Archive for the ‘central park’ Category

Rocky remains of Central Park’s 1842 reservoir

July 6, 2015

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.

Receivingreservoirnyc.gov

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.

Receivingreservoirmapdavidrumsey

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 nyc.gov.

“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.

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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 nyc.gov.

“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, nyc.gov; second, NYPL digital gallery; third, David Rumsey Map Collection; fifth, nyc.gov]

Miniature yachts set sail inside Central Park

May 11, 2015

Most New Yorkers know this body of water as a the sailboat pond, a peaceful spot near Central Park’s East 72nd Street entrance that often has toy sailing boats gliding along the surface.

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But Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the park’s brilliant designers, conceived it as the “Conservatory Water,” a pond that was originally supposed to be part of a large glass conservatory, or greenhouse.

Financial problems made building the conservatory impossible. But the water remains, a lovely place to sit and enjoy the park’s gentle beauty.

The girls leading New York’s maypole dances

May 4, 2015

Depending on your age and social class, May Day in the New York of a century ago meant either labor demonstrations or maypoles.

For kids, especially little girls, maypoles were the thing. These tall wood poles, symbolic of trees, were decorated with strips of ribbon, which each girl would hold while moving in a circle around the pole.

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This rejoicing of the return of spring has its roots in Northern European cultures. Since so many New Yorkers came from this part of the world at the time, the tradition carried over.

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Central Park was a popular site for Maypole dances. But the neighborhood parks springing up at the time also hosted them, usually for poorer kids with much less decorative poles.

Their pole isn’t as fancy and instead of ribbon they’re using string, but these girls in Seward Park in 1890 refused to be left out of the tradition.

Maypolesewardpark1890

Maypole processions were a common sight in city neighborhoods, and they were led by girls, as this New York Times article from 1886 explains:

“On the morning of the eventful day the May Queen, decked out in her summer best and her hair garlanded with flowers, leads a procession of her associates to the park,” wrote the Times.

Maypoleeastside1898The May Queen was picked by popular vote in the neighborhood.

“Her especial favorite among the small boys, graciously permitted to accompany the party, carries the May pole.”

“The parents of some of the children accompany the party ostensibly to keep the peace, but in reality because they enjoy themselves fully as much as the children do.”

“Throughout the month of May, these little parties are a familiar sight on the streets.”

[Top image: NYPL; second, Bain Collection, LOC; third and fourth, NYPL]

The beloved city poet you’ve never heard of

May 4, 2015

FitzgreenhalleckheadshotAt the time of his death in 1867, he was one of the most popular writers in the city: a critically acclaimed poet, satirist, and social commentator whose work was published in leading periodicals and recited by schoolkids.

But chances are you’ve never heard of Fitz-Green Halleck (right), a forgotten man of New York letters.

Born in Connecticut in 1790, Halleck, like so many aspiring writers before and after him, moved to New York at age 21.

He made a name for himself as part of the Knickerbocker group, which included the city’s early 19th century literary hotshots like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper.

FitzgreenhalleckcentralparkHe also met Joseph Rodman Drake, the scion of a wealthy New York family (below).

Drake was a medical student who collaborated with Halleck on a series of satirical verses published in the New York Evening Post.

It’s widely presumed that Halleck was in love with Drake. Upon Drake’s marriage, Halleck wrote his sister:

“[Drake] is perhaps the handsomest man in New York, a face like an angel, a form like an Apollo; and, as I well knew that his person was the true index of his mind, I felt myself during the ceremony as committing a crime in aiding and assisting such a sacrifice.”

FitzgreenhalleckjosephrodmandrakeDrake died shortly after of tuberculosis. Halleck continued writing, earning the nickname “The American Byron” in the 1830s.

He also secured a job as John Jacob Astor’s personal secretary, which allowed Halleck access to the city’s social scene—and also an annuity upon Astor’s death that gave him an income independent of his art.

His poems tended to be overwrought and fanciful, but they were popular in his day, especially “Fanny,” from 1819 (below).

Halleck kicked around the bohemian scene at Pfaff’s, the bar at Bleecker Street and Broadway.

FitzgreenhalleckfannyexcerptHe moved back and forth between New York and Connecticut, living with his sister but never marrying.

By the 1860s, he’d earned a place in the city’s established literary scene.

In 1877, ten years after his death, he was still so popular that his statue commemorating him went up along Central Park’s Literary Walk.

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“President Rutherford B. Hayes dedicated his statue in 1877 before an estimated crowd of 10,000,” states poetryfoundation.org (right).

He’s the only American writer there, part of an esteemed club featuring William Shakespeare, Robert Burns, and Sir Walter Scott.

Fame was fleeting. Today, no one remembers his name or his work.

[Fourth image: gayatlcp.com; fifth image, NYPL]

The Mall: the only straight path in Central Park

March 16, 2015

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux set out to recreate nature when they designed Central Park, laying out windy paths and serpentine walkways that would follow the woods and pastoral settings they had planned.

But they did allow one formal concession, the only intentional straight line in the park: a quarter-mile “promenade,” as they called it in the 1850s, where New Yorkers could mingle.

Centralparkmall

The Mall was “specially designed to accommodate the width of carriages passing through its bounds,” explains centralpark.com.

“Around the turn of the century, these carriages would drop off their wealthy inhabitants at the Mall’s starting point, where they could enjoy the natural scenery and mingle with people of lesser status. When these visitors finally reached the Bethesda Terrace, their carriages would be waiting to bring them to their next destination.”

And for the little ones, goat and donkey cart rides!

A settlement of shacks on upper Fifth Avenue

March 9, 2015

Recognize this block, which is less of a block and more of a hilly, rocky lot?

It’s Fifth Avenue at 101st Street in 1894, when this stretch of the future Museum Mile was still the province of the poor and vulnerable.

Shack18945thand101st

“A semi-rural hilly area with modest row houses and shanties at the end of the 19th century, Carnegie Hill was really discovered by the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who purchased land on Fifth Avenue around 90th Street in 1898 and built a 64-room mansion,” states the New York Times in a 1994 article.

A Times article from 1905 appears to describe one of these shanties.

Shacks5thave1895116th

“Within a stone’s throw of Andrew Carnegie’s mansion . . . stands a gabled shanty within 20 feet of Fifth Avenue of such scant dimensions and poverty-stricken appearance that it would be despised among the hovels that house some of the poorest of the city’s residents.”

Upperfifthave2015Shanty settlements like these seemed to dot Fifth Avenue farther north, like the ones seen in this photo, dated 1895.

A cross street is not listed on the photo, unfortunately. But note the lamppost; it wouldn’t be long before developers rush in, ushering in an upper Fifth Avenue of hospital buildings and stately apartment residences that still exist today.

[Top two photos: MCNY]

When New York winters were spent on the ice

February 16, 2015

One of the few activities open to both men and women in the 19th century city, ice skating was hugely popular.

“Skating in a moral and social point, is particularly suited to our republican ideas as a people,” stated the handbook published by the Brooklyn Skating Rink Association for the 1868-1869 season.

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Above, skating at Brooklyn’s Union Pond in 1863, once in the town of Williamsburgh on Marcy Avenue.

“The millionaire and the mechanic, the lady of fashion and those of humbler rank, all meet together to enjoy this fascinating and beautiful exercise.”

Winslowhomerskatingcentralpark

How democratic ice skating was is not exactly clear. Ice was plentiful, but you needed the money to buy or rent skates.

And the fashionable attire worn by ladies on the ice, as seen in this Winslow Homer painting from 1861, was not cheap.

Currierandivescentralparkwinter

These sleighs and the handsome teams that pulled them were costly as well, afforded by only the richest New Yorkers.

This Currier & Ives lithograph shows the skaters and the sleighs, sharing a snowy Central Park in what looks like the 1860s.

Just how bad was Central Park in the 1970s?

January 26, 2015

The opening paragraph from a New York Times story published on May 26, 1977 sums it up well.

“In Central Park, the once-green lawn of the Sheep Meadow is wearing away, gradually becoming a dust bowl with overuse,” wrote the Times.

Centralparkgreatlawn1970s

“At the Bethesda Fountain, drugs are sold routinely, and the Duck Pond at night becomes a receptacle for beer and soda cans.”

 

Centralparkbelvaderecastle1970s

Crime, graffiti, and decay are the buzzwords of 1970s New York City. And just because Central Park was the city’s jewel didn’t mean park structures and landscapes were immune.

Just look at this image of Belvedere castle. In the 1970s, meteorologists who read data from the weather instruments there (it was the highest point in the park and a prime spot to measure temperature) were planning to move because thieves kept stealing or destroying the equipment.

Centralparkdanacenter1970s

The park had deteriorated before, just after the turn of the century, and was brought back to life by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses in the 1930s. But the 1970s level of decay is hard to fathom today.

Centralparkthemaine1970sThe ancient Egyptian obelisk was spray-painted in white with the words “do it.” The fountain statue of the flutist in the Conservatory Garden was missing its flute.

Above, a boathouse from the 1940s was falling apart and defaced by graffiti. The statues of the monument at Columbus Circle were missing fingers, and the base was also graffiti-covered, at left.

One of the park’s lovely 19th century bridges is closed in this photo, a danger sign posted before it.

Centralparkbridge1970snytFinally in 1980, after studies were funded to help figure out how to save the park, an administrator was appointed. And two park advocacy groups combined to become the Central Park Conservatory, a “board of guardians” to help restore the park to its former glory.

[Photos: the Central Park Conservatory; New York Times]

8 uses for Central Park’s second-oldest building

January 19, 2015

One of only two buildings in Central Park constructed when the park was just a gleam in city officials’ eyes (the other is this stone fort), the Arsenal opened in 1851 as a state-run storage place for munitions.

Arsenalmilitianypl

“It was considered at the time to be an ideally strategic position to deploy troops to the city, or to either shoreline,” notes centralpark.org.

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And in the ensuing 168 years (above, in 1862), this structure designed to resemble a Medieval castle on Fifth Avenue and 64th Street has been repurposed to serve a variety of city needs.

First, in 1857, it was purchased from the state by park administrators and used as an office and police precinct.

Arsenalmenagerie

In the 1860s, after many New Yorkers began dropping off exotic animals in the new Central Park, the Arsenal became the temporary menagerie, which was never part of the park’s original plan but proved to be a hugely popular attraction.

ArsenalrestaurantBy the 1870s, it housed the Museum of Natural History, whose quarters were under construction across the park. It was also home to the studio were a British artist created models of dinosaur bones.

An art gallery and weather station followed—the city’s weather instruments recorded the official temperature from the top of the Arsenal.

An Arsenal restaurant (right) appeared in the early 20th century. By the 1920s, the building was falling apart, and after an overhaul reopened as offices for the Parks Department.

Arsenal2015

By the 1980s, the Arsenal assumed the role it still plays today: “as a gallery and space for public forums related to Parks’ mission and may be reserved for private and public functions,” states the Parks Department website.

It stands guard on the east side of Central Park, its Ivy gone, a testament to a changing city.

[Top two images: NYPL Digital Gallery]

The tigress and her cubs feasting in Central Park

January 12, 2015

This bronze statue near the entrance to the Central Park Zoo pulls no punches. “Tigress and Cubs” depicts a mother cat devouring a peacock, her cubs eager for a bite.

Tigressandcubs

Designed by French animalier August Nicholas Cain, it’s one of the oldest statues in Central Park and was presented to park officials in 1867 by 12 prominent New Yorkers.

The only big cats at the zoo now are the snow leopards. But for years, the zoo was home to tigers, lions, cheetahs, and even a tiglon and a liger, the offspring of tiger-lion combos.


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