The mysterious death of Calvert Vaux

On November 19, 1895,  Calvert Vaux went for a morning walk from his son’s home in Brooklyn. He never returned.

The 70 year old architect had helped create New York City. His landscape collaborations with Frederick Law Olmsted had given Manhattan its Central Park and Brooklyn its Prospect Park and Fort Greene Park. His own architectural work could be seen at Jefferson Market Courthouse, the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1895 he still retained an honorary role as the parks department’s landscape adviser, although he had mostly retired from public life.

Calvert Vaux, circa 1865-1871

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

His son Calvert Bowyer Vaux lived in a house on Twentieth Avenue between Bath and Benson Avenues in today’s neighborhood of Bath Beach. The elder Vaux often stayed with his son was known for taking morning walks along the waterfront

On November 19, 1895, it was gray and foggy on the morning that Vaux departed his son’s home, leaving behind “a gold watch and chain and his vest” with about two dollars in his pocket.

Below: The New York Tribune made a brief mention of Vaux’s vanishing in the following one-sentence bulletin:

Trib Nov 21

At some point during the day he was spotted by a “Captain Ditmar” — possibly Captain Walter Earl Ditmar — on a pier near the water, and the two briefly spoke. Vaux is reported to have said to the captain, “I’m admiring the improvements you’ve made hereabouts.” The two briefly talked about methods in which to make the beach area more amenable  to visitors before Vaux proceeded to walk the piers by himself.

Ditmar was the last person to see Vaux alive.

The architect must have been known for taking very long walks for he was only discovered missing in the late afternoon.   By the evening his family became worried; the police were called the following morning. All the local hospitals and hotels were checked. While it was well-known that Vaux was a frail man, he was often known to walk up to Prospect Park, several miles from his son’s home.  But the fear that he may have fallen into the bay were already present.

Below:  An 1889 map of the district Vaux’s son lived in. The elder Vaux was last seen along the shoreline depicted here.

1

The following day the body of Calvert Vaux was indeed found in Gravesend Bay at the foot of Bay 17th Street, very close to the site of today’s Bath Beach Park.

As described by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“A workman on Fry’s coal dock [later identified as Benjamin Butler] first saw the body being tossed about in the rough water, but when he rushed to the shore to secure the corpse it disappeared. It was some minutes later before Mr. Fry himself saw it drifting alongside the bulkhead out to sea again. With a boat hook he succeeded in bringing it close to shore.”

Below: Headline from the New York Sun

1

The police were called, bringing Vaux’s son down to the shore to identify the body. He could scarcely bring himself to look into his father’s face, recognizing his father’s well-worn suit before looking away.

“There was a bruise on the head, a slight cut over the eye, and the hat, spectacles and left shoe were missing,” reported the Times.

Given the circumstantial evidence, it seems clear as to what may have happened to Mr. Vaux. While on a walk along the shore, he may have fainted or tripped, falling into the water and drowning in the waves.

Below: An engraving from the New York Tribune:

tribune

The Sun further speculated: “As he was interested in the construction of the pier, it may be that he leaned over the stringpiece to examine the foundation piles. In doing so he may have fallen into the water, as he was ill and feeble, being 70 years old.”

Most press reports of the day made it clear no foul play was suspected. Vaux Jr. brushed away any suggestions of suicide on his father’s part. “The theory of suicide has been disclaimed by his relatives who said that [Vaux] had been cheerful and mentally able the evening before he disappeared.” [source]

But not everybody was convinced, and the Tribune reported that the “theory [of suicide] prevails with some people.”

Weeks earlier Vaux had told his daughter that he wanted to live long enough to see the completion of his plans in Central Park. “If I can only manage to live until 1898, my plans for the improvement of Central Park will be completed, and I won’t worry about any other work.”

Sadly Vaux’s death did have a certain impact on Central Park. Without the dutiful eye of its co-creator, maintenance on the park gradually deteriorated, and it would not be until the installation of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses that the condition of the park would be improved.

Today, nearby the place where Vaux’s body was discovered, you may enjoy a picnic and a sunset at Calvert Vaux Park in Gravesend.

Below: Calvert Vaux Park (the former Dreier-Offerman Park) has greatly improved since the 1960s when it was essentially an undeveloped mess, linked by a pedestrian bridge. Picture courtesy the New York City Parks Archives

1968

It was once called Dreier-Offerman Park for the former home for unwed mothers which once sat here. It was changed to honor the architect in 1998 when it was radically re-landscaped and improved. Knowing that he died close to here, I kind of think being named after an unwed mother’s home is the less depressing name.

 

 

Picture at top: A forlorn pier from 1890, located at West Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

Photograph by Robert Bracklow. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Photograph by Robert Bracklow. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
  • scott Kearney

    It’s a tribute to New York City Parks Department decades of turning around the truly horrendous landscapes that were our deteriorating waterfronts.