By Carter B. Horsley
Central Park is the city's
principal oasis, a swath of largely undeveloped but landscaped
land half a mile wide and two-and-half miles long that separates
the Upper East and Upper West Sides of Manhattan and forms the
northern boundary of midtown and the southern boundary of Harlem.
The city is celebrating the 150th anniversary in July, 2003, of
the passing of state legislation to authorize funding for the
acquisition of its land. The "anniversary" is not terribly
important: the concept of such a major urban park had been put
forward about a dozen years earlier by William Cullen Bryant,
the writer and naturalist and friend of Hudson River School painter
Thomas Cole; Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux won a design
competition for the park in 1857; and construction began in 1858.
This year's celebration, of course, is not unwelcome. The park
has gone through a lot of changes and good periods and bad periods
and in recent years has perhaps never looked better, thanks in
large part to the efforts of the Central Park Conservancy, a private
organization founded in 1980, a time when the park's fortunes
and conditions were low.
The city, of course, is suffering through a long and severe recession
and no turnaround is yet in sight even though new construction
projects in recent years have significantly altered the skyline
that frames the park, most notably the Columbus Center project
incorporating the AOL-Time Warner corporate headquarters, the
Jazz Center of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, a Mandarin
Hotel, a large luxury retail base and a couple of hundred luxury
condominium apartments on the former site of the New York Coliseum
at Columbus Circle. The project's twin towers are quite large
and the project has had a controversial history including protests
against a former design's shadows in Central Park.
Although the notion of a large urban park may not have originated
with Central Park, it has become the world's most famous such
"amenity" - a bucolic, rustic, romantic folly in which
to escape the hurly-burly of urban life.
While Central Park may not top everyone's list as New York City's
most important "treasure" or asset, losing out to its
skyline, its street grid, its museums, its restaurants, its energy,
its financial markets, its media markets and the Statue of Liberty,
it is without question one of its most important components.
1858 "Greensward" plan for the park, Olmstead and Vaux
proposed that the "heart of the Park" be a promenade,
or mall, whose north end culminated in a "concert ground"
and a Terrace overlooking the lake. According to the Central Park
Conservancy, the non-profit organization created in 1980 to maintain
the park, originally there was "an ornate cast-iron Bandstand"
surrounded by "urns and filigreed metal bird cages, ornamental
drinking fountains, and display fountains. The present bandstand,
known as the Naumburg Bandshell, was built in 1923 to replace
the earlier one and became the subject of a major controversy
when the conservancy sought to demolish it and replace it with
a modern facility. Happily, the handsome neo-classical bandshell
was ultimately preserved. The decorative elements for the Terrace,
known as Bethesda Terrace, were designed by Jacob Wrey Mould.
of the lower terrace is the "Angel of the Waters" or
"Bethesda" fountain, designed by Emma Stebbins, the
sister of Col. Henry G. Stebbins, the president of the Central
Park Board of Commissioners. The neo-classical sculpture was dedicated
in 1873. The mall is 40 feet wide and flanked by quadruple rows
of American elms.
Over the years there have been many changes
to the park. The park itself originally only extended to 106th
Street but was within a few years extended to 110th Street.
formal spaces such as the Mall or the Conversatory Garden on Fifth
Avenue at 103rd Street, but it also has many nooks and crannies.
One of the most popular places is Turtle Pond, shown above, at
the foot of Belvedere Castle where the "temperature"
in Central Park is measured.
Just to the north of Turtle Pond, a large "lower"
reservoir" was filled in and made into the Great Lawn with
several playing fields and the site of many concerts, softball
games, frisbee throwing and kite-flying. "Shakespeare-in-the-Park"
performances take place in an amphitheater, known as the Delacorte
Theater, which was named after philanthropist George Delacorte,
a publisher, and was erected as a temporary structure in 1962,
just to the east of Turtle Pond.
The "Sheep Meadow" for sheep housed
in the buildings that now make up the Tavern-on-The-Green Restaurant
was converted to a 15-acre lawn in 1934 when the flock was transferred
to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which was also designed by Olmstead
There are numerous entrances to the park but
the most familiar is probably at its southeast corner, shown above,
where many horse-and-buggies await tourists and a path to the
park's zoo is located. The zoo used to have a wide variety of
animals such as hippotami, elephants, gorillas and the like but
was rebuilt and most of the exotic animals relocated because of
some public concerns that their habitats were not very nice. The
major entrance to the zoo is at Fifth Avenue and 64th Street behind
the formidable and very handsome, Georgian-style Arsenal building,
and a smaller Children's Zoo is just to the north and it too was
remodeled, albeit not without controversy (see The
City Review article). The Arsenal was completed in 1871 as
a munitions depot for the state's National Guard.
boat pond at 74th Street is another very popular area in part
because it is just to the south of one of the park's most beloved
and wonderful statues, "Alice in Wonderland," shown
According to the Central Park Conservancy's
fine website, http://www.centralparknyc.org,
the "Alice in Wonderland" sculpture by José de
Creeft is modeled closly on John Tenniel's whimsical Victorian
illustrations and Alice "is said to resemble de Creeft's
daughter, Donna," and "in the longstanding tradition
of honoring a patron within a work of art, the sculptor may have
included [George] Delacorte hiumself by way of caricature as the
In warm weather, one of the most delightful
activities is taking a row boat out on the lake just to the north
of Bethesda Fountain. There is also a Venetian-style gondola ride
available at the Boathouse restaurant and café on the eastern
edge of this pond, one of the most beautiful spots in the city
for drinks. The Boathouse and its surrounding area, shown above,
is a popular setting for wedding pictures as is the Conservatory
Garden further north, shown below.
To the west of the Mall is a very popular roller
skating area, which is not too far away from the park's carousel,
to the south. The park's first carousel was built in 1870 and
reportedly was turned by a flind mule and a horse. The present
carousel, known as the Friedsam Memorial Carousel, is the fourth
on the site. Earlier carousels were destroyed in fires and this
one had been abandoned in the old trolley terminal on Coney Island
and had been made by the Stein and Goldstein in 1906.
Lovers are not the only people who abound in
the park. The park's roadways are closed on the weekends and are
used by cyclists and joggers who rarely pay heed to the traffic
lights to the great consternation of many pedestrians. The roadways
should be used for many of the city's Fifth Avenue parades, which
tie up traffic tremendously.
of the joggers use the 1.58-mile-long jogging path around the
Reservoir rather than the roadways. The jogging path is surrounded,
on a lower level, by a bridal path. A detail of a bridge crossing
the bridal path is shown above. The reservoir holds more than
a billion gallons of water and occupies 106 acres. It no longer
distributes fresh water to Manhattan. There is a large tennis
facilities to the northwest of the reservoir.
Needle," a 71-foot-high Egyptian obelisk, is behind the Metropolitan
Museum of Art. It was designed as a tribute not to Cleopatra but
Thutmosis III and was erected in Heliopolis around 1500 B.C. and
was given to the United States by the Khedive of Egypt in 1879.
great book, "The A.I.A. Guide to New York City, Fourth Edition,"
(Three Rivers Press, 2000), Elliot Willensky and Norval White
offered the following commentary:
landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing appealed for a park,
the idea caught on, and both mayoralty contestants made it a promise
in the 1850 campaign. The winner, Ambrose C. Kingsland, kept his
word, and the Common Council took action. The site was then physically
unprepossessing; 'A pestilential spot where miasmic odors taint
every breath of air,' one report concluded. But it was available.
Land was acquired (1856) for $5.5 million and surveyed by Egbert
L. Viele. Clearing began the next year: squatters and hogs were
forcibly removed, often with the aid of the police, bone-boiling
works and swill mills were torn down, swamps were drained, and
the omnipresent Manhattan schist was blasted."
was held and a plan, known as "Greensward," by Frederick
Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, was selected over 32 other submissions.
Authors Willensky and White also noted that the gravel drives
were paved with asphalt in 1912 and the first paved playground
was created in 1926.
park has changed considerably, but fortunately not too much, over
the generations. There is little question that it is glorious,
but there is little scientific explanation for much of its magic.
Could it have been narrower or smaller and still have all its
charm? Perhaps, but thankfully it is now a landmark and is so
beloved that it is unlikely to be ruined. Its maintenance, however,
is no small matter and the Central Park Conservancy deserves great
credit for its preservation.
back an elephant or two and the pony rides and put the major parades
on its roadways. Look at the trees and have a picnic, but don't
forget to pick up your trash and smile at the birds and squirrels.