Rocky remains of Central Park’s 1842 reservoir

Central Park’s great lawn is a lovely, sprawling place for sunbathing, picnics, and playing ball.

But it was never part of the original plan for the park because the land, located between 79th and 86th Streets between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, was already in use.

In 1842, it was the site of New York’s new, 31-acre Receiving Reservoir, the body of water built to store fresh drinking water piped in from upstate via the just-completed Croton Aqueduct.

Built on high ground on rocky, unpopulated terrain, the reservoir held water that could easily flow down to the southern end of Manhattan, where the city existed at the time.


Unlike the grand Distributing Reservoir [on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue], designed in the popular Egyptian Revival style, the Receiving Reservoir was simple and practical,” states

“Sloped embankment walls formed its rectangular perimeter. Both the outer and inner walls were covered with stone masonry. The walls were planted on top with grass surrounded by a double fence to create a mile long promenade.”

ReceivingreservoirnyplWhen Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux began developing the park in the late 1850s, they weren’t too happy with the rectangular reservoir, which didn’t mesh with their pastoral, naturalistic design.

But since they couldn’t get rid of it, they hid it behind a grove of trees. A second receiving reservoir built in a more natural, oval shape in the 1860s just north of the original reservoir (above) fit their plan better.

With New York’s population in the late 19th century multiplying year by year and water usage increasing, the Receiving Reservoir’s days were numbered.


After the completion of a new water tunnel in 1917, it was finally drained in 1929. Plans to turn the land into a World War I memorial and then a promenade linking the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the Museum of Natural History didn’t pan out.

By 1936, the former reservoir was filled in with land excavated from the development of the Eighth Avenue Subway and Rockefeller Center—and the Great Lawn was born. (The second reservoir, renamed for Jackie Kennedy Onassis, still exists.)

ReceivingreservoirwallIncredibly, remnants of the Receiving Reservoir can be found here and there.

The bedrock that forms the edge of Turtle Pond is the same that formed the southwest corner of the reservoir,” states

“Remains of the reservoir’s western wall can be found in a stand of trees north of the Delacorte Theater (above). The most impressive ruin is located along the 86th Street transverse wall where, tucked up against the east end of the Central Park Police Precinct is the northeast corner of the original Receiving Reservoir (pictured). Its sloped stone embankment wall is unmistakable.”

The ghostly, granite remains of the 42nd Street Distributing Reservoir can be seen on a lower wall of the New York Public Library.

[Images: top,; second, NYPL digital gallery; third, David Rumsey Map Collection; fifth,]

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6 Responses to “Rocky remains of Central Park’s 1842 reservoir”

  1. Robert R Says:

    Thanks for this fascinating story. For those interested in Croton Aqueduct remnants, I have designed two large color maps which trace the exact tunnel route from its source in Westchester through the Bronx to the receiving reservoirs in Manhattan, detailing the architecture and archeology along all 42 miles of the Aqueduct. These maps are available through the nonprofit Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct online.

  2. Untapped Staff Picks: A ‘Museum Without Walls’ in Times Square, Central Park’s 1842 Reservoir | Untapped Cities Says:

    […] Rocky Remains of Central Park’s 1842 Reservoir [Ephemeral New York] […]

  3. Beth Says:

    There were actually some residents in the southern part of the reservoir area that were displaced by its construction. Mostly black and Irish, some most likely moved to Seneca Village just to the west.

  4. petey Says:

    great post! i’ve never seen that top picture before.

  5. Sabrina’s Pool, Central Park – Hidden Waters blog Says:

    […] of its original Olmstead-Vaux features, including the first Gapstow Bridge, Central Park Casino, Lower Reservoir, McGown’s Pass Tavern, Marble Arch, the original boathouse at The Lake, Oval and Outset […]

  6. Two enchanting views of New York’s High Bridge | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] oldest bridge—a Roman-inspired graceful span completed in 1848 as a crucial link of the Croton Aqueduct, the engineering marvel that brought fresh upstate water to city […]

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