Archive for the ‘central park’ Category

The Roaring Twenties nightclub in Central Park

February 29, 2016

Central Park was originally intended to be a place of rest and relaxation, a naturalistic preserve away from the teeming crowds of the mid-19th century city.

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So how did a posh, glitzy nightclub end up on the park’s East Drive at 72nd Street in the high society 1920s?

It has to do with James J. Walker, the nightlife loving, charmingly corrupt mayor of New York from 1925 to 1932.

CentralparkcasinointeriorThe nightclub was called the Casino (above and left), and even before it became a club, it had an interesting history.

In 1864, it started out as a modest stone cottage designed by Calvert Vaux to be the “Ladies Refreshment Saloon,” where respectable women visiting the park unaccompanied by a man could grab a bite to eat.

By the late 19th century, it evolved into a regular restaurant. Rather than a gambling house, the Casino (“little house” in Italian) was “where well-to-do diners could get a steak for seventy-five cents” while sipping wine on a terrace (below), according to Andrew F. Smith’s Savoring Gotham.

Enter Mayor Walker. The Casino would now be run by Walker’s friends, who turned the expanded cottage into a Jazz Age nightspot.

“Under its new regime, the Casino catered to the rich and famous,” reported the Complete Illustrated Map and Guidebook to Central Park.

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“Met at the door by liveried footmen, guests dined on elegant French cuisine, and—despite Prohibition—happily paid inflated prices for mixers to go with the bootleg liquor they brought with them.”

Centralparkcasinowalker“Dancing, in a spectacular black-glass ballroom to the tunes of Leo Reisman’s society orchestra, went on until 3 a.m. Mayor Walker and his mistress, the Broadway showgirl Betty Compton (left), were often the last to leave.”

The Casino continued entertaining the city’s elite club crowd even after the Depression hit.

It was a huge success, grossing more than $3 million in five years of operation . . . with the city getting $42K in rent.

But by the early 1930s, it was seen as a symbol of excess. Mayoral candidate Fiorello La Guardia denounced it as a “whoopee joint.”

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In 1935, Robert Moses, the city’s legendary Parks Commissioner, tore it down (above, right before demolition) and replaced it with Rumsey Playfield—a concert venue that entertains New Yorkers in an entirely different way today.

[Photos: centralpark.org; MCNY]

The meaning of a 200-year-old Central Park bolt

January 11, 2016

It’s easy to miss, just a gray iron rod hammered into a slab of gray Manhattan schist in Central Park. But this unassuming bolt is a relic with historical meaning.

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It was put there more than 200 years ago by John Randel Jr., a surveyor and engineer. Randel had been hired by a state-appointed commission tasked with drawing up a street plan for the growing city of New York.

BoltcentralparkcuBeginning in 1808, Randel’s job was to map out a grid that would divide Manhattan into blocks formed by east-west streets and north-south avenues, few of which existed at the time (Gotham’s northern border was Houston Street back then).

He submitted his plan, famously known as the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan for the City of New York. Then the grunt work began.

“Randel spent the next 10 years staking out and marking the intersections from First Street to 155th Street with 1,549 three-foot-high marble monuments and, when the ground was too rocky, with 98 iron bolts secured by lead,” wrote Sam Roberts in a 2011 New York Times article.

As the city marched northward and the streets Randel mapped out were developed, the marble monuments and iron bolts disappeared.

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In 2004, this one in Central Park—left undisturbed, as Central Park escaped the street grid plan—was discovered by surveyor Lemuel Morrison and geographer Reuben Rose-Redwood while researching the grid system.

Exact directions to this unassuming relic are hard to find, since no one wants it to fall into the hands of souvenir hunters. New York history fans should start looking in the park’s southern end.

Santa has been spotted all over Manhattan

December 21, 2015

Santa Claus has come to town many times, and he’s hung out in some unlikely places.

Here’s proof, courtesy of New York’s street photographers. They always capture the weirdness and whimsy of the city…like the time Santa was waiting on the platform at Bleecker Street train in 1976 [Photographer: Richard Kalvar]

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In 1982, Santa was caught poking around Central Park, across the street from the Plaza Hotel. Hopefully he wasn’t lost. [Photographer: Raymond Depardon]

Santacentralparkraymonddepardon1982

1968 was a tumultuous year of political and social upheaval, which might explain why he stopped off at this bar (with color TV!) next to a pastry shop. Even Santa needs a little nip now and then. [Photographer: Bruce Gilden]

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Back when the Bowery had actual bums in 1977, Santa spent some time cheering up the down-and-out guys who made their home there. That garbage can probably held a nice warm fire. [Photographer: Susan Meisales]

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Here he is in 1962, refueling at the coffee shop in a Woolworth’s, in a window seat at a booth with a formica counter. It might be Christmas Eve, so he’s in for a long night. [Photographer: unknown]

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A view of an unfinished Central Park in 1862

November 23, 2015

Isn’t that a not-quite-completed Bethesda Terrace and the Central Park Lake on the far left?

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Landscape painter George Loring Brown depicts a very rustic Central Park in 1862, after the park had officially opened but with much more work to still be done. The city looms to the south.

Listening to the orchestra play in Central Park

November 9, 2015

A century before Summerstage and free shows by Diana Ross and Simon and Garfunkel, Central Park hosted free concerts.

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First given in the Ramble, “concerts soon moved to the Mall, where the tradition grew into the 20th century,” states nycgovparks.org.

“At the northern end of the Mall, an elaborate cast-iron bandstand once stood (on the present site of the bust of composer Ludwig von Beethoven). Thousands of people would attend open-air performances. To prevent the landscape from being damaged during musical performances, fences that also provided seating for concertgoers were cleverly designed by Calvert Vaux.”

The men in these crowds look like sitting ducks for the Straw Hat Riot instigators!

The tramp: a new kind of homeless in the 1870s

November 2, 2015

On December 28, 1873, after a terrible economic recession descended on New York—bringing with it unemployment and eviction—the New York Times sounded the alarm on a new urban threat.

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“At the present time there is supposed to be at least 3,000 vagrants in this City, while there is a large number who travel from place to place, either begging as they go along, or doing odd jobs for their meals,” warned the front page article.

Trampsfrankleslies1877“These tramps are always pretending to look for work, but it is very rare that they will accept it if offered, unless to get a chance to steal something.”

Tramps had arrived in New York—ragged, disconnected men who appeared on sidewalks and park benches in high numbers, scaring residents who felt they were “an army of the poor threatening respectable society,” states The Poor Among Us.

“The threat created by tramps was certainly exaggerated, but the underlying problem was real.”

Tramp1890snyplTramps “first appeared in the 1870s,” wrote Luc Sante in Low Life. “Many of them were probably Civil War veterans who hadn’t been able to adjust.”

“In the years when Central Park was new, tramps would hide out there, living in its sylvan recesses. They attracted notice as a public nuisance with their penchant for lying prone on the pavement and draining the lees from empty beer kegs set out in front of saloons.”

Tramps lived in 5 cent lodging houses or on police station floors—the  homeless shelters of the Gilded Age for those with absolutely no where else to go.

Trampsongbook1894As the 19th century went on, Tramps became the face of homelessness in the city.

Charities directed their efforts toward decreasing the number of homeless children and women, who the public felt were more deserving of aid.

“By the end of the 19th century, however, the typical homeless person was a tramp,” states The Poor Among Us.

Tramps could be found all over downtown. Flop houses catered to them. City officials built farm colonies where they could be put to work. They became colorful characters in vaudeville and early movies.

Trampsingersargeant1904-1906Though their numbers were reduced during World War I in New York, they never really went away from the city for long, of course.

These were the “forgotten” men living in Central Park Hooverville shanties during the Depression, the Bowery bums drinking and standing around trash can fires through the postwar decades, and the homeless of today, begging on sidewalks and parks or edged into the shadows under bridges and inside subway stations.

[Top image: Jacob Riis, 1890; Harper’s Weekly; NYPL Digital Gallery; NYPL Digital Gallery; John Singer Sargent, 1906]

A Central Park bison is on the buffalo nickel

August 24, 2015

BlackdiamondElephants, monkeys, sea lions, camels, bison—in the early 1900s, the Central Park Menagerie, as it was known, was home to all.

One of the most famous of these creatures was a bull bison given up by Barnum & Bailey Circus named Black Diamond.

Black Diamond, born in 1893, was known for being very calm.

That may be why artist James Earle Fraser used Black Diamond supposedly used him as his model when he was given the plum assignment of designing the buffalo nickel.

There’s some confusion about it, but Fraser himself said Black Diamond, at six feet tall and about 2,000 pounds, was the one.

[Above: not Black Diamond, but another bull bison at the Central Park Menagerie in a similar pose]

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“Black Diamond was less conscious of the honor being conferred on him than of the annoyance which he suffered from insistent gazing upon him,” Fraser reportedly said, via antiquetrader.com.
Blackdiamondbuffalonickel“He refused point blank to permit me to get side views of him, and stubbornly showed his front face most of the time.”

And what did Black Diamond get for this honor?

In 1915, when he was an old bull whose days were numbered, the menagerie decided to sell him to a slaughterhouse and turn him into buffalo steak.

The loveliest Victorian bridge in Central Park

August 17, 2015

Named for its graceful shape reminiscent of a violin bow, Central Park’s Bow Bridge has always been a park favorite and a lovely remnant of the Victorian city (seen here in a turn of the century postcard).

Bowbridgecentralparkpostcard

See the urns at the entrance to the bridge on the right? These and six other urns decorating the bridge when it was built around 1860 disappeared mysteriously in the 1920s.

Craftsmen working from original photos made replicas of the urns, and they went back in 2008, restoring Bow Bridge to its original romantic glory.

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.

Receivingreservoir2015

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.

Conservatorywater

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.


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