This phrase describes many illustrious individuals documented in N-YHS’s collections — but perhaps none so literally as John Y. Culyer, who in 1867 designed a machine for moving sizeable trees to more suitable positions during the construction of Prospect Park.

Tree Moving Machine, Prospect Park (Geographic File, PR020)

Culyer began his career as a landscape engineer in Central Park, under Frederick Law Olmsted.  He designed his tree-moving machine after being hired as one of the original engineers of Prospect Park (later he advanced to Chief Engineer and head of Brooklyn’s Parks Department).  Using two of Culyer’s devices, park designers Olmsted and Vaux could move established trees from one spot to another like chess pieces.  They also imported trees — “of much larger size than can be had from nurseries” — from private grounds outside the park.  By February 1870, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that Culyer’s machines had moved 600 trees weighing from one to as much as 15 tons, effecting “a more extensive transplanting of trees [this] size . . . than to our knowledge has been attempted elsewhere on the continent.”

Pruning Ladder Used in Prospect Park (Geographic File, PR020)

Culyer’s team of gardeners also introduced an innovative method for tree maintenance.  “Contrary to all precedent and the opinions of old writers on wood-craft and arboriculture,” they pruned a number of old-growth forest trees.  This procedure was risky as well as controversial, and required another new invention — the extension ladder (pictured above).   The experiment had a good effect on the trees, if not the trimmers, and was pronounced a success.

No mere mover and shaker of trees, the multi-talented Culyer made impressive contributions in many other fields of activity as well.   He was the architect of several landmark buildings; designed and/or consulted on a number of parks in and outside New York; was a longtime member of the Brooklyn Board of Education; served on the Merchants’ Association Committee on the Pollution of the Waters of New York; promoted rapid transit in Brooklyn; and during the Civil War served as assistant director of the United States Sanitary Commission and helped construct fortifications along the Potomac.   He also served as Secretary and Advisory Forester to the Tree Planting Association of New York City, formed in 1897 to push for the planting of sidewalk trees in New York City — an effort that continues still with the city’s MillionTreesNYC initiative.

Annual Report of the Tree Planting Association of New York City, 1908 (F128SB435.52.N74)

Although his name is largely forgotten today, a few years after his death (in 1924), the Brooklyn Eagle described Culyer as “one of the most useful citizens Brooklyn has ever known,” and expressed the hope that “while there is no statue of him in any public square, every tree and bush and shrub and meadow in Prospect Park will keep his memory green forever.”

Sir Henry Clinton’s hair powder duty certificate, 1795 (Donald F. Clark Collection, MS 118)

This 1795 certificate documents that Sir Henry Clinton, the general and former Commander-in-Chief for North America of the British Army during the Revolution, paid the hair powder duty instituted in Great Britain in that year. The duty itself was one guinea, spawning the nickname “guinea pig” for those who paid it.

It may look unassuming, but this document marks a pivotal moment in the decline of a ubiquitous 18th century fashion. Once a mainstay of a gentleman’s attire, by this point the powdered wig fashion survived only among conservatives and older gentlemen — men adverse to hairstyles inspired by the egalitarian spirit of the French Revolution. One might even suspect that the authorities were playing fashion police by enacting a levy that was sure to put the powdered wig to rest for good, especially since the law carried with it a steep 20 pound fine for any rogue who dared step out with hair powder and no certificate.

Clinton Henry
Sir Henry Clinton, 1791. (Portrait File, PR 052)

Needless to say powdered wigs didn’t last much longer, and neither did Henry Clinton, who passed away in December of 1795.

With the opening of the next section of the High Line this week we are reminded of the incredible transformation of the High Line from an abandoned relic of 20th Century transportation history to a restorative piece of the urban landscape. There are many sidebars to the story, but perhaps one of the more ironic is that the High Line itself began as part of a project jeopardizing the Upper West Side’s very own Riverside Park.

Before the construction of the High Line “cowboys” cleared the way for trains on Tenth Avenue. (George P. Hall & Son Photograph Collection, PR024)

Conceived as a way to remove trains from the congested Tenth Avenue, the High Line was part of the more extensive “West Side Improvement”, a plan that unfolded over the course of the first four decades of the twentieth century. Not only was the project intended to remove the dangers of running trains at street grade in the middle of Manhattan, but it was also meant to improve the commercial transportation infrastructure along virtually the entire western shore of the island.

After much preparation, the first in a series of engineering plans was agreed upon by the city and New York Central Railroad in April 1916; however, the designs for the pre-existing rail lines squeezed between Riverside Park and the Hudson River stoked fears about the future of the park. Although primarily motivated by a sense of the park’s aesthetic, opposition was also in tune with the more worldly concern for nearby real estate values.

Broadside announcing a meeting organized by the Women’s League for the Protection of Riverside Park, May 19, [1916]. (Women’s League for the Protection of Riverside Park Records, MS 139)

From the ranks of those opponents came the Women’s League for the Protection of Riverside Park, founded in 1916. The League, composed largely of members of the middle and upper classes, thrived in a time of political action among women while emerging as one of the leading defenders of the park. After a saga of scrapped designs and compromises (see Chapter 5 of Ann L. Buttenwieser’s Manhattan Water-bound for a detailed account), in which the League played a prominent role, Robert Moses finally pushed through a plan in the 1930s that brought an expansion of the park, the covering of the New York Central lines and construction of the Henry Hudson Parkway.

A proposed design for the railroad cover by McKim, Mead & White, 1929. Model of Elimination of Grade Crossing, West 79th Street (Women’s League for the Protection of Riverside Park Records, MS 139)

And so the story has come full circle: From an integral piece of of a project that threatened one of New York’s most beloved parks, the High Line has itself been saved by becoming… a park.


Creative: Tronvig Group