Grazing and garbage dumping gradually polluted Lachlan Swamps and ended it as a drinking water source. In 1874 a series of dams were built in the wake of large scale flooding, however this only led to increased pollution.
During the late 1870s people were lobbying the Councils of Woollahra and Paddington to use the Water Reserve as a public park when its water supply function ended in 1886. It was an ideal location for a park, given that 65% of metropolitan Sydney was living within a 5 mile (8 km) radius of the area. The area had become densely populated and it was felt by the local residents that an ‘additional air lung to the city’ was needed.
Governor Carrington, whose idea it was for a large regional park for Sydney suited to riding and recreation, recognised the potential of the Sydney Common site. The residual Sydney Common area to the east of Moore Park was chosen as the location for a grand vision of public recreation – a landscaped park, with access avenues, for the people.
The Centennial Celebrations Act of 1887 created Centennial Park and Queens Park, which signalled the end of Sydney Common. While Queens Park remained relatively undeveloped because of drainage problems, Centennial Park became the focus for the Centenary celebrations.
The concept behind the design of Centennial Park was the allocation of the highest ground for a memorial hall or State House to commemorate European settlement in Australia. The concept of the State House captivated the mind of the then Premier, Sir Henry Parkes, but the dreams never came to fruition.
The precedent set by Charles Moore in Moore Park was cited when Parkes proposed the creation of a suburb along the edge of the Park, through the sale of 100 acres of parkland along the boundary of the Park. The sale of land on the raised Hawkesbury sandstone ridge encircling the Park was intended for "elegant mansions with gardens and railings in front."
The intended subdivision did not proceed as designed, and several plans were prepared before a final boundary between the two parks was decided upon.
The Park was to have been designed in 1886 by J W Deering, District Surveyor of the Department of Lands, however it is attributed to engineer Frederick Augustus Franklin (an English civil engineer who had worked under Joseph Paxton on the relocated Crystal Palace at Sydenham in the 1850s). The Park’s construction was implemented by Charles Moore, then Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens (who trained at two of the world’s great parks – Regent’s Park and Kew Gardens, London) and overseer James Jones, head gardener at the Botanic Gardens (a British estate gardener who had worked at Saumarez Park, Guernsey, and later on the construction of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in Paris, before coming to Australia).
Moore himself reputedly turned the first sod to announce the commencement of work on the park.
The plan proposed a processional main entry, ornamental gates, plantations, lakes, ornamental water bodies, cascades and fountains, grassed meadows and areas for sport. The dams of the previous water reserve were incorporated into the plan of the Park. Parliament voted 50,000 pounds towards park construction, with an emphasis on the Grand Drive.