Archive for the ‘central park’ Category

A memorial to the Gilded Age’s favorite architect

May 28, 2018

The curved monument to American-born architect Richard Morris Hunt sits weathered and leaf-covered at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street.

Though not a household name these days, Hunt (below right, in a portrait by John Singer Sargent) was the man who sculpted the look of the Gilded Age.

A brilliant visionary with a reputation for humility and humor, Hunt was the starchitect for high society yet also the genius behind public institutions and what’s regarded as the city’s first apartment house.

The memorial site is a fitting location; within the surrounding blocks once stood some of the spectacular buildings he designed.

Across Fifth Avenue was the Lenox Library, a private precursor to the public library system developed after the turn of the century.

(When the Lenox Library building was torn down, Henry Clay Frick built his exquisite mansion-turned-museum in its place.)

At Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, Hunt designed the mansion for Mrs. Caroline Astor and her son.

Astor left her previous, less showy mansion at 33rd Street in the 1890s, after her nephew decided to demolish his neighboring mansion and build the Hotel Waldorf.

Hunt was commissioned to build a double mansion, where Mrs. Astor and her son’s family could live in the French Renaissance splendor fashionable among the city’s wealthiest at the time.

(The Astor mansion was demolished in the 1920s, replaced by Temple Emanu-El.)

Hunt also designed “Petit Chateau” for W.K. Vanderbilt and his social-climbing wife, Alva, in 1883 at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street.

(Petit Chateau, the site of the 1883 costume ball that secured Alva Vanderbilt’s place in society, was also demolished in the 1920s.)

The facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was another Hunt creation.

After his death in 1895, plans for a memorial to the man who designed the Gilded Age were drawn. Daniel Chester French (he did the Lincoln Memorial in D.C.) created Hunt’s monument.

The understated site features a “central bust of the architect,” states centralparknyc.org. “A semicircular portico and curved bench support decorative columns and a cornice.”

“At each end stands a female figure, allegorical statues of Architecture, and Painting, and Sculpture,” explains the site.

It’s a perfectly Gilded Age-esque monument to the man who had much influence over the way the era looked—quite elaborate and fanciful compared to our pared-down, minimalist tastes today.

[Last photo: Wikipedia]

Old New York’s sleigh carnival began in January

December 31, 2017

Imagine a city where every January, when winter is at its most brutal and bone-chilling, New Yorkers parked their stages and omnibuses and excitedly hitched their horses to sleighs (like these in Central Park in the 1860s).

What was dubbed the “sleighing carnival” was an annual event in the 19th century metropolis (below, on Wall Street in 1834).

Once snow was on the ground and it was packed hard into the road, large sleighs were brought out for public transportation; “light” sleighs appeared too, kind of a personal carriage for joyriding, according to the Carriage Journal.

Joyriding meant going fast and thrilling passengers, as visitors to the city noted.

One of these visitors was Boston resident Sarah Kemble Knight, who wrote in her 1704 travel diary that New Yorkers’ winter fun involved “riding sleys about three or four miles out of town” in the Bowery.

While out with friends, “I believe we mett 50 or 60 sleys that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’d turn out of the path for none except a loaden cart,” Knight wrote.

By the 19th century, the appearance of sleighs became a carnival, one of speed, fun, and thrills.

In 1830, after a heavy snow fell in early January and temperatures plunged, “the New York carnival began, and the beautiful light-looking sleighs made their appearance,” wrote James Stuart in his 1833 UK travel memoir, Three Years in North America.

New York ladies apparently loved flying through the city on runners.

“The rapidity with which they are driven, at the rate of 10 or 12 miles an hour, is very delightful, and so exciting, that the most delicate females of New York think an evening drive, of 10 or 20 miles, even in the hardest frost, conducive to their amusement and health.”

The sleighing carnival last through the end of the century. (Above left, in Prospect Park.) Snow arrived in New York mid-January 1892, recalls the Carriage Journal, “and a regular sleighing carnival was the result.”

“The popular hours were from 3 to 5 p.m., during which thousands of sleighs thronged the Park and every imaginable vehicle that could possibly be used for pleasure riding was brought out.”

“Where all came from was a matter for surprise.”

[Top image: Currier & Ives, 1860s; second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY 45.271.1; seventh image: NYPL]

Central Park’s sensational 1865 balloon wedding

September 11, 2017

New York in the 19th century had its headline-grabbing nuptials—from the “fairy wedding” of General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren in 1863 to the doomed union between Consuelo Vanderbilt (daughter of society wannabe Ava) and the 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1895.

But for excitement and novelty, it’s hard to top the ceremony pulled off by one couple months after the end of the Civil War.

“For some days now the curiosity-loving portion of the New-York public have been all agog with the latest sensation—a projected marriage in a balloon,” wrote the New York Times on November 9, 1865.

There was something “peculiarly novel, not to say ridiculous, in the idea of a wedding taking place amid the clouds, with all mundane witnesses shut out by fleecy vapors, and the epithalamium sung by the rattling cordage of the aerial ship,” the reporter wrote.

But the newspaper covered the wedding anyway, which took place in a hot-air balloon with a wicker car that seated six. It was built by scientist and inventor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, who had been in charge of the Union Army Balloon Corps during the Civil War and dreamed of making a transatlantic flight via balloon.

The whole thing was the idea of the groom, a geologist named John Boynton (above left), according to the Times. Lowe made all the arrangements for lift-off, which took place at Sixth Avenue and 59th Street. (Top photo)

“The neighboring rocks and houses were covered with impatient spectators . . . all desirous of catching a glimpse of the wedding party as they soared above their heads.”

The weather was fair and calm, and lift-off scheduled for 2 p.m. Other New York papers wrote it up as well with the same sour tone. “The bridegroom was a fat old widower of 50, his bride [Mary Jenkins] a lady of 25,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

“The marriage ceremony was not performed up in air, the officiating clergyman objected to venture in the flesh so near heaven. The marriage was done on terra firma [at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, performed by future Brooklyn-based preacher T.D. Talmage], only the marriage contract was to be signed mid-air.”

After the bride and groom and their wedding party arrived and took their seats in the wicker basket, “the balloon ascended from Central Park, in the presence of a group of gaping idlers, who amused themselves with making vulgar remarks at the expense of the bride and groom.”

The Times described it this way. “The balloon rose, glided upward beautifully, and as the sea-breeze caught its silken sides the aerial craft bounded up almost instantly to a height of some thousand feet, when it again drifted, sailing slowly over the Central Park toward High Bridge.”

An hour and a half later, the balloon touched down safely in Westchester.

Apparently Lowe built an amphitheater at the lift-off site in Central Park and offered balloon rides to the public—until this particular balloon, named the United States, was destroyed by a tornado in 1866.

The Gilded Age was an era of excessive money—and crazy-sensational fads. Find out more in New York in the Gilded Age, 1870-1910.

[Top: NYPL; second: Harper’s Weekly; third: Getty images/Harper’s Weekly; fourth: New York Times; fifth: Getty Images/Harper’s Weekly; sixth: New York Times]

Everyone loved Central Park’s mineral water spa

August 14, 2017

You know how clean-eating New Yorkers never go anywhere without a bottle of water? Well, water—specifically mineral water—was a huge health trend in the 19th century city too.

Drinking and bathing in it was known as the “water cure,” which supposedly could treat fever, digestive complaints, and other body issues, as Ann Haddad wrote in in a blog post for the Merchant’s House Museum.

Wealthy New Yorkers took advantage of water curatives hawked by trendy hydrotherapists. They also headed upstate to visit the newly popular mineral spring resort spas.

For those of more modest means, an alternative came to Central Park in 1869: a mineral water “spa” that served several different types of spring-fed water.

The spa was the idea of a mineral water company owner, Carl Schultz, who (along with doctors touting the powers of H20) petitioned the Board of Health to allow him to open a venue in the park that would dispense water.

“The pavilion was erected in 1867 at the request of numerous physicians who felt that here was an opportunity of combining a mineral water cure with exercise in the open air,” recalled Scientific American in 1905.

After getting the go-ahead, Schultz had Central Park co-designers Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould build a delightful, Moorish style pavilion north of the Sheep Meadow at about 72nd Street.

“The waters are of two kinds: first the natural mineral waters from all the famous springs at home and abroad, and second mineral waters prepared artificially and scientifically, thus ensuring a definite chemical combination at all times,” wrote Scientific American.

The mineral water pavilion wasn’t just about clean water. It offered “morning summer recitals as an entertainment for the water-ingesting masses,” stated Ann Haddad.

Morning was an especially popular time at the mineral water pavilion, as seen above in an 1872 Harper’s illustration. According to the caption, these were Jewish New Yorkers socializing and enjoying the refreshing water.

Trends come and go, of course. After the turn of the century, with clean Croton-delivered water available to almost every home in New York City, the popularity of Central Park’s mineral water pavilion took a dive.

By 1960, the colorful little building with the fanciful roof was demolished. Today, the location is marked on park maps as “Mineral Springs,” a testament to the spa’s 19th century popularity.

[Photos NYPL Digital Collection]

A magical garden nobody knows in Central Park

July 17, 2017

Like many features of the 1858 “Greensward” plan for Central Park, the flower garden that was supposed to be built at 74th Street and Fifth Avenue never made it off the blueprint.

But in the 1930s, when the glass conservatory and greenhouses (below, in 1900) that were erected at Fifth Avenue and 105th proved too costly to maintain, parks director Robert Moses had them torn down—and plans for a European-style garden were drawn.

The result was the Conservatory Garden, which opened in 1937, a six-acre expanse of fountains, walkways, and lush and enchanting gardens in every direction.

Stepping into it feels like walking into a secret, a hidden oasis where the only sounds are the chorus of singing birds and the occasional human gasp at the sight of a curious raccoon.

To get in, you pass through a cast-iron gate designed in France for the Vanderbilt mansion down Fifth Avenue on 58th Street; when the mansion was torn down, the Victorian-era gate ended up here.

Past the gate is a rectangular landscaped lawn, and the garden splits into three distinct styles: one English, one French, and one Italian. Flowers in a kaleidoscope of colors greet you on the walking paths.

“Thousands of hardy perennials, leafy shrubs, clinging vines and countless varieties of red, yellow, blue, and purple flowers are planted in symmetrical designs,” wrote the New York Times on the garden’s dedication day.

Two fountains in the park will trick you into thinking you’re in a time warp. “Three Dancing Maidens” was designed in 1910 and presented to the Conservatory Garden in the 1940s.

The Burnett Fountain of a bronze boy and girl surrounded by real water lilies under which koi goldfish swim is based on the characters in “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Why it’s so sparsely visited is a mystery. Maybe it’s too far uptown, or the Lexington train is too long a walk; perhaps the Fifth Avenue entrance makes it difficult for people already in the park to stumble upon it and fall in love with its beauty.

But for serenity, shade, and the scent of magnolias, or just to get lost in another world for a while, this is the loveliest spot in the city.

[Third photo: MCNY; X2010.7.1.79]

How a “Ladies Pavilion” ended up in Central Park

June 19, 2017

With its ornate roof and gingerbread house motifs, the Ladies Pavilion is straight out of the Victorian era—a cast-iron, open-air structure for catching a breeze on the Lake in Central Park.

It’s also relatively hard to get to, accessible by rowboat to a rock formation called Hernshead or on foot via the woodsy footpaths along the Lake inside the Ramble.

Designed by Jacob Wray Mould, the architect behind many park structures, the pavilion fits in well with the Victorian style of nearby bridges and fountains. But it’s actually only been here since the early 20th century.

How did it end up in on the Lake? Built in 1871, the Ladies Pavilion was originally a trolley shelter at the park entrance at Eighth Avenue and 59th Street, wrote Ada Louise Huxtable in a 1973 New York Times piece.

This might be it in the 1895 illustration, above, from Munsey’s Magazine.

“This intersection, north of Manhattan’s developed residential and commercial areas, became a transportation hub for Central Park visitors, many of whom had to travel great distances from their homes to enjoy the park’s offerings,” according to the University of Vermont’s Historic Preservation Program.

When the Maine monument was installed at this corner in 1912, the trolley shelter was moved to Hernshead.

Perhaps it went here because this was once the site of the Ladies’ Cottage (above right), where female ice skaters congregated between the Lake and the Ladies’ Skating Pond, which was drained in 1930. (Early Central Park had lots of sex-segregated areas, so a pond for women was not unusual.)

“The popularity of skating on the Lake well into the middle of the 20th century, and the care taken to move the Ladies Pavilion rather than demolish it, suggests that it was well-used and appreciated by park patrons,” states the UVM page.

These days, in a gender-neutral era the Victorians would have found horrifying, the Ladies Pavilion doesn’t seem to have any specifically female connotations.

But it is considered an especially romantic part of Central Park and has become a popular place for weddings.

For more about the building of Central Park and the park’s early years, read The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Second and third images: NYPL; fourth image: nyc-architecture.com]

Would you do laundry in the Central Park lake?

May 22, 2017

Would you wash your clothes by hand in the lake in Central Park? These three women did it, and they had a reason.

December 16, 1949—the day the photo was taken—was “dry Friday” in New York City. Thanks to a severe drought that left upstate reservoirs at 34 percent capacity, city residents were forbidden to shave, bathe, or do any other activity that day if it required water.

These three women—Copacabana girls, part of the East Side nightclub’s famous chorus girl lineup, per the caption on the photo—are demonstrating their patriotic duty to do laundry without any running water.

What happened to the sheep of Central Park?

April 21, 2017

The idea to bring sheep into Central Park originated with Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux back in the early 1860s.

The two brilliant co-designers of the city’s first major green space wanted part of the landscape to feel pastoral and serene. Having a flock of sheep roaming around, they reasoned, would give the area a romantic, English countryside-like feel, according to NYC Parks.

And of course, the sheep would cut the grass — a nice side benefit in an era before motorized lawn mowers.

So in 1864, about 200 pedigreed English sheep were moved into the newly opened park, their grazing ground appropriately renamed Sheep Meadow.

Jacob Wray Mould, who designed many of Central Park’s loveliest structures as well as the carvings along Bethesda Terrace, built a Victorian-style sheepfold near West 64th Street (at right, in 1884) that housed the flock at night as well as a human shepherd and his family.

For decades, the sheep shared the park with people.

They left their fold at 5:30 a.m. and returning at half past six in the evening, with the help of a sheepdog assistant named (of course!) Shep, reported the children’s magazine St. Nicholas in 1884.

“Twice a day, the shepherd would disrupt traffic (first carriage, then car) while herding the sheep over a crossing, towards the meadow,” wrote Modern Farmer in 2014.

“With the exception of those who were delayed, most considered the sheep a pleasant spectacle to behold.”

The beginning of the end of the sheep came with the appointment of Robert Moses as Parks Commissioner.

He altered Central Park by building playgrounds and ball fields — and in 1934 decided the sheep had to go.

For one, Moses wanted to make the Victorian-style sheepfold a restaurant (it later became Tavern on the Green, at right).

But his decision also had to do with the Great Depression and the very real fear that desperate New Yorkers (some of whom moved into the park in a row of shacks nicknamed Hooverville) might turn the sheep into lamb stew.

So the 49 remaining sheep were dispatched to join another flock (above, around 1900) in Prospect Park.

There, they grazed in the Long Meadow before being moved again, permanently — this time to the Catskills.

[Top photo: LOC; second photo: Wikipedia; third and fourth images: St. Nicholas Magazine; sixth photo: MCNY; 93.91.391]

All the ladies on the Central Park Mall in 1901

April 14, 2017

Completed in 1863, Bethesda Terrace was one of the first structures to go up in Central Park—and it’s also one of the most breathtaking, with its grand, intricately carved staircases connecting park visitors to the expanse of the Mall.

Of course, his may have been of no interest to post-Impressionist painter Maurice Prendergast.

He simply may have been struck by the sight of so many women (and some kids, plus a few men) gathered at the Terrace steps, almost all in brightly colored dresses shielding themselves from the sun under parasols.

(Hat tip to Audrey for singling out this lovely mosaic-like painting.)

The lost ritual of the Fifth Avenue Easter Parade

April 14, 2017

It started as an informal promenade in the 1870s, when New York’s most prestigious churches—like St. Patrick’s and St. Thomas, both on Fifth Avenue—began decorating their interiors with beautiful floral displays in honor of Easter.

Churchgoers dressed in their Easter Sunday best would visit different houses of worship to admire the flowers, explains author Leigh Eric Schmidt in Consumer Rites.

By the 1880s, this post-service visiting transformed into a loosely structured parade, with the fashionable and well-to-do strolling in the early afternoon on Easter Sunday up and down Fifth Avenue, from Madison Square to Central Park.

New Yorkers loved the spectacle. “Fashion bursting from its sack-cloth and adorning itself in new and beautiful garments,” the New York Times front page read on April 11, 1887, the day after Easter.

“Everybody and his cousin were on the pavement yesterday. For was it not Eastertide, Fifth Avenue’s brilliant day of days in all the length of the year?”

The Easter Parade was partly a ritual shaking off the chill of winter, but it was also the Gilded Age version of a fashion show, with Fifth Avenue sidewalks as the runways.

“The men were all in sober black save when at times the irreverent dude lit up the street with a gridiron shirt and a sonorous necktie,” the Times continued.

“But the ladies? They were as a flock of butterflies that, for a time locked within the church, had fluttered outward far and wide to try the Springtime sunlight on their glittery wings.” (You have to love that 19th century journalistic style.)

While you can’t tell from the black and white photos, these female parade-goers were decked out coats and dresses covering every color of the rainbow.

The crowds moved at a crawl all afternoon, dissipating as the temperature rose only to swell again in later in the day as the sun began to set, the Times reported.

“[As] the crowd reappeared, and hour after hour, the well dressed, motley pilgrims from all the wealthy quarters of a great city sauntered slowly along, from Delmonico’s to the Park . . .”

“[And] when night fell tailor and milliner had no cause to complain that full publicity had not been given to the long-studied creations of their fruitful hands.”

New York actually still has an official Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue, and it’s open to everyone, not just the upper crust.

But it doesn’t command the attention it did until the 1940s and 1950s, when the tradition was mostly replaced—by real spring fashion shows, egg hunts, and the beloved New York tradition of long Sunday brunch.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on the humble beginnings of New York’s favorite holidays.

[Top photo: LOC/Bain Collection; second photo: MCNY 90.28.51; third photo: MCNY 93.1.1.18452; fourth photo: LOC/Bain Collection; fifth photo: MCNY 2010.11.10601; sixth photo: LOC/Bain Collection