Archive for the ‘central park’ Category

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?


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.


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

“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.


“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]


“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
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).


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.

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,]

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


“President Rutherford B. Hayes dedicated his statue in 1877 before an estimated crowd of 10,000,” states (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:; 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.


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

“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!


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