Central Park


Vanderbilt Gate, at Fifth Avenue, to Conservancy Gardens

Manhattan Real Estate’s Pillars

It is fact that from the outset open spaces were coveted by the settlers. However, the only citizens’ commons provided by the West Indies Company was “Corporation Gardens” along the North River. A colonial public pleasure garden or ornamental amusement grounds was privately-owned and operated as a business. Richard Sackett, a 1670s maltster and Abraham Rutgers’ competitor, was the first commercial open space calling itself a garden—the Cherry Garden. Perched on a seven-acre rise, offering commanding views of the East River, Sackett laid out a bowling green, spread seats and tables under the trees, and invited guests. A traveler, Jasper Danckaerts, after visiting his public brewery garden, commented, “It was resorted to on Sundays by all sorts of revelers, and was a low pot-house…” (No further details revealed!)

British royal governors sought to make New York City the entertainment destination in the colonies. Beyond the northeast and northwest city limits several venues opened throughout the 18th century, where colonialists enjoyed secular music and plays, sports and games, dining and dancing; and fireworks in the evenings. In addition, mid-century, a mile from what was then the edge of the city, the first botanical garden was established by a Swiss physician, Jacob Sperry. His farmed flowers and hothouse plantings became a second destination, up Broad Way from Wall St and the Common at Chambers Street. Fifty-six years later, Sperry sold his gardens on The Bowery to John Jacob (J.J.) Astor, who then leased the property as the new “fashionable” Vauxhall Garden. Private and livery carriages, stagecoaches and then horse-drawn tram carriages brought streams from south of Canal Street. Pleasure gardens days were numbered, however. As with the previous ill-fated gardens, as real-estate values skyrocketing on nearby Bleecker, Bond and Great Jones Streets, when the lease was up in 1825, a broad street through the property created Astor Place, and Astor developed the swanky residential enclave, Lagrange Terrace, later renamed Colonnade Row.

The Croton Reservoir perimeter was converted to a promenade and garden, now Bryant Park. Elgin Gardens, a second botanical experiment opened at present-day Rockefeller Center. Off Middle Road, Observatory Place, with vast open fields, was a rural retreat, Throughout the early 1800s large public beer gardens, some with sports fields and boating, were developed off the East Post Road, in the East Sixties; and along the Bloomingdale Road, the stagecoach stations with access to the Hudson River cliffs became day-tripping destinations. Beginning with the Dutch pleasure gardens planted with tulips, 180-years after Sacket’s success, the last such endeavor, Palace Gardens, at the northwest corner of West Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue, on Ladies Mile, was unable to compete with the unprecedented clamor to enjoy Central Park—free to all New Yorkers.

The inadequate common open space provided by the grid plan is well-documented. Moreover, the 1797 common council involvement in Washington Square as an urban plan commons, opening in 1826, inadvertently perhaps, allowed the concept of a residential Fifth, the Avenue, to evolve. Likewise, Corporation of the City of New York Corporation acquiring the Magazine and United States Parade Ground, opening in 1847 as Madison Square, too, put an important residential expansion northward anchor in place. The real-estate value where squares formed open spaces was observed by the tycoon developers: Peter Stuyvesant, J.J. Astor, and Charles Ruggles. Equally, changing public awareness of open spaces’ value and the ensuing pressure, along with events (the consolidation of railroad right of ways on the Hudson River), and circumstance (impenetrable mid-island rock), and so, city-commissioned park lands put the new Riverside (gradually) and Morningside (more enthusiastically) districts in to play as neighborhoods. Without a doubt, the game-changer and cornerstone to uptown Manhattan residential real estate is Central Park.

The Cornerstone of Uptown Manhattan

Late in the 1840s, socialites Anna and Robert Minturn led New York’s upper-crust civic movement to create a landscaped public park to rival the best that Paris, London, and Vienna offered. After the research of appropriate sites ended, in 1853, likeminded groups had two choices: Jones’ Wood, a tract along the East River in the East 60s and 70s, or a rocky, mid-island tract, including Harlem Common, viewed as an unlikely development site because of its brackish swamps and irregular bluffs. After contentious wrangling—with more than a few interventions involving New York state legislators—the city council selected the first park commissioners, as well as the central site. This expanse, from Fifth to Eighth Avenues, spanning West 59th to 105th Street, was already host to a handful of permanent structures—most prominently, the Sisters of Charity Mount St. Vincent Convent and School, an already aged facility built nearby the colonial-era McGowan’s Pass Tavern site, at East 107th Street near Fifth Avenue.

Others included those within Seneca Village, an African-American community with a population of 1,600, at West 82nd to 85th Streets, near Eighth Avenue. Consisting of such buildings as the two-story frame farmhouse, with a barn, stable, and shed at the rear, belonged to George G. Root. At West 85th Street, the two three-story frame houses built on the far corner, as well as the additional lots behind were owned by Epiphany Davis. Alongside the Davis property was the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and cemetery, with a greenhouse at the far end. On the south side of 85th Street, also stood the African Union Methodist Church, with School #3 in the basement. Downhill, passed the spring and a few blocks south, was All Angels’ Church and their burying grounds. Additionally, shanties occupied by Irish pig-keepers and German gardeners, from Lenox Hill to Highland of New York (now Carnegie Hill), nestled between sporadic swamps, ponds, and rocky protrusions.

While this land was being cleared of its inhabitants (and what a saga the displaced dwellers wrought!) a newly appointed committee announced a competition that would determine the designer of the forthcoming first American landscaped urban park. After extensive backroom deals and intrigues, Park Superintendent Frederick Law Olmsted and British architect and landscapist Calvert Vaux’s Greensward Plan was selected, which envisioned decidedly English romantic, pastoral expanses. The commissioners, however, would add their own stamp, through budget revisions and spending-proposal paperwork.

The physical creation of Central Park began in 1857 and continued throughout 1858, and then opened, in stages, over a period of 15 years (it initially encompassed 700 acres, but was expanded to 110th Street, in 1863, to a total of 843 acres). Along the way 10 million cartloads of muck and mire were removed, three million cubic feet of earth and stone were hauled in, and 20,000 laborers (prison chain gangs among them) were utilized. Ultimately, a half-million trees and shrubs were planted, offsetting a handful of manmade lakes and ponds and 40 graceful bridges.

Immediately received as truly wondrous, Central Park’s grand, sprawling, open spaces drew New Yorkers from every walk of life, and within five years more than seven million visitors, both to and from the City, were exploring it annually. While Olmstead and Vaux’s engineering feat was unarguably seminal, more important for Manhattan was the overall park-design concept, with its far northern portion’s open and rolling meadows—highlighted by nearby hills and bluffs—contrasting and yet harmonizing with its southern portion’s formal dress grounds and promenades. At the same time, rougher grounds to the north, complete with Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battle sites (and a single still-intact fort) were left undisturbed, to retain part of the island’s rugged character, while, to the south, the creation of the Great Lawn, Sheep Meadow, and what is now called the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir helped to reflect the more rural nature the park’s surrounding blocks once were.

But perhaps most notable among the park’s impacts is its own most notable structure, accomplished through the efforts of a group of wealthy art aficionados who maintained that the City would benefit from a museum displaying their collective treasures. With sufficient clout at Tammany-run City Hall, these prominent citizens lobbied for and won approval for what was to become the largest building within Central Park: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Work began in 1870, with designs by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould, and the institution opened in 1877, continuously expanding and reflecting the work of many remarkable architects.

At the same time, the appeal of living due south of the new park was diminishing, and the blocks below 59th Street saw widespread conversion to commercial spaces. New Yorkers yearning for prestigious addresses were moving farther and farther north, and throughout the 1870s an eruption of mansions began along Fifth Avenue, first in the East 60s; within three decades the swells had moved as far north as East 96th Street, inspired by the completion of the Carnegies’ urban estate.

The park’s western border, Eighth Avenue (renamed Central Park West in 1884, the same year as its most illustrious apartment house, the Dakota Apartments, welcomed its first residents), found itself opposite Fifth Avenue’s Millionaires’ Row—in more ways than one. The avenue developed in a more commercial vein, due to its proximity to many nearby theaters and low-rise multiple-family dwellings, resulting in tenements and boarding houses standing among early innovative apartment houses and luxury apartment hotels. But like its sister avenue across the park, Eighth Avenue became host to another of the City’s most revered collections—the American Museum of Natural History, also designed by Vaux and Mould, and completed in 1877 (the subsequent Theodore Roosevelt Memorial entrance opened in 1936). This institution found a new neighbor, in 1908, in the York & Sawyer and Walker & Gillette–designed New York Historical Society.

Eighteen blocks down, the park’s southwest corner anchors Columbus Circle. More than a major traffic hub (where Broadway intersects both Eighth Avenue and its cross street Central Park South), this plaza is home to the Maine Monument, a 44-foot Beaux Arts, limestone, marble-and-gilded-bronze pylon, (donated by William Randolph Hearst) in memory of the sailors aboard the USS Maine. Additionally, Merchants’ Gate, the most imposing Central Park West park entrance is its northeast, and—at its epicenter—the celebrated statue of Christopher Columbus, which commemorated the 400-year anniversary of his discovery of America.

A second plaza, no less architecturally significant, is stationed three blocks across town, at Central Park’s southeast corner. Grand Army Plaza, Manhattan’s only split semicircular plaza (and the park’s only external landscaped entrance) was designed in homage to Paris’s Place de la Concorde, and is best known for its outdoor art. The north portion boasts a statue of Union general William Tecumseh Sherman; the south, an Italian Renaissance–inspired statue of Pomona, the Roman goddess of bounty (and the Pulitzer Fountain’s centerpiece). And rotating sculptures, installed biannually by the Public Art Fund, grace the adjacent Doris C. Freedman Plaza. All share one of the City’s most elegant backdrops, designed by Henry Janeway Hardenbergh in the French Renaissance–château style: the world-renown (and aptly named) Plaza Hotel.

While this land was being cleared of its inhabitants (and what a saga the displaced dwellers wrought!) a newly appointed committee announced a competition that would determine the designer of the forthcoming first American landscaped urban park. After extensive backroom deals and intrigues, Park Superintendent Frederick Law Olmsted and British architect and landscapist Calvert Vaux’s Greensward Plan was selected, which envisioned decidedly English romantic, pastoral expanses. The commissioners, however, would add their own stamp, through budget revisions and spending-proposal paperwork.

 


McGowan’s Pass, from Harlem Meer; the Pond, at Hallett Woods; the Lake, looking northwest

 

The physical creation of Central Park began in 1857 and continued throughout 1858, and then opened, in stages, over a period of 15 years (it initially encompassed 700 acres, but was expanded to 110th Street, in 1863, to a total of 843 acres). Along the way 10 million cartloads of muck and mire were removed, three million cubic feet of earth and stone were hauled in, and 20,000 laborers (prison chain gangs among them) were utilized. Ultimately, a half-million trees and shrubs were planted, offsetting a handful of manmade lakes and ponds and 40 graceful bridges.

Immediately received as truly wondrous, Central Park’s grand, sprawling, open spaces drew New Yorkers from every walk of life, and within five years more than seven million visitors, both to and from the city, were exploring it annually. While Olmstead and Vaux’s engineering feat was unarguably seminal, more important for Manhattan was the overall park-design concept, with its far northern portion’s open and rolling meadows—highlighted by nearby hills and bluffs—contrasting and yet harmonizing with its southern portion’s formal dress grounds and promenades. At the same time, rougher grounds to the north, complete with Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battle sites (and a single still-intact fort) were left undisturbed, to retain part of the island’s rugged character, while, to the south, the creation of the Great Lawn, Sheep Meadow, and what is now called the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir helped to reflect the more rural nature the park’s surrounding blocks once were.

But perhaps most notable among the park’s impacts is its own most notable structure, accomplished through the efforts of a group of wealthy art aficionados who maintained that the City would benefit from a museum displaying their collective treasures. With sufficient clout at Tammany City Hall, these prominent citizens lobbied for and won approval for what was to become the largest building within Central Park: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Work began in 1870, with designs by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould, and the institution opened in 1877, continuously expanding and reflecting the work of many remarkable architects.

At the same time, the appeal of living due south of the new park was diminishing, and the blocks below 59th Street saw widespread conversion to commercial spaces. New Yorkers yearning for prestigious addresses were moving farther and farther north, and throughout the 1870s an eruption of mansions began along Fifth Avenue, first in the East 60s; within three decades the swells had moved as far north as 96th Street, inspired by the completion of the Carnegies’ urban estate.

The park’s western border, Eighth Avenue (renamed Central Park West in 1884, the same year as its most illustrious apartment house, the Dakota Apartments, welcomed its first residents), found itself opposite Fifth Avenue’s Millionaires’ Row—in more ways than one. The avenue developed in a more commercial vein, due to its proximity to many nearby theaters and low-rise multiple-family dwellings, resulting in tenements and boarding houses standing among early innovative apartment houses and luxury apartment hotels. But like its sister avenue across the park, Eighth Avenue became host to another of the city’s most revered collections—the American Museum of Natural History, also designed by Vaux and Mould, and completed in 1877 (the subsequent Theodore Roosevelt Memorial entrance opened in 1936). This institution found a new neighbor, in 1908, in the York & Sawyer and Walker & Gillette–designed New York Historical Society.

Eighteen blocks down, the park’s southwest corner anchors Columbus Circle. More than a major traffic hub (where Broadway intersects both Eighth Avenue and its cross street Central Park South), this plaza is home to the Maine Monument, a 44-foot Beaux Arts, limestone, marble-and-gilded-bronze pylon, (donated by William Randolph Hearst) in memory of the sailors aboard the U.S.S. Maine; Merchants’ Gate, the most imposing Central Park West park entrance; and—at its epicenter—the celebrated statue of Christopher Columbus, which commemorated the 400-year anniversary of his discovery of America.

 


Bethesda Fountain, at the Lake; Romeo and Juliette statue, Delacorte Theater; Delacorte Clock, at the Children’s Zoo

 

A second plaza, no less architecturally significant, is stationed three blocks across town, at Central Park’s southeast corner. Grand Army Plaza, Manhattan’s only split semicircular plaza (and the park’s only external landscaped entrance) was designed in homage to Paris’s Place de la Concorde, and is best known for its outdoor art. The north portion boasts a statue of Union general William Tecumseh Sherman; the south, an Italian Renaissance–inspired statue of Pomona, the Roman goddess of bounty (and the Pulitzer Fountain’s centerpiece). And rotating sculptures, installed biannually by the Public Art Fund, grace the adjacent Doris C. Freedman Plaza. All share one of the city’s most elegant backdrops, designed by Henry Janeway Hardenbergh in the French Renaissance–château style: the world-renown (and aptly named) Plaza Hotel.

Highlights of Central Park

  • The Pond, and the Hallett Woods nature preserve, Grand Army Plaza, East 59th to 61st Streets, at Fifth Avenue
  • The Central Park Zoo, East 62nd to 65th Streets, at Fifth Avenue
  • The Dairy, at 63rd Street
  • The Arsenal, at East 64th Street and Fifth Avenue
  • The Carousel, at East 65th Street
  • The Mall and Summer Stage, 65th to 71st Street
  • Sheep Meadow, West 65th to 70th Street
  • Strawberry Fields; Conservancy Gardens; a Gazebo
  • Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, at 72nd Street
  • The Lake, Bow Bridge, and Boathouse, 72nd to 75th Street
  • Conservancy Water, East 73rd Street, at Fifth Avenue
  • The Ramble, 75th to 79th Street
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art, East 80th to 84th Street, at Fifth Avenue
  • Cleopatra’s Needle, at East 81st Street
  • Belvedere Castle, Turtle Pond, and Delacorte Theater, at 82nd Street
    The Great Lawn, 82nd to 85th Street
  • TThe Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, and Upper Reservoir jogging track, 85th to 94th Street, from Fifth Avenue to Central Park West
  • Engineer’s Gate, at East 90th Street and Fifth Avenue
  • The East and North Meadows, East 97th to 99th Street
  • The Conservancy Garden, East 105th Street and Fifth Avenue
  • The Blockhouse, McGowan’s Pass, East 106th to 108th Streets
  • Harlem Meer, East 108th to 110th Street, at Fifth Avenue

 


Cleopatra’s Needle; Belvedere Castle; Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Gates of Central Park

  • Artisan’s Gate, Central Park South and Seventh Avenue
  • Artist’s Gate, Central Park South and Avenue of the Americas
  • Scholar’s Gate, at Grand Army Plaza
  • Children’s Gate, Fifth Avenue and East 64th Street
  • Inventor’s Gate, Fifth Avenue and East 72nd Street
  • Miner’s Gate, Fifth Avenue and East 79th Street
  • Engineer’s Gate, Fifth Avenue and East 90th Street
  • Woodman’s Gate, Fifth Avenue and East 96th Street
  • Vanderbilt Gate, Fifth Avenue and East 102nd Street
  • Pioneer’s Gate,  Central Park North (110th Street)
  • Farmer’s Gate, Central Park North and Malcombe X. Boulevard
  • Warrior’s Gate, Central Park North and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard
  • Merchant’s Gate, at Columbus Circle
  • Stranger’s, Gate Central Park North and Central Park West
  • Boy’s Gate, Central Park West and West 100th Street
  • All Saints’ Gate, Central Park West and West 96th Street
  • Mariner’s Gate, Central Park West and West 86th Street
  • Naturalist’s Gate, Central Park West and West 77th Street
  • Woman’s Gate, Central Park West and West 72nd Street