on deposit at the New York Public Library, Viele constructed the map from older pre-development maps and his own surveys and overlaid it with the city's current streets; gathering the watercourse information soon before it would have been lost forever under the new city fabric of bricks and mortar.

"In essence, the map shows Manhattan as the watery idyll it once was. On the map, Minetta Stream runs under Washington Square. Uptown, near First Avenue and 103rd Street, water pools and collects in a large pond. A creek zigzags under the intersection of Broadway and 25th Street." (Stephen Kurutz, NYT)

Viele made the map out of concern for proper sanitary practices, having seen so many die in the War for its want and believing, as most did at the time, that "nearly one half the deaths occurring on the earth are caused by fevers in different forms, and that the principal cause of fever is a humid miasmatic state of the atmosphere, produced by the presence of an excess of moisture in the ground from which poisonous exhalations continually arise, vitiating the purer air." He may have been wrong about the miasmas, but proper drainage did in fact eliminate stagnant breeding sites for the mosquitoes and bacteria that we now know caused many nineteenth century deaths.

Modern retellings of the complex and twisting route to the construction of Central Park invariably cast Olmsted in heroic halo, with Viele as mustachioed villian (he eventually sues, claiming that Olmsted and Vaux plagiarized some of his own ideas). But his map, delicate in pink and green with designations of Marsh and Meadow, humanizes him, and New York's structural engineers continue to bless his name.

Above images are from the David Rumsey map collection; there is also a version at the New York Public Library site. The map is accessible from Google Earth, "allowing anyone with free time on their hands to figure out whether or not their apartment is built over what used to be a fetid marsh", as seen at ecotone projects.


Martha said...

Wow what a great post.
Thanks for that overview of the Central Park competition and Viele v Olmstead.

And the perspective that disease emanated from the swampy places and moisture - very interesting.

Must say I love your blog - again.

new york city garden said...

Love a blog that can include miasma.

Nice post

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