Medal Awarded: 
Local
Year Awarded: 
2007

Elizabeth (Betsy) Barlow Rogers (1936 - ) received the Pugsley Medal in 2007 "for founding and leading the Central Park Conservancy and her leadership in rehabilitating Central Park." She was the primary instigator of the resuscitation of New York's Central Park in the 1980s and 1990s. By 1975, the city of New York was experiencing major financial difficulty which resulted in substantial cuts in both the capital and maintenance budgets for parks. Central Park had been gradually deteriorating for several decades and these deep 1970s cuts exacerbated and accelerated the decay. Thus, by the late 1970s, for example, the Sheep Meadow was a dust bowl, vandalism had closed the Belvedere, beer cans filled the lake, and graffiti covered the Bethesda Terrace.

In 1978, Mayor Koch appointed Gordon Davis as Park Commissioner. Davis began a program of "load-shedding". In 1979, he appointed Rogers as Central Park administrator. In 1980, when Mayor Koch announced the formation of the Central Park Conservancy with a board of trustees for the park, Rogers became its administrator. The Central Park Conservancy is a nonprofit organization. It manages Central Park under a contract with the city of New York. Its administrator is appointed by the mayor and reports to the park commissioner, but is paid by the Conservancy. The Conservancy thus has a defacto veto over appointments. This was the first time that a single individual had been made responsible for organizing capital works and day-to-day management and maintenance of the park since Andrew Green's appointment in 1859.

Outraged by the demise of Central Park, Rogers had begun in the mid-1970s to raise private funds and organize volunteer labor. In 1976 while urging a private solution to the park's problems, Rogers declared, "New York can no longer afford its parks, not even Central Park."  Thus, before her appointment as the Conservancy's administrator, Rogers had been prominent in the private (and quite determined) effort to save Central Park during New York's fiscal crisis. While the movement was small, it included influential individuals and several influential organizations.

Rogers had graduated from Wellesley College with a BA in art history in 1957 and from Yale University School of Architecture with a master's degree in city planning in 1964 and then moved to New York. She developed an interest first in parks and then in Olmsted, publishing books and articles about both of them. Rogers' devotion to Olmsted reflected, in part, her own training in art history at Wellesley and in city planning at Yale. Unlike some early twentieth century Central Park preservationists, she had not grown up near the park. Indeed, her first visit to New York from her native San Antonio, Texas, did not come until 1950, when she was fourteen; she and her mother stayed at the Plaza Hotel and never walked across the street into Central Park. But after Rogers moved to New York in 1964, she developed a passionate devotion to the parks of her adopted city -- an interest she explored in her first book, The Forests and Wetlands of New York City, which focused on Jamaica Bog and Pelham Parks. Subsequently, she wrote a book on Fredrick Law Olmsted, Fredrick Law Olmsted's New York; and a third book, The Central Park Book, was the product of Rogers, as author and editor, and three collaborative specialists in park art, geology.

Rogers' deep admiration for Olmsted both reflected and added momentum to the remarkable revival of interest in Olmsted beginning in the early 1970s. In 1972, Rogers collaborated on Fredrick Law Olmsted's New York, the catalog for an influential exhibit at the Whitney Museum (which included Calvert Vaux's original Central Park drawings). "Olmstedianism," was the governing ideology of the Central Park Conservancy. "A necessary first step in creating the Conservancy," Rogers wrote, "was the acceptance of the Park as its original creator saw it -- a scenic retreat, a peaceful space that would act as an antidote to urban stress." 

Thus, the keynote of the effort was to restore the historic landscape and to reverse (or at least arrest) the changes that the fiscal crisis had brought. However, Rogers managed to couple Olmsted and Vaux's pastoral vision with a bit of the realpolitik associated with Robert Moses or Andrew Green. On one hand, she insisted that "the park is foremost a work of landscape art and I'm not prepared to accept that it's anything else", and "Our purpose is to sustain the ingenious designs of Olmsted." On the other hand, she invariably denied any interest in taking "the park back to the 19th century." "It has to be responsive to people's current needs," she told a reporter.

Starting in 1982, Rogers oversaw a talented team of landscape architects who undertook an exhaustive three-year survey of all aspects of the park -- from soil conditions to traffic patterns. From this came a master plan, Rebuilding Central Park, that envisioned spending $150 million for a "systematic and coherent renovation over a fifteen-year period." Clearly written and clearly illustrated, it was a practical and persuasive manifesto for preservation of the "unprogrammed" pastoral park. It reestablished Olmsted and Vaux as the principal planners and designers of Central Park. The plan observed that the condition of Central Park "at the time of formation of the Conservancy was truly shocking." It served as Rogers' road map and established the fundamental principle that Central Park "was designed as a single unified park and still functions as one." It was both a fine planning tool and a masterful piece of fund-raising propaganda to promote the park to the corporations and residents whose premises looked out over it.

Restoration works were undertaken throughout the park during the 1980s and 1990s. Focal built-elements like the Mall and Bethesda Terrace and virtually every other building, bridge, pathway, lake edge and piece of furniture in the park needed attention. Works to restore vegetation ranged from short-term, high cost elements like the reconstruction of the Great Lawn between 1995 and 1997 to longer-term volunteer-based projects like the management back to ecological health of the exotic species-infested woodlands areas. The legacy of heavy use and low investment meant that the works really were an exercise in rebuilding rather than simply rehabilitating the park. The principles established in Rogers' 1985 plan guided this work throughout the restoration.

By the end of the 1980s, with the infusion of Conservancy money, Central Park looked startlingly different from its appearance just a decade earlier; visitors stretched out on a lush, green Sheep Meadow, now guarded by a fence and by rules against loud noises and active sports; school children learned about the environment in a graffiti-free Belvedere Castle; skaters glided across the new (Trump-operated) ice-skating rink; tourists picked up information about the park's past and present at a refurbished Dairy; fashion photographers posed their models against a backdrop of a lovingly restored Bethesda Terrace; wedding couples took their vows in a replanted Conservatory Garden; New Yorkers who could afford it dined on the terrace of the renovated Loeb Boathouse. The one important new addition was, appropriately, a landscape project, Strawberry Fields, a parcel of land near the West 72nd Street entrance, landscaped as a memorial to John Lennon with funds provided by his widow, Yoko Ono.

By the late 1980s newspaper editorials and magazines were celebrating the park's "season of rebirth" under the Conservancy's aegis. Movies and advertisements implicitly carried the same message. In the 1970s Central Park had provided a setting for jokes about muggings in such films as Where's Poppa. By the late 1980s it was a backdrop for films about urban affluence and elegance -- When Harry Met Sally, Wall Street, and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Glossy advertisements for multimillion-dollar apartments in Trump Parc on Central Park South promised: "Central Park. It's not just a view. It's your front yard."

In 1992 the Conservancy was able to characterize its partnership with the city's Department of Parks and Recreation as "the most successful coordination of public and private resources to date on behalf of an urban park." In 1988 the city provided $10.2 million (61 percent) and the Conservancy provided $6.6 million (39 percent) of the annual budget for the park. But by 1999, the Conservancy was providing 85 percent of the budget. By spring 2000, the Central Park Conservancy had raised over $200 million. The largest single gift was a grant of $10 million in 1998. The largest financial challenge grant to the Conservancy was a grant of $17 million for major restoration projects -- contingent on matching funds being raised from the city and from private donors. That challenge was met in 1996. After attaining this goal, Rogers retired as the Conservancy's administrator. The majority of projects covered by that campaign were completed in fiscal year 1999 and brought the restored proportion of the park to 75 percent.

Rogers proved unusually adept at raising enormous sums of money for the park and in administering those funds to impress her own vision on it. A New York Times reporter described her as "not the archetypical public servant" but possessing the "tastes and social graces more frequently associated with Park Avenue than with City Hall." Rogers' extraordinary fund-raising success rested in part on Central Park's status as a cultural and artistic treasure. She convinced New Yorkers that the park deserved the same financial support as the city's museums, libraries, and symphony orchestras, arguing that the park was also a cultural institution and was a more urgent candidate for assistance.

Many wealthy New Yorkers contribute to the Conservancy's efforts because they use the park themselves or because its restoration benefits their business or real estate interests. "In the real estate field," explained one such benefactor, "it's just smart business for us to try and improve the quality of life in the city where we have our major holdings." Like the gentlemen merchants of the 1850s who first promoted the park, many benefactors have a larger cultural and economic investment in promoting and ensuring the world-class stature of a park in the heart of a world-class city. But whatever the motives of those who give money for rehabilitation (and many derive no direct benefit at all), the gifts have improved the park for all who use it.

Twenty years after her appointment, former Commissioner Davis commented that when he appointed her as administrator "she had no money and no power." By the time Rogers stood down in 1996, the Conservancy had raised more than $150 million -- and spent most of it on rehabilitation of the park. An author concluded his review of the history of Central Park by stating:

Rogers ranks with Olmsted, Vaux and Moses for her impact on the park. She combined quite extraordinary fund-raising abilities with strong organizational skills and a firm vision of what the park should be. Rogers introduced an approach to rehabilitation that sought a balance between restoration of the Olmsted-Vaux design as an unprogrammed pastoral antidote to the city on the one hand, but acknowledged contemporary demands on the other.
Central Park is perhaps the most ironic facility in the parks field. Its influence on other cities was extraordinary. Its restoration from decay was led by Rogers. The remarkably effective private-public partnership she created has been inspirational to park advocates in other cities and has demonstrated that such a partnership can be both viable and effective.

After leaving the Conservancy in 1996, Rogers formed the Cityscape Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting residents and elected officials in the improvement of public places. She In 2002, she created a curriculum of Garden History and Landscape Studies at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City, she is president of the Foundation for Landscape Studies. In 2001 she authored a major work, which received wide acclaim: Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History.

Sources:
Rosenberg, R. & Blackmar, E (1992) The park and the people: A history of Central Park.  Ithaca, New York; Cornell University Press.
Tate, A. (2001) Creating Parks.  New York; Spon.