Archive for the ‘central park’ Category

Skating on the Central Park Lake under twilight

October 18, 2014

It’s almost that time of year again—just not in Central Park anymore. Painter Saul Kovner’s twilight scene on the Lake casts an enchanting glow on Depression-era skaters.

Skatingincentralpark1934kovner

Before you get any ideas, keep in mind that skating on the Lake was officially banned in 1950! Kovner painted other winter scenes in New York as well, like this one of a snow day in Tompkins Square Park.

A bold bull makes a run for it in 1913 Manhattan

October 4, 2014

On the rare occasion when an animal breaks loose on the way to the slaughterhouse in today’s city, his plucky escape ends up scoring him a forever home at a farm sanctuary.

Bullfifthavenue

A century ago, the story ended in a hail of bullets. That’s what happened to this bold bull, one of 200 brought to the city on a November day in 1913. The bulls were temporarily held at the New York Stock Company on West 60th Street and the Hudson River before they were to be sent to the abattoir.

BullcentralparkheadlinenytBut thanks to a gate left ajar, 26 of the bulls managed to break free. Eight left the stockyard. One got as far as Central Park West and 80th Street, where he collided with a delivery wagon.

The bull in the photo had another idea.

“One lumbering steer seeking to escape pursuit turned into Fifth Avenue and 59th Street and, dodging bullets which were fired at it by pursuing policemen, caused such uproar that Fifth Avenue thought that either a gangsters’ battle was in progress or a Wild West show had lost its bearings,” wrote The New York Times the next day.

After the bull detoured to Madison Avenue, a patrolman fired a shot that accidentally killed a construction-site watchman. A hotel waiter was also shot in the crossfire.

Finally the bull charged down 50th Street. Bleeding from previous shots, he died in front of the mansion that today is home to the New York Palace hotel.

[Photo: Bain Collection]

The lost dinosaurs buried under Central Park

September 22, 2014

Mastodon bones and other fossilized creatures have turned up occasionally in New York City. But dinosaurs? Here’s the story.

In 1854, British artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins built giant models of dinosaurs, which were displayed at the Crystal Palace.

Hawkinsstudiocentralpark

Hawkins didn’t exactly know what dinosaurs looked like, but he based his models on the limited fossils available at the time.

CrystalpalacehadrosaurusHis models must have been impressive, as his show was a great success, thrilling audiences in England.

So in 1868, Andrew Green, one of the city planners in charge of Central Park, invited Hawkins to build dinosaur models in New York.

The models were to be housed in a Paleozoic museum planned for the new Central Park. Hawkins took Green up on the offer and began constructing his dinosaurs out of brick, iron, and concrete in a studio (above).

“In a studio in Central Park, crowded with his gigantic skeletal and full-bodied models, Hawkins worked on a 39-foot hadrosaur; his sketches show ferocious giant lizards: a large and scaly iguana head here, certain dragon features there,” states a 2005 New York Times article.

1869 Central Park Dinosaurs Hawkins full

Unfortunately, Hawkins’ work and the entire idea of a Paeozoic museum came to a halt thanks to William “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt Tammany Hall political chief who took control of the park in 1870 and had no interest in building anything devoted to science or education.

Hawkins“The next year, a few months after Hawkins spoke out publicly against both the decision to forgo the museum and Tammany Hall itself, the Tweed Ring sent vandals to his studio to smash his models and dump them into a pit in the park,” the Times wrote.

Hawkins, understandably, left New York and went back to England. In the ensuing years, Hawkins’ (below) dinosaurs were mostly forgotten.

Despite periodic searches, his sabotaged dinosaur models have never been found.

“They still rest somewhere under the sod of Central Park, probably not far from Umpire Rock and the Heckscher ballfields,” states this CUNY site.

“Could one of the pitchers’ mounds really be a small embankment covering the severed head of Megalosaurus? Who knows, maybe so.”

The rocking-chair riot that riled up New Yorkers

August 11, 2014

OscarspateOscar Spate (right) was a shady British businessman with a crazy plan in spring 1901.

He’d pay the parks commissioner $500 for the right to put 200 green rocking chairs in Central Park and Madison Square Park.

He’d charge 5 cents a seat to park attendees who wanted to sit in his cane-bottomed chairs rather than a stiff park bench. Hired attendants would make sure sitters paid up.

This idea actually got the go-ahead from the parks commissioner. It may have been because Spate claimed that the great parks in Europe had chairs for rent. Or perhaps the commissioner was worried about the homeless who had increasingly begun occupying city parks, scaring away many visitors.

Madisonsquarepostcard1900s

Paying for seating, he may have reasoned, was the only way to clear derelicts from these two parks and bring back residents, according to The Flatiron, by Alice Sparberg Alexiou.

While the placement of these rocking chairs for hire in Central Park didn’t appear to ruffle many feathers, the chairs in Madison Square Park ticked people off.

Madisonsquareparkfountain

Newspapers picked up the story of two-tiered seating, and New Yorkers made a point of purposely sitting in the rocking chairs and refusing to pay attendants, arguing that it was a free country.

When a heat wave struck in July, tempers really flared. “The parks still had free benches, but the privately operated chairs seemed to occupy all the shady areas,” wrote Michael Pollan in the New York Times in 2006.

Madisonsquareparkingfbruno:wikiIn Madison Square Park, “an estimated 1,000 men and boys chased Thomas Tully, a chair attendant, into the Fifth Avenue Hotel with cries of ‘Lynch him!’ after Mr. Tully upended a nonpayer from his rocker and slapped a boy who was heckling him.”

Two days later, Spate’s permit was revoked. Ten thousand people crowded into Madison Square Park to celebrate the decision—and sit in his chairs.

Ever the businessman, Spate eventually sold them to Wanamaker’s and billed them as historic artifacts!

The above photo shows the modern Madison Square Park, with egalitarian benches [ingfbruno/wiki]

The anonymous men who built Central Park

July 14, 2014

When Central Park opened in stages in 1859 through the 1860s, designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux scored much of the credit for the park’s beauty and brilliance.

Centralparkbuilding1859nypl

But what about all the anonymous men who did the physical work—the laborers tasked with taking 843 rocky, swampy acres and reshaping it a man-made oasis of nature?

[Below, finishing the staircase at Bethesda Terrace]

Centralparkbethesdastairs1862nyplHere’s a little of what we know about them. “By the spring of 1858, more than three thousand men were busy dredging, clearing, grading, and planting—laboriously remodeling every feature of the rugged landscape,” wrote Ric Burns and James Sanders in New York: an Illustrated History.

“There were German gardeners, Italian stonecutters, and an army of masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, and road-building teams.”

Most of the low-level laborers were Irish and German, “often paid only a dollar a day and drawn, Olmsted said, from the ‘poorest, or what is generally considered the most dangerous, class of the great city’s population.'”

Centralparkpipesreservoir1862nypl“To prevent any trouble with the Irish, African Americans were excluded from the workforce entirely,” state Burns and Sanders.

It was grueling, dangerous work. Boulders had to be blasted out of the ground with gunpowder, then loaded onto horse-drawn trucks; “blasting foremen” were paid an extra 25 cents a day, according to The Park and the People, by Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar.

[Above: the pipes running under the new reservoir]

Centralparkarsenal1862from6thnyplAfter the ground was ready, “workmen installed ninety-five miles of underground pipe, creating an artificial drainage system—itself a masterpiece of sanitary engineering—then set to work relandscaping the entire site with 6 million bricks, 65,000 cubic yards of gravel, 25,000 trees, and a quarter of a million shrubs,” wrote Burns and Sanders.

Pavers working on the park’s walks and drives were also paid more than day laborers, as were stonecutters, who ended up making $2.25 a day in 1860—an improvement over the wages paid in the late 1850s, on the heels of the Panic of 1857.

[Above: the view of the Arsenal from 6th Avenue]

Where did this army of workers live? “A park laborer’s average income might pay the rent for one room with sleeping closets in a Lower East Side tenement or for an uptown shanty,” write Rosenzweig and Blackmar.

Centralparkpromenadenypl

Though many lived downtown in boardinghouses or with other laborers’ families, “the relative absence of park workers from the city directory, however, suggests both their transience and their concentration in uptown wards.”

[Images: NYPL Digital Gallery]

Watching Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park

July 3, 2014

Simonandgarfunkelonstage2It’s hard to imagine how rundown Central Park was in the early 1980s. Neglect, graffiti, and lack of funds in a broke city left it a place of patchy grass and unkempt ball fields.

One way to raise much-needed funds to help restore it? Hold a benefit concert.

That’s what brought Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel together on a cool Saturday night in September 1981, harmonizing in front of 500,000 fans, who carpeted the lawn with blankets, beach chairs, and coolers.

SimonandgarfunkelcrowdThe show was free, but money raised from merchandising and HBO rights was supposed to net $70,000 to benefit city parks. Amazingly, the promoters made good on their promise.

“The restoration money, [Parks Commissioner Gordon J. Davis] says, paid for landscaping beyond any damage done, ”and the other funds have gone for a variety of projects running from graffiti removal from walls to some of our recreation programs dealing with troubled kids,'” wrote the New York Times almost a year later.

SgconcertincentralparkThat reference to damage done? The crowd left behind tons of beer cans, bottles, and other trash that cost $20,000 to clean up as soon as Simon and Garfunkel left the stage.

They weren’t the only stars to play Central Park in the late 1970s and 1980s: James Taylor, Elton John, and Diana Ross also sang on the Great Lawn.

But perhaps the most popular concert of all was the one given by Garth Brooks in 1997—which brought in 750,000 fans.

[Bottom photo: via mrtopten.com]

The elite “carriage parade” in 1860s Central Park

June 16, 2014

By the early 1860s, much of Central Park had opened, particularly the miles of drives meant for recreational carriage rides.

But with only five percent of city residents able to afford a carriage, these drives were mostly used by the very richest New Yorkers—who established an afternoon high-society ritual called the carriage parade.

Carriagescentralpark1869

In what could be considered a foreshadowing of our current celebrity-obsessed culture, poor and middle-class residents often turned out to watch, gawk, and critique the procession day after day.

Carriagecentralpark1869“The great, fashionable carriage parade—so rightly considered one of the notable ‘sights’ of the city—took place between the hours of four and five,” wrote Lloyd R. Morris in Incredible New York.

“To view this, crowds gathered along the walk that bordered the east carriage drive from Fifty-Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue to the Mall.”

“In the continuous procession of equipages you saw everyone who counted: the aristocracy, the new smart set, the parvenus, the celebrities, the deplorably notorious.”

Carriagecentralparknypl“When taking the air in the Park, many of them preferred to be concealed in their broughams, but some had progressed to public exposure in a landau.”

“Their horses were huge, fat, and slow; their coachmen and footmen, soberly liveried, were elderly; their carriages were funereally black.”

Not everyone was impressed by the spectacle of the new rich and their older counterparts on display in $12,000 carriages. One account had it that German schoolkids through rocks at the carriages.

Carriagecentralpark1880s

Walt Whitman “found the carriage parade ‘an impressive, rich, interminable circus on a grand scale, full of action and color,'” wrote Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar in The Park and the People.

NY3DBox“[But] as he peered through the windows of the richest carriages, he saw ‘faces almost corpse-like, so ashy and listless.'”

For more information on the building and beginning of Central Park, check out New York City in 3D in the Gilded Age.

[Top and second photo: MCNY Collection; third: NYPL Digital Gallery; fourth: MCNY Colletion]

A peek into a New York boyhood in the 1850s

May 19, 2014

Letterstophilcover1982“It seems hard to believe that Twenty-third Street—which is the first street in the city of which I remember anything, could have changed in so short a time,” wrote Edward Eugene “Gene” Schermerhorn in an 1886 letter to his young nephew, Phil.

“The rural scenes, the open spaces, have vanished; and the small and quiet residences, many of them built entirely of wood, have given place to huge piles of brick and stone, and to iron and plate-glass fronts of the stores which now line the street.”

It was the first of 10 letters Gene would address to his nephew, recently collected in a thin, enchanting volume, Letters to Phil, published by New York Bound in 1982.

Each chronicles his memories between 1848 and 1856 of a small-scale New York that had yet to experience the enormous growth that made it an international capital by the 1880s.

NYC1842mapGene’s city had a population of about 500,000 and a northern boundary barely exceeding 14th Street. A descendent of a prosperous family that came to Manhattan in the 17th century, he shows what it was like to be a curious, privileged boy before the Civil War.

“Twenty-third Street and in fact all the streets in the neighborhood were unpaved,” he wrote. “There was plenty of room, plenty of dirt (clean dirt), and plenty of boys; what more could be desired!”

Gene writes of the games he and his friends played: marbles, “base ball,” and kite-flying. The also chased the pigs that ran around Sixth Avenue.

His Manhattan was a rural paradise. “Up town at this time was almost inaccessible. Of course there was no Central Park. Third Avenue was open to Harlem passing through Yorkville which was quite a large village  about 86th Street. . . .”

Harlemlane

Chelsea was located to the west of Gene’s home; Murray Hill, to the east. “Eighth Avenue was open to Harlem, and in connection with the Harlem Lane (now St. Nicholas Ave.) was the great road for fast driving.”

Madisoncottage2The business district, at City Hall, contained “none of those magnificent buildings now so common in the lower part of the city. A building of any kind six stories high was very rare.”

Downtown had all the theaters, as well as Barnum’s Museum. “It was a delight to go there on Saturday afternoons.”

The rough side of town was at Broadway and Houston Street, the site of St. Thomas’ church. “[Sic] Opposite to it was a row of small two-storied wooden houses; many of them low grog shops—a very bad neighborhood.”

Gene and his brother skated on ponds at 32nd and Broadway and Sixth Avenue and 57th. They headed over to Park Avenue south of 42nd Street on Saturdays and “played among the rocks and watch[ed] the trains.”

“Sometimes we would walk in the region which is now the Central Park. It was a very rough and rocky place, with plenty of woods and scattered trees and very few houses except ‘Squatters’ shanties.”

New York’s industry centered around transportation. The East River housed “Dry Docks” and shipyards. “On the Bowery at 6th Street was the ‘Hay Scale’ where the loads of hay brought in on that side of the city were weighed.

Gothaminn1870

“Facing this was the ‘Gotham Inn,’ quite a noted sporting tavern. On the corner of 3rd Avenue and 13th Street stood an old pear tree, which was planted on Gov. Stuyvesant’s farm in 1647.”

Gene gives a wonderful account of a free-range boyhood in a slower-paced city. But what he did with his life isn’t clear. He apparently never married; he may have lived a life of leisure. He died in 1922.

His nephew Phil is also a mystery. His 1952 obituary in The New York Times, however, says he lived on East 78th Street, was survived by a wife, and became a painter.

[Map of NYC in 1842; images from the NYPL Digital Gallery]

A Central park lamp inspired by a German bridge

May 16, 2014

LombardlamptallAcross the street from Grand Army Plaza at the Fifth Avenue and 59th Street entrance to Central Park is a lovely lone lamppost.

Made from cast iron and aluminum, the ornate lamp is only 35 years old—a gift to New York City from the city of Hamburg in Germany symbolizing friendship.

Known as the Lombard Lamp, it draws its inspiration from the beautifully crafted lampposts that have illuminated the Lombard Bridge in Hamburg since the 1870s (photo below).

“The series of lamps that line the bridge have long been beacons at the heart of this vital German city,” states the New York City Parks Department.

LombardlamppostIn 1979, city leaders in Hamburg decided to recreate their famous lamp and give it to New York.

The new lamp “has a lavish base composed of cherubs, garlands, and other decorative features,” notes the Park Department.

“Although it is hollow, the 15-foot lamp weighs more than 1200 pounds, and supports five globe-shaped luminaires.”

Lombardbridgegermany

With its amber globes and imagery of bridge architecture and sea icons, it’s an enchanting replica—which fits right in with Grand Army Plaza’s Gilded Age celebration of glory and progress and abundance.

[Bottom photo: via Amusing Planet]

Above-ground remnants of the Croton Aqueduct

April 28, 2014

CrotonwatermanholeIt was an amazing engineering feat: the construction of an aqueduct from upper Westchester to Manhattan that would bring fresh water to New York City.

Built between 1837 and 1842, the Croton Aqueduct fed a growing metropolis’ huge need for clean drinking water as well as water for fighting fires.

The water had quite a journey to travel. From the Croton River it crossed the Harlem River over the beautiful High Bridge.

Crotonaqueductgatehouse

Then it flowed into a receiving reservoir in the West 70s between Sixth and Seventh Avenues (not quite yet the middle of Central Park; the park hadn’t been built yet).

From there it reached the Egyptian revival–style distributing reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, and then to streets and households all over Manhattan (who paid an annual fee for the water, of course).

CrotonaqueductinsideThe old Croton Aqueduct was in use until the 1890s (the Harper’s Magazine illustration at left is called “Shutting Off The Croton”), when it was replaced by a new aqueduct by the same name and used through the 1950s.

Amazingly, some of the 19th century aqueduct gatehouses (where the inverted siphon pipes that carried the water connected) still stand.

One is fenced off at Amsterdam Avenue and 118th Street (above). Completed in 1895, it replaced an older gatehouse at Amsterdam and 119th Street.

Another gatehouse, at Amsterdam and 113th Street, has been repurposed into a senior center.

Crotongatehouseharlem

A third gatehouse is on Convent Avenue and 135th Street in Harlem—it’s a beauty (above).

The gatehouses and manhole covers aren’t the only visible reminders of the aqueduct. Incredibly, part of an old reservoir wall appears to remain in the south wing of the New York Public Library building, which was built on the site of the distributing reservoir. Catch a glimpse of it here at Daytonian in Manhattan.


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