New York’s Central Park
New York’s Central Park was the first landscaped public park in the United States and while it is probably the best known and Manhattan’s largest, at only 843 acres it’s not the biggest park in New York City. Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx is largest at 2,765 acres and Greenbelt on Staten Island, Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens and Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx are also all larger than Central Park. Central Park was declared a national Historical Landmark in 1965 and a New York City Landmark in 1974. More than 20 million people visit the park each year. It has served as inspiration for many other city parks including Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
Bird Watching in Central Park
With its location on the Atlantic flyway Central Park is one of the country’s richest bird watching areas. The Arthur Ross Pinetum is an ideal location to spot winter migrating long-eared and saw-whet owls sleeping during the day in its scientific collection of pine trees. 230 species of birds have been spotted in and around the Ramble—a 38-acre wild strolling garden featuring hundreds of trees and shrubs, secluded glades, rocky outcrops and a stream known as “The Grill.”
A Victorian Castle—Belvedere Castle—overlooks a pond, theater and large lawn near the mid point of the park. The 22 acre Central Park lake was created out of a large swamp and was developed for both boating and ice skating. Hernshead Boat Landing is the structure in the panorama at the left taken at the Lake in Central Park. Hernshead is also the name of the peninsula just beyond the structure – so named because it was thought to resemble a Heron – Hern in Britain. Ice skating was very popular from the lakes first opening in 1858 until Wollman Rink opened in 1951. Wollman Rink is open for day and night ice skating in season. Boating remains a popular activity on the lake. You can row your own boat or take a gondola ride.
The much smaller Pond in the southeast corner of Central Park—next to Central Park South and the Plaza Hotel—is well below street level which makes it surprisingly quiet and calm. Gapstow Bridge arches over the northeast end of the Pond. The largest body of water in Central Park is the 106-acre, 40 food deep Reservoir, named the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in 1994. It is circled by a 1.5 mile track used by thousands of runners a day. Weekly races are sponsored by the New York Road Runners Club. The northernmost body of water in Central Park is the 11-acre Harlem Meer where catch and release fishing is popular. The Charles A. Dana Discovery Center on the northern shore is Central Park’s newest building. Don’t miss the nearby six-acre Conservatory Garden — the only formal garden in Central Park.
The northern end of the park, from 106th street to 110th street was added later, partially because the rugged terrain would be difficult for commercial development. North of 96th Street the park is more picturesque and rugged that the southern end. Central Park’s great lawn was not part of the original design. A 33-acre rectangular reservoir holding 180 million gallons of drinking water from the Croton River occupied the space. The reservoir was filled with stones from the building of Rockefeller Center, among other materials, beginning in 1931. Eight ball fields were added in the 1950’s. Four basketball half-courts and two volleyball courts are circled by an 1/8 mile track at the northeast corner of the great lawn. The great lawn has been the site of many large events including a free concert by Paul Simon in August of 1991.
The Dakota and Strawberry Fields
The Dakota, at 72nd Street and Central Park West and one of New York’s first luxury apartment buildings, was also the location for the movie Rosemary’s Baby. This is where John Lennon lived with his wife Yoko Ono and son Sean when he was shot and killed in front of the building. The tear-drop shaped section of Central Park directly across from the Dakota is now known as Strawberry Fields. In 1981 the 2.5-acre site was named after the Beatles song Strawberry Fields Forever. Later a donation of $1 million from Yoko Ono along with plants and trees donated from around the world turned this small section of the park into a Garden of Peace. A main feature of the garden is a reproduction of a Pompeii mosaic, a gift of Naples, Italy. The black and white mosaic contains the single word IMAGINE—the title of one of Lennon’s most popular songs and a tribute to the musician. Visitors to the garden leave flowers and other remembrances on the mosaic nearly every day. Strawberry Fields was dedicated in honor of John Lennon on October 9, 1985—his birthday.
There are several buildings in Central Park, two of which predate the park itself—a blockhouse at the north end dating from the War of 1812 and the Arsenal Building which was built between 1847 and 1851 by the State to store munitions. The Arsenal is now home to the City of New York/Parks & Recreation, the Central Park Administrator, the City Parks Foundation, the Historic House Trust, the New York Wildlife Conservation Society, the Parks Library, and the Arsenal Gallery.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened at 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street in Central Park in 1880 in a modest building designed by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould. Today the Met is one of the eight cultural institutions in New York’s famous Museum Mile which runs along the east side of Central Park on 5th Avenue from 82nd Street to 104th Street.
Other highlights of Central Park
Sheep Meadow, a 15-acre open space, was originally designed as a parade ground for military drills. Sheep actually grazed at Sheep Meadow every day until 1934 when the flock was transferred to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Both the sheep and shepherd were housed in a fanciful Victorian building which later became a restaurant – part of the original building is now the Tavern on the Green.
The Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater was originally a schoolhouse built for the 1876 Exposition in Philadelphia as an example of Swedish building design. It has served as a tool house, comfort station and lunchroom and entomological laboratory. Retrofitted with a children’s theater in 1947 in is now the headquarters for the Citywide Puppets in the Parks program. The Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater was given a complete restoration in 1997 including a larger stage and air conditioning. A second floor balcony was reconstructed and the original Baltic fir exterior refurbished.
Free Shakespeare in the Park performances are provided at the Delacorte Theater – the summer home of The Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival. Tickets are distributed at 1pm on the day of the performance, but the line begins forming by 10am. Speaking of Shakespeare, The Shakespeare Garden in Central Park features only flowers that were mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. The informal garden was dedicated to Shakespeare in 1916 on the 300th anniversary of his death. A William Shakespeare statue, one of four sculptures in Central Park by John Quincey Adams Ward, resides at the southern end of the Mall, an area informally known as Literary Walk. The 40- foot wide Mall has four rows of American elms along each side.
Friedsam Memorial Carousel was discovered abandoned on Coney Island. It’s the fourth carousel at its mid-park at 64th street site – the first was powered by animals, a horse and blind mule according to park lore, and the next two by steam engines. The Friedsam Memorial Carousel, one of the largest in the U.S., was built by the Brooklyn firm of Stein and Goldstein in 1908.
A brief history of New York City Parks
Parade grounds, Revolutionary War battlefields, grave yards, and open space for batteries of cannon are now places to relax or enjoy pockets of nature amid Manhattan’s skyscrapers.
Bowling Green Park, established in 1733, was New York’s first official park. The areas that became Battery Park and City Hall Park were also defined and protected from development in the early 1700’s. In 1776 after a reading of the Declaration of independence in “the Fields” – as City Hall Park was known – a gilded lead statue of George III in Bowling Green Park was torn down to be recast as musket balls for the Revolutionary War.
A large number of small parks were developed over the next hundred years including several in Brooklyn after it was incorporated as a city in 1834. Staten Island’s oldest park, Veterans Park, was laid out in 1836. Baseball as we know it today was developed in or near what is now Washington Square Park which officially opened in 1847. By the early 1800’s pressure was building for a larger park space in Manhattan and by 1850 both New York mayoral candidates included the creation of a large central city park in their political platforms.
The original 700 acres that became Central Park were acquired by eminent domain in 1853 displacing approximately 1,600 people including
Irish farmers, German gardeners and Seneca Village – the first significant community of African American property owners in New York City. In 1863, additional parkland was annexed to include the area between 106th and 110th Streets. A plan for Central Park, created by the partnership of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux was selected by the Board of Commissioners of Central Park from 33 competing entries on April 28, 1858. Olmsted was named Architect-in-Chief of the project and Vaux was retained as Consulting Architect.
Vaux and Olmsted’s design for Central Park was similar to the English pastoral tradition with open meadows and picturesque woodlands providing a contrast to the bustle and monotony of city streets. Their design also called for sinking four commercial roads that crossed the park beneath the surface so that park goers views would not be obstructed by traffic.
Approximately 150 of the 23,000 trees (174 species) in the park today survive from the time of Olmsted and Vaux. In 2009 a wind storm that destroyed 500 trees had the unexpected benefit of returning the park to something closer to the original vision of the designers—a place where you would be encouraged by a distant view to explore further.
At a Seneca Village plaque dedication ceremony on February 10, 2001 Erana Stennett, Central Park Conservatory Vice President said:
“More than 150 years later, we enjoy the beauty of Central Park, while embracing the memories of those who lived and worshiped here long ago — the people who sacrificed their homes to make way for a bold, grand, and historic public park.” The Seneca Village plaque is at 85th Street & Central Park West.
Construction of Central Park suffered a brief delay when a group of corrupt politicians – known as the Tweed Ring after William “Boss” Tweed – took control of the city and replaced Olmsted, Vaux and the park comptroller, Andrew Haswell. Tweed, Mayor A. Oakley Hall, Comptroller Richard B. Connolly, new park commissioner Peter B. Sweeny and the rest of the Tweed ring were exposed in 1871, but not until after they had embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars. Olmsted and Vaux were rehired and Central Park was completed in the early 1870’s.
Today the park is operated by the Central Park Conservancy, a private, not-for-profit organization founded in 1980 that manages Central Park under a contract with the City of New York/Department of Parks and Recreation.