John Yapp Culyer was born in New York City on May 18, 1839. After studying surveying and engineering at New York University, he became a member of the engineer corps working under Frederick Law Olmsted, who was then superintendent of Central Park. Over the course of the next decade, Culyer also volunteered his services in the United States Sanitary Commission (A federal relief agency that provided support for sick and wounded Civil War soldiers), splitting his time between New York City and Washington D.C.
In early 1865, Culyer was stationed at Fort Albany just outside of Washington D.C., working with the United States Engineering Department under Chief Engineer of Defenses, General J.G. Barnard. On the evening of April 14, Culyer, along with two friends, visited Ford’s Theatre to see the traveling New York production of “Our American Cousin.” As a result, he was part of the audience present at the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Although, Culyer humbly argued that no one “save for the assassin himself, witnessed the shooting.”
After the war, Culyer assisted New York State Representative James S.T. Stranahan and Olmsted on the development and arrangement of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. He spent the next twenty years working with the Brooklyn parks system developing the grounds until he resigned in 1886. He spent the following years of his life as a landscape architect working on projects in other cities including Chicago, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh. Culyer died in 1924.
Culyer’s illustrious portrait above was taken by Alva A. Pearsall at his studio he co-owned with his brother Frank, located in Downtown Brooklyn. Known for working alongside Matthew Brady in the late 1860s, Pearsall was also the creator of the lesser known Alvagraph process, which were mostly straightforward portraitures of headshots on large glass plates.
This image comes from the John Yapp Culyer collection (1977.430). For more information please see our finding aid here.
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