Archive for the ‘central park’ Category

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.

MNY87955

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.

Arsenalfrom5thavenypl

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.

Skating on the Central Park Lake under twilight

October 18, 2014

It’s almost that time of year again—just not in Central Park anymore. Painter Saul Kovner’s twilight scene on the Lake casts an enchanting glow on Depression-era skaters.

Skatingincentralpark1934kovner

Before you get any ideas, keep in mind that skating on the Lake was officially banned in 1950! Kovner painted other winter scenes in New York as well, like this one of a snow day in Tompkins Square Park.

A bold bull makes a run for it in 1913 Manhattan

October 4, 2014

On the rare occasion when an animal breaks loose on the way to the slaughterhouse in today’s city, his plucky escape ends up scoring him a forever home at a farm sanctuary.

Bullfifthavenue

A century ago, the story ended in a hail of bullets. That’s what happened to this bold bull, one of 200 brought to the city on a November day in 1913. The bulls were temporarily held at the New York Stock Company on West 60th Street and the Hudson River before they were to be sent to the abattoir.

BullcentralparkheadlinenytBut thanks to a gate left ajar, 26 of the bulls managed to break free. Eight left the stockyard. One got as far as Central Park West and 80th Street, where he collided with a delivery wagon.

The bull in the photo had another idea.

“One lumbering steer seeking to escape pursuit turned into Fifth Avenue and 59th Street and, dodging bullets which were fired at it by pursuing policemen, caused such uproar that Fifth Avenue thought that either a gangsters’ battle was in progress or a Wild West show had lost its bearings,” wrote The New York Times the next day.

After the bull detoured to Madison Avenue, a patrolman fired a shot that accidentally killed a construction-site watchman. A hotel waiter was also shot in the crossfire.

Finally the bull charged down 50th Street. Bleeding from previous shots, he died in front of the mansion that today is home to the New York Palace hotel.

[Photo: Bain Collection]

The lost dinosaurs buried under Central Park

September 22, 2014

Mastodon bones and other fossilized creatures have turned up occasionally in New York City. But dinosaurs? Here’s the story.

In 1854, British artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins built giant models of dinosaurs, which were displayed at the Crystal Palace.

Hawkinsstudiocentralpark

Hawkins didn’t exactly know what dinosaurs looked like, but he based his models on the limited fossils available at the time.

CrystalpalacehadrosaurusHis models must have been impressive, as his show was a great success, thrilling audiences in England.

So in 1868, Andrew Green, one of the city planners in charge of Central Park, invited Hawkins to build dinosaur models in New York.

The models were to be housed in a Paleozoic museum planned for the new Central Park. Hawkins took Green up on the offer and began constructing his dinosaurs out of brick, iron, and concrete in a studio (above).

“In a studio in Central Park, crowded with his gigantic skeletal and full-bodied models, Hawkins worked on a 39-foot hadrosaur; his sketches show ferocious giant lizards: a large and scaly iguana head here, certain dragon features there,” states a 2005 New York Times article.

1869 Central Park Dinosaurs Hawkins full

Unfortunately, Hawkins’ work and the entire idea of a Paeozoic museum came to a halt thanks to William “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt Tammany Hall political chief who took control of the park in 1870 and had no interest in building anything devoted to science or education.

Hawkins“The next year, a few months after Hawkins spoke out publicly against both the decision to forgo the museum and Tammany Hall itself, the Tweed Ring sent vandals to his studio to smash his models and dump them into a pit in the park,” the Times wrote.

Hawkins, understandably, left New York and went back to England. In the ensuing years, Hawkins’ (below) dinosaurs were mostly forgotten.

Despite periodic searches, his sabotaged dinosaur models have never been found.

“They still rest somewhere under the sod of Central Park, probably not far from Umpire Rock and the Heckscher ballfields,” states this CUNY site.

“Could one of the pitchers’ mounds really be a small embankment covering the severed head of Megalosaurus? Who knows, maybe so.”

The rocking-chair riot that riled up New Yorkers

August 11, 2014

OscarspateOscar Spate (right) was a shady British businessman with a crazy plan in spring 1901.

He’d pay the parks commissioner $500 for the right to put 200 green rocking chairs in Central Park and Madison Square Park.

He’d charge 5 cents a seat to park attendees who wanted to sit in his cane-bottomed chairs rather than a stiff park bench. Hired attendants would make sure sitters paid up.

This idea actually got the go-ahead from the parks commissioner. It may have been because Spate claimed that the great parks in Europe had chairs for rent. Or perhaps the commissioner was worried about the homeless who had increasingly begun occupying city parks, scaring away many visitors.

Madisonsquarepostcard1900s

Paying for seating, he may have reasoned, was the only way to clear derelicts from these two parks and bring back residents, according to The Flatiron, by Alice Sparberg Alexiou.

While the placement of these rocking chairs for hire in Central Park didn’t appear to ruffle many feathers, the chairs in Madison Square Park ticked people off.

Madisonsquareparkfountain

Newspapers picked up the story of two-tiered seating, and New Yorkers made a point of purposely sitting in the rocking chairs and refusing to pay attendants, arguing that it was a free country.

When a heat wave struck in July, tempers really flared. “The parks still had free benches, but the privately operated chairs seemed to occupy all the shady areas,” wrote Michael Pollan in the New York Times in 2006.

Madisonsquareparkingfbruno:wikiIn Madison Square Park, “an estimated 1,000 men and boys chased Thomas Tully, a chair attendant, into the Fifth Avenue Hotel with cries of ‘Lynch him!’ after Mr. Tully upended a nonpayer from his rocker and slapped a boy who was heckling him.”

Two days later, Spate’s permit was revoked. Ten thousand people crowded into Madison Square Park to celebrate the decision—and sit in his chairs.

Ever the businessman, Spate eventually sold them to Wanamaker’s and billed them as historic artifacts!

The above photo shows the modern Madison Square Park, with egalitarian benches [ingfbruno/wiki]

The anonymous men who built Central Park

July 14, 2014

When Central Park opened in stages in 1859 through the 1860s, designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux scored much of the credit for the park’s beauty and brilliance.

Centralparkbuilding1859nypl

But what about all the anonymous men who did the physical work—the laborers tasked with taking 843 rocky, swampy acres and reshaping it a man-made oasis of nature?

[Below, finishing the staircase at Bethesda Terrace]

Centralparkbethesdastairs1862nyplHere’s a little of what we know about them. “By the spring of 1858, more than three thousand men were busy dredging, clearing, grading, and planting—laboriously remodeling every feature of the rugged landscape,” wrote Ric Burns and James Sanders in New York: an Illustrated History.

“There were German gardeners, Italian stonecutters, and an army of masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, and road-building teams.”

Most of the low-level laborers were Irish and German, “often paid only a dollar a day and drawn, Olmsted said, from the ‘poorest, or what is generally considered the most dangerous, class of the great city’s population.'”

Centralparkpipesreservoir1862nypl“To prevent any trouble with the Irish, African Americans were excluded from the workforce entirely,” state Burns and Sanders.

It was grueling, dangerous work. Boulders had to be blasted out of the ground with gunpowder, then loaded onto horse-drawn trucks; “blasting foremen” were paid an extra 25 cents a day, according to The Park and the People, by Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar.

[Above: the pipes running under the new reservoir]

Centralparkarsenal1862from6thnyplAfter the ground was ready, “workmen installed ninety-five miles of underground pipe, creating an artificial drainage system—itself a masterpiece of sanitary engineering—then set to work relandscaping the entire site with 6 million bricks, 65,000 cubic yards of gravel, 25,000 trees, and a quarter of a million shrubs,” wrote Burns and Sanders.

Pavers working on the park’s walks and drives were also paid more than day laborers, as were stonecutters, who ended up making $2.25 a day in 1860—an improvement over the wages paid in the late 1850s, on the heels of the Panic of 1857.

[Above: the view of the Arsenal from 6th Avenue]

Where did this army of workers live? “A park laborer’s average income might pay the rent for one room with sleeping closets in a Lower East Side tenement or for an uptown shanty,” write Rosenzweig and Blackmar.

Centralparkpromenadenypl

Though many lived downtown in boardinghouses or with other laborers’ families, “the relative absence of park workers from the city directory, however, suggests both their transience and their concentration in uptown wards.”

[Images: NYPL Digital Gallery]

Watching Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park

July 3, 2014

Simonandgarfunkelonstage2It’s hard to imagine how rundown Central Park was in the early 1980s. Neglect, graffiti, and lack of funds in a broke city left it a place of patchy grass and unkempt ball fields.

One way to raise much-needed funds to help restore it? Hold a benefit concert.

That’s what brought Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel together on a cool Saturday night in September 1981, harmonizing in front of 500,000 fans, who carpeted the lawn with blankets, beach chairs, and coolers.

SimonandgarfunkelcrowdThe show was free, but money raised from merchandising and HBO rights was supposed to net $70,000 to benefit city parks. Amazingly, the promoters made good on their promise.

“The restoration money, [Parks Commissioner Gordon J. Davis] says, paid for landscaping beyond any damage done, ”and the other funds have gone for a variety of projects running from graffiti removal from walls to some of our recreation programs dealing with troubled kids,'” wrote the New York Times almost a year later.

SgconcertincentralparkThat reference to damage done? The crowd left behind tons of beer cans, bottles, and other trash that cost $20,000 to clean up as soon as Simon and Garfunkel left the stage.

They weren’t the only stars to play Central Park in the late 1970s and 1980s: James Taylor, Elton John, and Diana Ross also sang on the Great Lawn.

But perhaps the most popular concert of all was the one given by Garth Brooks in 1997—which brought in 750,000 fans.

[Bottom photo: via mrtopten.com]


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,627 other followers