Posts Tagged ‘building Central Park’

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]

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]

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]

The most beautiful bridges of Central Park

February 20, 2014

At least 36 arches and bridges curve and bend along the 843 acres of Central Park, tucked into the rolling landscape like little treasures.

Some were part of the original vision for the park, developed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1850s. Others came in the 1860s and 1870s.

SWreservoirbridge

Some span land, some cross water—but all are lovely, especially covered by snow, and they represent a range of styles and designs.

The elegant, cast-iron Southwest Reservoir Arch, above, built in 1865, crosses the Bridle Path.

Oakbridge

Oak Bridge, which spans Bank Rock Bay at the entrance to the Ramble, was originally constructed in 1860 from white oak, with decorative cast iron in the railings.

The wood deteriorated over the years, and in 2009 the Central Park Conservatory rebuilt Oak Bridge using steel on the bridge itself and wood for the railings.

Westsidebridgecentralpark

Dalehead Arch is on the West Side near 64th Street. Made of sandstone and brownstone with pretty cutouts, it dates back to the 1860s.

Rusticwoodbridgeramble

If this rustic bridge in the Ramble has a name, I couldn’t find it! It’s an homage to the natural vision Olmsted and Vaux had for the park.

“Curving gracefully over the narrow neck of the Pond at 59th Street, Gapstow is one of the iconic bridges of Central Park,” states the Central Park Conservatory website. “Design aficionados might notice a striking resemblance to the Ponte di San Francesco in San Remo, Italy.”

Gapstowbridge

“Originally designed by Jacob Wrey Mould in 1874, the then-wooden bridge with cast-iron railings suffered great  wear over 20 years. It was replaced with the current stone structure in 1896, designed by Howard & Caudwell.”

And of course, probably the most iconic bridge in the park is the one at Bethesda Terrace, with its dazzling ceiling tiles.

The visionary who created New York City

December 30, 2013

The name Andrew Haswell Green typically draws blank stares from today’s city residents, who are unfamiliar with his accomplishments helping to build the parks, museums, and zoos of 19th century New York—not to mention the consolidated city itself.

AndrewgreenIn the late 1850s, Green was a member of the Central Park Board of Commissioners, tasked with selecting the design for the new park.

It was Green who recognized the beauty and brilliance of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s Greensward Plan, with its woodsy and pastoral landscapes. He shepherded the plan, helping it become reality.

The New York Public Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Natural History, Central Park Zoo—give props to Green, now city comptroller, for these late 19th century achievements.

His 1868 proposal to consolidate the city, however, was a harder sell.

Nicknamed “Green’s Hobby,” the idea of combining Manhattan, Brooklyn, and other towns and cities along the city’s port barely gained traction.

Andrewgreencentralparkbench

But Green persisted. In 1890, the city council created a task force to look into the idea. By the middle of the decade, after much debate (and grumbling from Brooklynites), consolidation was approved; the new city was born on January 1, 1898.

Andrewgreenconsolidation1

Consolidation was an economic and practical success. But Green didn’t live long enough to see the results.

In 1903, while arriving at his home on Park Avenue, he was killed, ambushed by a gun-wielding man who mistook Green, then in his 80s, for someone else with the same last name.

The “father of New York City” was memorialized in Central Park with a bench bearing his name. He now also has a riverfront park named for him overlooking the East River at 60th Street.

[Middle photo: NYC Parks Department]

An Adirondack forest hiding in mid-Manhattan

September 5, 2013

Northwoodscpconservatory

Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s plan for Central Park in 1857 was to bring the serenity of nature to a swampy, rocky stretch of the city.

After bulldozing shantytowns and draining swamps, they (and masses of laborers) spent the next several years fabricating pastoral lawns, hills, ponds, and lakes.

The also created the North Woods: a 90-acre refuge at the northern end of the park designed to replicate the secluded Adirondack forests of central New York State.

Centralparkmap1875

“Although much less was done to rearrange the northern end’s rugged topography than had been done elsewhere, park workers built a twelve-acre lake called the Harlem Meer on the swamp, carved out and planted the Ravine and Waterfall, and constructed another mile of drive, a mile and a half of walks, and several rustic bridges,” reports centralparkhistory.com.

Northwoodscpconservatory2The result: “Within the woodlands, traffic disappears, buildings are hidden by trees and a gentle stream bubbles over sounds of the city, states the Central Park Conservatory website.

It really does feel like a slice of the Adirondacks just yards from the subway. And hidden in the thick forest is one of the city’s oldest structures: a blockhouse from the War of 1812.

[Top and bottom photos: Central Park Conservatory]

The “squatters” who called Central Park home

June 10, 2013

Centralparksquatters1855Before Central Park became a park, the 843 rocky, hilly acres in the middle of Manhattan were not empty of human life.

About 1,600 residents clustered there in tiny settlements. Seneca Village was one, an African-American and Irish enclave of tiny houses and churches near Seventh Avenues in the 80s.

Pigtown, near the southeastern end, “was home to about 14 households, roughly three-quarters of them Irish,” wrote Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar in The Park and Its People.

Centralparkshantytown

Small groups of Irish as well as Germans dotted other parts. These residents were poor, but they worked in the service trades or ran businesses, kept animals, and some owned the land beneath their homes.

Still, when the idea of a city park was taking shape in the 1850s, they were described in newspaper editorials as squatters and thieves who plundered natural resources.

Centralparksquatters1880Their days were numbered, of course.

“First came the orders in the late spring of 1856 that they would henceforth have to pay rent to the city if they wanted to remain even temporarily in the houses and on the lots they long occupied,” stated Rosenzweig and Blackmar.

Next, the new Central Park police hassled them about the businesses they ran, the firewood they chopped, even a dance hall at the northern end.

Piggery owners were given eviction orders in summer 1856. In October 1857, two years before Central Park opened, all residents were kicked out for good (though some simply went to shantytowns just outside the park).

In the 1930s, Central Park became home to another group of squatters: the residents of a Depression-era Hooverville.

[First and third images: from the NYPL Digital Collection]

The Central Park Reservoir’s suicide fence

August 16, 2011

The Central Park Reservoir (renamed for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1994) has always inspired New Yorkers—who gaze at it, jog around it, and got their water from it between 1862 to 1993, when it was deemed obsolete.

And on a grim note, many city residents were also inspired to jump the four-foot cast-iron fence around it and commit suicide.

That original fence “was sufficient to prevent anyone from accidentally falling into the reservoir, but did not prevent self-destruction,” a March 10, 1926 New York Times piece explained it gently.

“Few months pass that police of the Arsenal Station in the park are not called upon to make a report of death by drowning in the reservoir.”

As a result of all the suicides, city officials later that year put up a 10-foot chain link fence with barbed wire at the top.

[Photo at top right, from a 1999 City Review article; undated NYPL photo, above left ]

Sure it stopped people from hurling themselves into the water. But it was also ugly.

Calls were made for it to be taken down in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the Parks Department replaced it with a copy of the original 1862 fence—the one encircling the Reservoir today (above photo).

Who named the gates of Central Park?

May 15, 2010

When Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were just about done building Central Park in the early 1860s, there was one more thing to consider: the entrances.

While rich New Yorkers desired grand, ornate gates like in the urban parks in London and Paris, Olmsted and Vaux opted for low sandstone openings—symbolizing an accessible city refuge that would be open to all.

They chose names for the 20 planned entrances that referenced who would use the park, reports an 1864 Harper’s article:

“The first broad generalization will be something like this: Artisan, Artist, Merchant, Scholar. Descending to subdivision of these heads we shall have Cultivator or Agriculturalist, Hunter, Fisherman, Woodman, Minor, Mariner, Warrior, Engineer, Inventor, Explorer.”

Actually almost all did end up as official names, though most weren’t carved into the sandstone entrances until the 1990s.

Women’s Gate is at 72nd Street and Central Park West; Scholars’ Gate at Fifth Avenue and 60th Street. A complete list is here.

What happened to Manhattan’s “Piggery District”

March 13, 2010

Mid-19th century New York City had its genteel side, but mostly it was a collection of rough edges. One long-forgotten hardscrabble neighborhood was the Piggery District, between Sixth and Eighth Avenues in the West 50s.

It was a dirty, smelly, rocky area of hog yards and shanties housing the poor Irish and Dutch families who eked out a living raising and slaughtering pigs.

No one seemed to care about the Piggery District until Central Park opened in 1859. With the city accelerating northward, the neighborhood was deemed a filthy nuisance, and the Department of Health wanted it gone.

That year, the city sent dozens of armed men into the Piggery District to forcibly shut down the offal-boiling places and round up the pigs. 

On at least one occasion, they also ended up ripping apart residents’ homes. A Times article from July 27, 1859 about the raid quoted one woman whose shanty was demolished:

“Very poor revenge,” said she, “to tear down people’s buildings after the pigs is all sent away entirely.”

Here’s another West Side neighborhood that once thrived, then disappeared around the turn of the century.

This Lincoln Center–area neighborhood held out a little longer, but it too is dead and gone.