The Evolution of the Park and Drive
Plans for a scenic drive and park on the strip of hillside adjacent to the upper Hudson River were originally conceived as early as 1865, when the Morningside Plateau was dominated primarily by the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum and the Leake and Watts orphanage. Over the next several years the city acquired the land for a proposed park with a contiguous roadway. Original designs included a straight road that was unevenly inclined. It wasn’t until 1873 that Riverside Park was officially commissioned by the park board, which hired Frederick Law Olmsted, the celebrated landscape architect of Central Park, to design it.
Olmsted's proposal for the park included a parkway called Riverside Avenue that would follow the contours of the park grounds in a more naturalistic fashion than the original plan. The new park and adjacent drive were seen as a way to entice a wealthy clientele to the area. With their dramatic views of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades, the park and drive were intended to encourage upper class New Yorkers to build villas and mansions along the parkway.
Sloping down to the shoreline, Riverside Park was cleverly designed to obscure the view of the unsightly commercial docks and railroad tracks next to the Hudson River. Olmsted’s design (see illus.) was approved by the parks commission in 1875 and built in sections over the next several decades. Riverside Drive (renamed from Riverside Avenue in 1908) was not opened to the public until March 1880, with some portions incomplete until 1902.
The land selected for the park was perfect from Olmsted’s point of view because “the river bank had been for a century occupied as the lawns and ornamental gardens in front of the country seats along its banks. Its foliage was fine, and its views magnificent.”
In redesigning the original plans for the drive, Olmsted created a gradually graded avenue with river views at various points that included a pedestrian promenade along the park’s edge.
 From Frederick Law Olmsted, Landscape Architects Report, Document 70, Parks Department, 1875, quoted in Landmarks Preservation Commission of the City of New York, LP-2000 (February 19, 1980), 8.