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Calvert Vaux and the Village

Calvert Vaux, one of the most prolific and influential architects in the United States during the second half of the 19th century, was born on December 20, 1824, in London, England. Best known in New York City as the co-designer of Central Park along with Frederick Law Olmsted, Vaux’s talents went beyond landscape architecture and included buildings and urban planning. Several of his designs grace our own neighborhood, including Jefferson Market Library, the Elizabeth Home for Girls, and the Tompkins Square Lodging House and Industrial School, 221 Sullivan Street, all New York City landmarks, as well as the Sixth Street School at 630-634 East 6th Street.

Calvert Vaux

Vaux trained in England in architecture and landscape design and came to the United States in 1850 to work with Andrew Jackson Downing.  Downing was a landscape designer and architect, and an advocate for the Gothic Revival style as seen in his books of house designs, Cottage Residences (1842) and The Architecture of Country Houses (1850). Vaux was made a partner in Downing’s firm, which was known for its designs of picturesque English country houses and landscape designs such as those around many government buildings in Washington D.C.

Following Downing’s untimely death in 1852, Vaux moved to New York City, and he and Frederick Law Olmsted entered the competition for the design of Central Park. Their design, ‘Greensward,’ took twenty years to complete. It was the first public park in the country and it would serve as the model for many parks across the United States. Vaux was responsible for many of the architectural features in the Central Park plan such as its bridges, and the firm of Olmsted, Vaux and Company (1865-72) designed numerous landscape projects in New York City and around the country, including Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the park system for the City of Buffalo, and the planned community of Riverside, Illinois.

Olmsted & Vaux’s original Greensward Plan from 1858. The plan resides in the Central Park Arsenal. www.nycgov.parks.org

In 1874, in partnership with Frederick Clarke Withers, Vaux designed the Jefferson Market Courthouse, today the Jefferson Market Library. It was built between 1874 and 1877 and designed in the High Victorian Gothic style which was popularized in Vaux’s book Villas and Cottages (1857). As described in the Greenwich Village Historic District designation report:

It was a remarkable essay in High Victorian design for this country. These English architects drew on the finest Ruskinian Gothic and Italian Renaissance sources. At the peak of this block, the mammoth tower of the courthouse rises dramatically like the prow of a fantastic ship. The top of the tower was designed as an enclosed fire lookout with an enormous alarm bell, and it has a four-faced clock above the bell to serve the community. The courthouse also features a great gable, triple window, stained glass, and City seal on the Sixth Avenue facade. With its rich polychromy and horizontal band courses, the building positively glows with color. With its many gables, tower and high roofs it makes a picturesque profile against the sky. 

In a poll of American architects taken in the 1880s, the Jefferson Market Library placed fifth among the ten most beautiful buildings in the United States.

Jefferson Market Library. NYPL

Vaux was responsible for the design of three buildings in the East Village, all for the Children’s Aid Society. The Children’s Aid Society was started by Protestant minister Charles Loring Brace in 1853 to address the needs of the neglected and abandoned children among New York City’s poor. By the late 1870s, Brace’s organization was well funded enough to construct residences/schools for its beneficiaries. Vaux, a friend of Brace, long held that architecture could be used to improve the lives of unfortunate members of society. Vaux designed a dozen buildings for the Children’s Aid Society throughout New York City three of which still exist in the East Village and one in the South Village.

295 East 8th Street, NYC LPC

295 East 8th Street a.k.a. 127 Avenue B, opened in 1887 as the Children’s Aid Society Tompkins Square Lodging for Boys and Industrial School.  It was designed by Vaux in partnership with George Kent Radford. It too was designed in the High Victorian Gothic style, and from 1887 to 1910 the building served its original purpose which was not just to house, feed, and clothe the boys, but to reform them into successful members of society. In 1910 the building ceased operations as a boarding house and was a Children’s Aid Society school until 1925. Today it is home to seven apartments.

Children’s Aid Society, Elizabeth Home for Girls. NYC LPC

The Elizabeth Home for Girls at 307 East 12th Street was built 1891-92 as a refuge for girls. It was the only lodging house designed for girls and features the picturesque qualities common in Vaux’s designs. Vaux’s buildings for the Children’s Aid Society were designed on the exterior to ornament what was otherwise considered less than appealing surroundings and the interior conveyed a  home-like atmosphere for the children. Today, 307 East 12th Street also houses apartments.

630-634 East 6th Street

630-634 East 6th Street was designed in 1889 as the Sixth Street Industrial School by Vaux & Radford. This school was donated by Emily Vanderbilt Sloane and she donated $3,000 a year following its construction towards maintenance. The school provided basic academic instruction as well as the instruction of trades: boys were taught skills like woodworking, while girls received lessons in nutrition and sewing. Nourishing meals were also provided to the students.

A six-story annex was seamlessly added to the east side of the building in 2000 by architects Harden & Van Arnam, who renovated the building when the school was converted to a residence for people with AIDS. The renovation won a Lucy G. Moses Award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy in 2001.

221 Sullivan Street

221 Sullivan Street was built 1891-92 to serve the children in the Italian immigrant neighborhood of the South Village and it was known as the Sullivan Street Industrial School. It was designed by Vaux & Radford for the Children’s Aid Society, however, apparently the design was modified prior to construction by Nicholas Gillesheimer, a partner of Vaux’s son Downing. Today it is a residential building.

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