The 1955 plan to get rid of Central Park’s Ramble

Since Central Park opened in 1859, city officials have occasionally tried to tinker with its original intent—which was to replicate the woods and pastures of nature for industry-choked New Yorkers in need of R&R.

Among the plans that luckily never came to pass: a racetrack, a cemetery for the city’s “distinguished dead,” a 1,000-seat theater, building lots from parcels of park space, even pavement replacing the grass at the lower end of the park. And these are just the ideas proposed before 1920!

But one of the weirdest plans in Central Park’s history hit the headlines in 1955: bulldozing part of Central Park’s Ramble (below, in 1900) and turning it into an indoor/outdoor senior citizens center.

The proposal meant fencing off 14 of the Ramble’s 33 acres, putting up a building with a parking lot, and also constructing an outdoor activities area, which would include croquet and shuffleboard courts behind a fence.

Who came up with this one? Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, aka the “master builder” of the 20th century city, who took charge of the parks in 1933.

In his 27 years as parks czar, Mose fundamentally changed Central Park. In the 1930s, he built 20 playgrounds and created baseball fields—going against co-designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s original prohibition of play areas, which they felt interfered with the natural landscape their Greensward plan called for.

Moses also restored and preserved sections of the park, including the zoo, and his overall stewardship of the “lungs of New York” and other city agencies is still being debated.

But back to the Ramble. The idea of destroying “the dense maze of meandering paths through rocky outcrops and lush vegetation” that was one of the earliest parts of the park caused an outcry, recalled The New York Preservation Archive Project (NYPAP).

One group of critics: birdwatchers, among them “Robert Cushman Murphy, former curator at the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Birds,” stated NYPAP. “The Ramble, he argued, was ‘one of the park’s most important bird sanctuaries,’ which the new facility threatened to destroy.”

Moses countered that the new facility wouldn’t impede bird watching, and in fact it would be safer to have a senior center there due to the growing threat of being mugged or assaulted in the Ramble, according to one newspaper columnist.

New Yorkers voiced their opinions in the papers. “In a Moses park, everybody must do something—row a boat, ride a horse, play shuffleboard or checkers,” commented one East Side resident. “The Ramble is a place to just sit quietly and look at the trees, but Moses doesn’t understand that.”

Contemporary historians detect anti-gay bias in Moses’ plan.

“In the 1920s they called the open lawn at the northern end of the Ramble the ‘fruited plain,'” wrote Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar in The Park and the People. The proposal may have been driven in part because “the Ramble was considered a gathering place for ‘anti-social’ persons,” they stated.

Because of the uproar, Moses backed down. The shuffleboard and croquet courts were never built, and the Ramble remains just the way Olmsted wanted it: a “wild garden” for getting lost in the restorative powers of the natural world (above, 1865).

[Second image: Medium; third image: MCNY X2010.11.1419; third image: New York Times headline, 1955; sixth image: MCNY 94.64.14]

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11 Responses to “The 1955 plan to get rid of Central Park’s Ramble”

  1. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    thank the Lord! Good grief! The Ramble is the most divine part of Central Park in my opinion……and it is an enormous refuge for birds. Migrating birds fly to it as a magnet. It is such a gorgeous oasis in the middle of New York. Central Park is what makes New York City habitable….and the ramble is my favorite part!

  2. Tom B Says:

    One of our things to do when in NYC is to ramble through The Ramble during the day. It’s hard to believe you are in a busy, bustling City.
    Moses always gets blamed for things that are wrong with NYC, sometimes more than the law breakers. I find it ironic people supported a gathering place for ‘anti social persons’ over Senior Citizens.
    We’re glad The Ramble is still there. The new proposal would of eventually became a Crack House that Rudy would of had to demolished. The same people who didn’t want the Senior Center, would of been the same people who didn’t want it destroyed. More irony.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I share your love of rambling around the Ramble…during the day. I’ve never been at night, and now there’s another creature roaming around…raccoons.

  3. Tom Dulski Says:

    It is a great place to birdwatch but Moses was right it is a seedy place with many sexual degenerates lurking around.

  4. greg chown Says:

    Thank you for continuing to post your stories. I certainly look forward to reading them.
    There’s an excellent documentary about Robert Moses and his eventual fall from grace at the hands of Jane Jacobs.
    This might be it:

  5. countrypaul Says:

    Legislating morality always fails ultimately. A corollary: anything good gets discovered, then regulated, then the good is bled out of it. (Live long enough and I guarantee it will happen to something that you (anyone, everyone) discovers and cherishes.

    There will always be “vice”; where it happens and how it is regulated and controlled varies from era to era. But forested land, especially in the heart of a city, takes eras to regrow if it is taken out. As a “nature guy,” I’m grateful for the greenery that remains.

  6. David H Lippman Says:

    The only two good things Moses did in Central Park were both at the behest of Governor Al Smith, who was an animal lover.

    The first was to repair the dilapidated Central Park Zoo, whose cages were disintegrating — the keepers were armed with rifles in case the animals broke out of their cages. He made it a modern zoo, and provided Smith with an Honorary Superintendent’s badge and set of keys. He was known to go over to the zoo outside of operating hours and hang out with the animals. After he left office, he would go there when he heard that an animal was sick, to provide comfort.

    The other thing was to remove the sheep in the Sheep Meadow. Yes, there were actually sheep in the Sheep Meadow. The problem was that they were all completely inbred, which meant that every negative DNA result was on full display for park-goers.

    I often point out the result of endless inbreeding to neo-Nazi nutballs who want to set up a barricaded community in Idaho or Montana for their “pure race.” In 50 years, those “pure” folks will be as impure as Night Train Express.

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