Where is this rough rock wall in Central Park?

This is the story of an 1889 painting, a mysterious stone wall, and a religious institution that occupied part of today’s Central Park in the mid-19th century—before the park was even in the planning stages.

It starts with Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase. He was dubbed the “artistic interpreter” of Central Park and Prospect Park in an 1891 Harper’s Weekly article, owing to his many evocative landscapes of these and other city green spaces.

One Chase painting that stands out as darker and more mysterious than most of his park landscapes is this one (above) from 1889, “In the Park (a By-Path).”

A child under a watchful nanny wanders away from a park bench and follows a stone wall, “one of those sections of rough rock-work which give character to the many nooks and corners of the Park at the same time that they serve a useful end,” wrote Charles De Key in Harper’s Weekly.

Where was—or currently is—this “rough rock-work,” and what was its useful end?

According to various sources, this impressive stone wall is what remained of a convent and school called the Academy of Mount St. Vincent (above in 1861), the first institute of higher learning for women in New York.

Founded in 1847 by the Sisters of Charity, Mount St. Vincent had the misfortune of setting up shop East of Fifth Avenue at about today’s 105th Street, in what would become Central Park a decade later.

The school relocated in the 1850s to Riverdale, where it continues its educational mission today. The college buildings left behind in the park burned down in 1881.

That rough rock wall, apparently a retaining wall from one of the original buildings, still stands behind the Conservatory Garden not far from a stone that marks the former site of the college (above left).

I went looking for the wall in this hilly, rocky section of Central Park. The mosquitos and thick brush kept me from finding it.

Luckily some other intrepid New Yorkers did locate it, like Michael Minn, whose 2007 photograph of the retaining wall is above. It doesn’t look exactly like the wall in Chase’s painting—artistic license, or the effects of time?

The folks from Untapped Cities also have a photo of the wall from 2017.

[Second image: NYPL; fourth image: Copyright © Michael Minn]

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6 Responses to “Where is this rough rock wall in Central Park?”

  1. Beth Says:

    You need to look for the Mount wall in the fall or winter when the foliage is gone. I’m not sure that’s the wall in the painting. It might be a path that ran somewhere along the receiving reservoir but I’m not sure about that, either, given those stone steps in the distance.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, I definitely went looking for it in the wrong time of the year; this part of the park is thick and damp. The Harper’s Weekly piece identified the rock wall as part of Mount St. Vincent’s, as did other sources. But I agree if doesn’t quite look the same.

  2. Where is this rough rock wall in Central Park? | News for New Yorkers Says:

    […] Source: FS – 898253 Where is this rough rock wall in Central Park? […]

  3. Tom B Says:

    I find it amazing that there is still remote areas of Central Park after all these years. One time I found an old survey spike location from when they formed the Grid of Manhattan, before Central Park was built. Someone pulled the spike out of the rock a few years ago.

  4. Michael Hobson Says:

    Are we certain that first photograph is not of another park, ie, Riverside? Interesting little riddle. Great blog Thanks.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m just going by what some art books and museum websites have said…but of course it could be Riverside! Chase painted scenes in many city parks created in the late 19th century, so they have a similar aesthetic.

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