Vaux, who is best known for partnering with Frederick Law Olmsted to design such iconic green spaces as Central Park and Prospect Park, was 70 years old and employed as the landscape architect for the New York Parks Department when he left his son’s house in Bensonhurst for an early morning walk on Nov. 19, 1895, and never returned.
By afternoon, police began searching for Vaux, described as “four feet, 10 inches, medium build; gray hair and full beard; ruddy complexion; wore blue overcoat with velvet collar; no vest; black derby hat; wears gold-rimmed eyeglasses; shirt has name on it.”
A few days later, on Nov. 21, the Brooklyn Eagle ran this sad report on its front page:
“The body of Calvert Vaux, the missing landscape architect, was found in Gravesend Bay at the foot of Bay 17th Street, Bath Beach, at 9:30 ‘o clock this morning. A workman on Fry’s coal dock 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. The police had been notified in the meantime and Acting Captain Barford and Roundsman Gaughran of the Twenty-fifth sub-precinct hurried to the spot. The tide was high and very rough, which made it very difficult to secure the body. It was finally necessary for someone to go right in after it and without a moment’s hesitation both Barford and Gaughran walked in up to their waists. They then succeeded in bringing the body high up on the beach. The police surmised the moment the word came in that a body was found that it was more than likely that of the missing Mr. Vaux.
Word was sent to the home of the son, C. Bowyer Vaux, on Twentieth Avenue, Bensonhurst. Mr. Vaux, who had remained home on business in the hope that he would hear word from his father, went without delay and identified his parent. The son was much affected. He made the identification certain by examining the marks on the clothing, not daring to trust himself to look at the features. Undertaker Wyckoff of Eighteenth Avenue, with the permission of the coroner, took charge of the remains and had them removed to his establishment.
“There is very little doubt that the artist made away with his own life by drowning. For some past he has been subject to nervous prostrations. His health gave way last August when he completed his Bronx park plans, over which he spent almost night and day, so interested was he in them. Being 70 years of age the strain was too much for him. Instead of taking a rest he continued his duties as a landscape artist of the New York Park Department. About seven weeks ago he found it was necessary to cease his labors for a while, and went with his daughter, Miss Marian Vaux, to the Hotel Madison. There he spent the month of October under the care of Dr. George S. Conant and Dr. William B. De Garmo, a specialist. Ten days ago he went to his son’s home at Bensonhurst. He was fond of the water and seemed perfectly contented. He spent a good part of his time on the beach and scarcely ever failed to be at the water’s edge to watch the sunsets.
“On Tuesday afternoon he left the home and made his way to the Captain’s pier at foot of De Bruyn’s Lane. He walked out to the end of it and was gazing at the water when George Ditmar, the proprietor, addressed him.
“‘I was just looking at the improvements you’ve made here,’ Mr.Vaux volunteered in explanation, and after a word or two more walked to the shore. Some persons saw him walking back. This was the last seen of him alive. The family suspected that he had taken a car for the city, and had been overcome on the road and possibly taken to some hospital. They were much worried and when he did not return yesterday afternoon they notified the police of Bath Beach. A general alarm was then sent out.”
Later reports of the incident were less certain that Vaux’s death had been a suicide, and the exact circumstances of his death remain unclear to this day. At 70 years old, a fatal slip was certainly possible, and his son C. Bowyer believed it to be an accident, according to a New York Times report.
Nine years later, Calvert Vaux’s daughter Helen hung herself in the basement of her home. It was reported that the fatal act was done “While in a depressed mental state following nervous prostration brought on by her zeal for study.”
Vaux had four children in total with his wife Mary McEntee, who hailed from Kingston, NY, where they are both buried.
Calvert Vaux was born in London, England, on Dec. 20, 1824. He apprenticed in the office of architect Lewis Cottingham, then moved to the United States at 24 years old and became a partner to Andrew Jackson Downing, with whom he laid out the grounds for the Capitol building and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
Downing was killed in an 1852 fire on a Hudson River steamboat and Vaux took over the firm, moving it to New York City from Newburgh, NY. In 1865, he and Olmsted formed Olmsted, Vaux and Company and were pioneers in landscape architecture, creating parks in cities across the country.
At the time of his death Vaux lived in Manhattan and served on the Consolidation Commission, which examined the proposal to join the cities of New York and Brooklyn into one municipality.